This cookbook is not for the feint of heart. In Maricel Presilla's new cookbook, Peppers of the Americas, one must be a serious connoisseur of peppers, either as a gardener or a cook. One does not dabble with this cookbook. Instead, one must commit.
Do you want the history of this capsicum? Do you ache for a breakdown of pepper anatomy and heat? Do you long for pretty little naturalist drawings of calyx, flower, and seed, and then hope for well-shot, full-color photographs of hundreds of peppers? Do you need the Latin name, the approximate lengths, and a thoughtful catalogue of the growing season of each of those hundreds of peppers? Again, I ask of you, are you a serious connoisseur of peppers? If you answered yes to even just one of those questions, then this just might be your new cookbook. In fact, I think this is the perfect book for my friend at Bat Barn Farm. He's a food geek, and this book is for geeks. Period.
Presilla is the first Latin American woman invited to cook at the White House; she has been nominated six times by the James Beard Foundation (both for her non-fiction writing and for her cookbooks) and one of her cookbooks, Gran Cocina Latina, won the 2013 James Beard Foundation Cookbook of the Year. She is chef and co-owner of Cucharamama and Zafra and owns the little shop Ultramarinos--all in Hoboken, New Jersey. And she is no slouch in the intellectual business either. She has her PhD in medieval Spanish history. Yep. She's got chops.
Since I am a food geek myself, I decided to be ambitious. If I was going to cook from this book, it was going to be an all day endeavor. It was going to involve three recipes. It was going to call for three different kinds of peppers. I would not call myself a serious connoisseur of peppers, no. But I would call myself a curious geek on the look out for interesting combinations, and this cookbook provides!
Let's break it down by recipe and pepper.
The first recipe: Refried Black Beans with Chile de Árbol
Chile de Árbol are potent little peppers. These are dried peppers, found sometimes in the bulk section of your grocery, with thin skins and bumpy exteriors. Presilla describes the flavor as "clean and sharp" with "an edge of bitterness without acidity or great complexity." And the beans take an afternoon to cook, they make your house smell amazing--all garlic-y and onion-y and bean-y. As the afternoon wore on (with October baseball in the background), my belly growled and I grew hungrier and hungrier. What an amazing smell. Such delightful torture.
The second: Chipotle and Vanilla Sauce
The chipotle? Well, it comes from what Presilla calls the "chicken of the pepper world": the jalapeño. It's just one of those workhorse peppers that can often be substituted in for harder to find peppers. The dried, smoked jalapeño is simply the infinitely more interesting chipotle. With a powerhouse of concentrated flavor, the chipotle is often housed in a lovely adobo sauce and is easy to pick up at just about any grocery, these days.
Okay, this sounds a bit unusual, I am not going to deny it. But it seemed interesting enough to try. And interesting it was. Presilla grinds all of the bean (pod and seed) into a crumbly paste and combines it with a smack of chocolate in a tomato-chipotle sauce. It is big and bold and complex. And my only regret is that I made only enough for this recipe. And next time, I am not going to add the sugar. It seemed a little sweet to me, but still amazing. Looks like I will need to make more.
And the third: Piquillo Peppers Stuffed with Refried Beans on Chipotle-Vanilla Sauce
Finally, the piquillo is a specialty pepper originally from Navarre, Spain (although there are plenty of growers in the US, China, and Peru). These are the ultimate sweet pepper for cooking for they do not tear easily, they boast a sweet and tangy flavor, and their size (small) and shape (heart shaped with a pointy tip) just beg to be stuffed. But you can also just saute them in olive oil and be almost equally as happy.
And once we put the beans in the piquillo peppers and sauced everything up--oh, it was much greater than the sum of its parts. This instead was an algorithm of flavor. Yes, it would be just fine with some polenta, but it's also delightful all on its own. The best parts are the little charred bits of cheese and pepper. And the beans are an anchor to the sweetness of the sauce. And, oh, sweet lord, this recipe alone was worth the whole book. Connoisseur of peppers or not.
