July 31, 2017
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Maricel Presilla Dances With Chiles
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How a chef, cookbook author, and recovering medieval-history scholar became obsessed with the world of Carolina Reapers, Trinidad Scorpions, and the deadliest ghost peppers.

If you had been eavesdropping on the kitchens of Weehawken, New Jersey, one sunny afternoon in June, you might have overheard a truly odd noise. If you’d tilted your head one way, it would’ve sounded like a handful of people hacking their lungs up, on the verge of miserable death from some long-gone 18th century industrial disease. Tilt the other way, and it might have seemed like ecstatic laughter, the incessant cackling of the maddest angels high on heavenly herb.

In truth, the cacosymphony was both. Maricel Presilla—the chef, scholar, author, and winner of two James Beard Foundation awards, one for her cooking at Hoboken’s Cucharamama, the other for her 912-page cookbook Gran Cocina Latina—had just set a half-ounce of chiles de arból, the dried, sticklike, very hot Mexican pepper, onto a comal atop her six-burner Garland stove. Within seconds, invisible fumes had filled the room, lashing our throats with aerosolized capsaicin, the chemical that makes chiles hot. We coughed uncontrollably. It was hilarious. We laughed uncontrollably, until we started coughing again, and cackling again.

Earlier, Presilla had told me that the ancient Cuetlaxtlans had executed “Aztec officials they didn’t like” using just this method—asphyxiating them with toxic chile smoke. With her easy, sharp smile, wavy blonde hair, and short stature, Presilla had seemed so friendly, but was she secretly trying to kill me? Was that sly smile a villain’s smirk?

Man, I hoped not: I really wanted to try this Oaxacan tomatillo salsa we were making—and Presilla’s poblano-larded version of Spanish tortilla—before I died.

A woman selling assorted Andean peppers at a market in Piura, Peru.

 

I had come to Weehawken to meet Presilla because of her new book, Peppers of the Americas, a lavishly photographed encyclopedia of the Capsicum genus—that is, the chile. Peppers traces, in depth, the history of this spicy, addictive member of the nightshade family, from its uses in the pre-Columbian Americas (where it originated in the wild) to its spread around the world over the last five centuries.

The book is filled with photos (by Romulo Yanes) and descriptions (both culinary and botanical) of peppers, from ají amarillo (“intensely fruity, flavorful, and colorful”) to the wild Sonoran chiltepín (“clean, bright heat and a grassy edge”). And there are recipes! An Alicante fish paella. A shrimp ceviche with yuca. Sichuan-style “tiger” peppers, dry-fried and doused in soy sauce and Chinkiang vinegar. I wondered: How did a woman born in Cuba—a land not necessarily famous for the spiciness of its food—get so obsessed?

As we sat in her living room—surrounded by her father’s paintings (of cacao pods, among other subjects) and occasionally interrupted by her three parrots and her eight-year-old twin goddaughters—Presilla filled me in on Cuba’s centrality to the story of peppers.

“In Cuba, we understand very flavorful peppers,” she explains, citing the cachucha, a Capsicum chinense. “Same incredible aroma and flavor of the habanero—it’s the same species—but it’s sweet. It can be a bit hot, but not that much. It’s extremely flavorful. It goes into many soups, into black beans.”

But it’s not Cuba’s only pepper. There is also, she said, the ají guaguao (pronounced wow-wow), a “very hot” pepper used by the Arawaks, the island’s native population, that now “grows wild by the side of the roads.”

“My father liked that—my mother did not, and most people in my family did not,” Presilla says. Her father used ají guaguao in enchilado de camarones and in chilindron de chivo, and because he liked it, it became Presilla’s “first taste of hot peppers.”

That first taste didn’t lead immediately to obsession. She continued to eat peppers, of course, after her family fled to Miami in the 1970s, and when she studied medieval history in Valladolid, Spain, and when she got her PhD from NYU, and when she taught at Rutgers, and when, in 2000, after years of cooking for friends and family, she opened her first restaurant, Zafra. No, the mania began when she started researching Gran Cocina Latina, an effort that took her to every country in Latin America and taught her that “everywhere you go, you find peppers.”

Maricel Presilla’s backyard in Weehawken, New Jersey.

 

They were in the Caribbean, where the focus was on fresh chiles—“the counterpoint of sweet with a hint of hot.” There were even more in countries with strong indigenous cultures, like Mexico and Guatemala , where hot peppers are often dried and used in cooking sauces or turned into table sauces “that add the jolt of heat that people need.” In Peru, Presilla tasted the rocoto of the highlands and ají panca of the coast, and in the Amazon basin she tasted the “hundreds of cultivars that people use daily.”

