2009 March: Peperoncino Proper

2009 March: Peperoncino ProperPeperoncino (singular — peperoncini is the plural) is an Italian chile pepper. Over the years it has been listed and used as a condiment, medicine and aphrodisiac. Peperoncino has been a highly prized spice since ancient times. The spice first arrived in Europe with Christopher Columbus’ return journey from America; however, even before that date, the plant had spread across Asia and Africa.

Peperoncino varieties can be green or red, round or long and more or less hot. Today, they are found and used widely all over the world, maintaining an especially notable presence in the south of Italy. There they have helped to shape regional Italian cuisine, particularly in Calabria (where there is a peperoncini festival every year in the town of Diamante), and the Abruzzo, where humble ingredients get fired up and made more inviting with the help of peperoncini.

The most popular Italian peperoncino is the capsicum annuum: a plant bearing very hot and finely tapered long red peppers. Cayenne and chili are two species included in this variety (and can be used interchangeably in the recipes below). In one fashion or another, those small jars on pizzeria tables across America that are filled with crushed red pepper flakes are a close relative of peperoncini.

Fresh or dried, peperoncini peppers can add character to a variety of dishes, soups, pickled items, sauces and marinades. When dried, the spice keeps for long periods of time. It can be preserved whole, fi nely chopped, ground or placed in a jar and then covered with oil. In Italy, the peppers are often threaded on a string by their stalks, and hung. This practice is known as “diavolicchio” a term taken from the Abbruzzese dialect, and refers to the heat associated with the devil in popular folklore.

In terms of flavor, peperoncini falls into three broad categories: sweet, spicy, and extra spicy. In general, the smaller the pepper, the more intense the heat. When handling and cleaning peperoncini, do not touch your eyes or nose. When cooking with peperoncini (or any spicy or peppery ingredient), balance and moderation are key.

I have used this hot (as in trendy, too) pepper in any number of ways: in an antipasto salad (Italian cold cuts, cubes of mozzarella or provolone, olives). In a chef’s salad (lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, artichoke hearts), in soups –– the classic Italian pasta and bean soup (pasta e fagioli) cries out for some heat, so I will use finely diced peperoncini or crushed red pepper.

In linguine aglio e olio (garlic and oil), I use cooked and drained linguine and toss with crushed garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, Italian parsley, and peperoncini.

Bucatini All’ Amatriciana

This classic pasta dish takes its name for the small town of Amatrice in the Abruzzo region of Italy. I have had versions of this dish all over Italy; some have been mild, and some were so hot my eyeballs were sweating. Adjust the heat accordingly.

Yield: 4 servings as a pasta course (scale up in direct proportion)

¾ pound bucatini pasta or spaghetti
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces pancetta, sliced and cut into strips
1 1-inch dried peperoncino (¼ teaspoon dried crushed red pepper)
½ cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese or Parmesan cheese

In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook the pasta until it is al dente. Reserve ¼ cup of the pasta water. Drain. Keep warm.

In a large sauté pan set over medium heat, warm 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the pancetta and sauté until crisp. Transfer the pancetta to a paper-towel-lined-plate to drain.

Add the remaining oil to the same sauté pan, set over medium heat. Add garlic and peperoncino; sauté until peperoncino darkens, about 2 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.

Add the drained pasta to the sauté pan. Toss to coat with the oil. Add the reserved pasta water. Add the grated cheese. Toss to coat.

BEANS & GREENS PIZZA

When I was a teenager, my mother occasionally made a dish with fresh spinach or escarole, white beans, garlic and cubes of day old bread. My brothers and I dubbed the humble, rustic dish “concrete” because of its appearance. With a bit of modification I’ve turned a hearty and simple dish into a great-tasting pizza. If you have been looking for a tasty vegetarian pizza to add to your menu, this should do it. If you prefer, escarole can be used in place of the spinach

Yield: one 14-inch pizza (scale up in direct proportion)
1 pound fresh spinach, washed and thicker stems removed
¼ cup water ¼ cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, pressed
¼ cup chopped onion
¼ teaspoon each salt and pepper
1 teaspoon (or to taste) finely diced peperoncini or hot red pepper flakes
2 cups cannellini beans (or 1 19-ounce can, drained, rinsed)
1 14-inch pizza crust
¾ pound shredded mozzarella

In a large sauté pan over medium heat, wilt the spinach in the water, covered, for 3 to 4 minutes. Drain excess water from the pan and put the pan back on the heat, uncovered, for 2 minutes. Tossing the spinach to evaporate any remaining water.

Add 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, the garlic and onion to the spinach. Cook and stir for 2 minutes. Add the salt and pepper, peperoncini and beans and cook over medium heat, stirring to combine. Set aside (mixture can be made ahead and refrigerated).

Brush the pizza crust lightly with olive oil. Spread half of the mozzarella over the crust. Spread the spinach and beans mixture evenly over the cheese. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. 

Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.