So the final assessment: this is a cookbook for the serious gardener or cook. The rewards are sweet, indeed. I declare, it is time to geek out.
I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.
Piquillo Peppers Stuffed with Refried Beans on Chipotle-Vanilla SauceAdapted from Peppers of the Americas: The Remarkable Capsicums That Forever Changed Flavor
9½ ounces canned piquillo peppers, drained
1 cup refried black beans with Chile de Árbol
6 ounces aged manchego cheese, grated
2 cups Zafra's Chipotle and Vanilla Sauce
1. To stuff the peppers, place one on the palm of one hand and hold it upright and open between your thumb and index finger. Fill with 1 Tbsp refried beans and top with 1 Tbsp grated cheese. Gently transfer to a large plate. Repeat until all the peppers have been stuffed. Cover the plate with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30-60 minutes for the beans to firm up.
2. Preheat the broiler. Pour about 1½ cups of the sauce into 12x9-inch baking dish and spread evenly. Arrange the stuffed peppers over the sauce. Pour the remaining ½ cup sauce over the peppers and sprinkle the rest of the cheese over the dish. Broil 5 inches from the heat source until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese has melted, becoming golden brown and a bit charred in places. Serve hot.
3. Store any leftovers (right, like there will be leftovers) tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. Would be great served on a bed of creamy polenta.
For the Refried Beans with Chile de Árbol
Presilla recommends procuring 5 large dried Mexican avocado leaves, and charring them over a gas flame or in a cast-iron skillet over high heat. Then crumble the leaves into a blender with the peppers.
8 ounces dried black beans
1 medium white onion, cut in half lengthwise
6 garlic cloves
3½ tsp salt, plus more
1/4 ounces (about 7) Chiles de Árbol, stemmed and seeded
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small white onion, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch roughs, rings separated
1. Place the beans, halved onion, and garlic in a medium saucepan with 2 quarts of water. Bring to a boil, lower the hear, cover, and simmer. Season with 1 tsp of the salt, just as the beans are beginning to soften. Cover and continue cooking until the beans are soft, about 1½ hours total cooking time. Strain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid. You will need about 2/3 cup to blend the beans and about 1/4 cup if you plan to store the beans.
3. Heat the oil in a medium skilled over high heat and add the sliced onion. Saute until the onion is golden brown and crunchy with small charred bits. Strain the oil through a sieve and set over a bowl, pushing he onion down with a spoon to extract as much oil as possible. You should have about 2 Tbsp oil. Pour the onion-flavored oil back into the skillet over medium heat. Pour int he bean puree and cook, stirring, until the puree bubbles, about 5-8 minutes.
4. If not using immediately, let cool completely. Store in a tightly covered glass container in the refrigerator until ready to use. Te beans will keep up to 4 days. To reheat, place the beans in a skillet over medium heat and loosen with some of the reserved cooking liquid. It is best to keep the beans as thick as possible if using them as a filling so that they will not ooze out.
For the Chipotle and Vanilla SauceYield
2 large Mexican vanilla beans
2 lb ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and quartered
3 canned chipotle chiles in adobo with the sauce clinging on
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp Mexican piloncillo, Colombian panela or light muscovado (optional)
1 ounce 60% cacao dark chocolate (preferably made from Latin American cacao) (optional)
1. Cut the vanilla beans into 1-inch pieces and put into a food processor or spice mill, and process until the texture resembles fine breadcrumbs. You should have about 1 Tbsp. Set aside.
2. Place the tomatoes into a blender or food processor and process into a puree.
3. Heat the oil in a 10-inch skillet or medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir int he puree and the salt. Saute, stirring occasionally, about 18 minutes, until the sauce thicken and the oil starts to separate. Stir in the ground vanilla, muscovado, and chocolate, and cook for about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.
4. If not using immediately, store the sauce in a glass container in the refrigerator for about 2 weeks.