As Presilla talked about peppers—and as we moved from her living room to her backyard, occupied almost entirely by hundreds of pepper plants growing in large pots—she talked not only about flavors, uses, and obscure varietals (such as the Earbob, which “tastes like a hog plum”) but about historical and cultural connections—about how the celebrated Datil peppers of Saint Augustine, Florida, originated not in Minorca but in Cuba; about how the popularity of habaneros in the Yucatan peninsula demonstrates the close commercial ties between that region and Havana; about how African slaves arriving in the New World were quick to adopt the spicy flavors of indigenous peoples, preserving traditions both culinary and cultural. For Presilla, the key to understanding Latin America is the pepper (and cacao, too, but that’s another story).

But just because she’s obsessed, don’t expect to see her thoughtlessly chowing down on ghost peppers, Carolina Reapers, Trinidad Scorpions, or the other ultra-mega-hot varieties that get so much attention these days.

“We are not chileheads,” she said. “We were born with peppers; we were raised with peppers. It’s not a sport for us.”

What she’s looking for is that ideal but elusive balance of flavor and heat—you definitely want some of the latter, but too much gets in the way of the former. For her, the most interesting are Capsicum chinense, the species that includes the hottest varieties, from the habanero and Scotch bonnet to ghost peppers, Scorpions, and Reapers. “They’re the ones with the most complex flavor profiles,” she says, “but you cannot really enjoy that incredible beauty because they’re too hot.”

Observing pepper anatomy leads to understanding a pepper’s heat levels.

To get the most out of them—that is, their intense fruitiness and floral aromas—Presilla uses a technique she learned in Merida, Mexico, called “dancing the chile”: When you’re making a sauce, you cut a cross in the tip of a habanero and you use the pepper to stir the sauce, without ever fully dropping it in. “You get great flavor and the perfect heat,” she says.

I suspect Presilla always gets great flavor and perfect heat. That, anyway, was my conclusion as we ate our lunch in her backyard garden. The tortilla was the lightest I’d ever eaten, the comforting softness of the potatoes sharpened by the sweet, gentle bite of the poblanos and the tart fire of that fit-inducing Oaxacan salsa. Nothing was overpoweringly hot, yet the spice of the peppers was still enough to call attention to their presence, to spark up a midsummer meal. Surrounding us, as we ate, were Presilla’s babies, vinelike chiltepines and commercial cultivars with names like Mucho Nacho and Holy Mole!

With so many peppers in her life, I wanted to know, did she have a single favorite? If Presilla could have only one for the rest of her life, what would it be? Which chile reigned supreme?

“It’s very hard for me to tell you which is the best pepper,” she says, “because I believe that each pepper has its own beauty, and they have a place in the kitchen.”

Tiger-Skin Peppers

Tiger-Skin Peppers

4 servings

Ingredients

  • 12 ounces (about 12) long green peppers or an equal weight of manganji, padrón, or shishito peppers
  • 2 tablespoons peanut or sunflower oil (or if preferred, extra-virgin olive oil)
  • 5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • ¼ cup soy sauce, plus more
  • 2-3 tablespoons Chinkiang vinegar, plus more

The name hu pi (tiger skin) comes from the mottled markings that the qing jiao (green peppers) get from the super heated wok. I serve them with plain rice, for a quick and delicious vegetarian lunch or as a side for any grilled meat.

The peppers used in Sichuan are a general cayenne type called “cow-horn” or “goat-horn” peppers. Use any sort of long, hot cayenne-type green pepper that you can find in Asian markets, milder peppers of the general New Mexico type or sweet and succulent Japanese Manganji peppers, which I like to use whole. Smaller thin-skinned peppers that blister easily, such as the Spanish Padrón and the Japanese shishito, are also good choices but should be used whole (with stems on). The total weight should be about the same in all cases.

I make this dish in a flat-bottomed carbon-steel wok, but a large cast-iron skillet will do. It is essential to use the mellow-flavored, slightly sweet Chinese black vinegar from Chinkiang (Zhenjiang), which is available in any Chinatown supermarket or grocery. Slightly reminiscent of balsamic vinegar, but more sour and pungent, it melds perfectly with the soy sauce to make a lovely pan sauce.

  1. Rinse the peppers under cold running water and pat dry. With a small sharp knife, slice off the stem ends and pointed tips of the long green hot peppers. Slit open lengthwise; remove the veins and seeds if you want to tame their heat. Cut the peppers in half crosswise. If working with manganji, Padrón, or shishito peppers, leave them whole.
  2. Heat a well-seasoned 14-inch/35.5 cm wok or heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and heat until fragrant and rippling, tilting the pan to oil the sides. Add the peppers and rapidly stir-fry, tossing and turning with a spatula (preferably a wok spatula) for about 5 minutes, or until dark, blistered patches appear on the peppers’ skins. Add the garlic and stir-fry for another 20 seconds. Pour in the soy sauce and vinegar; continue to stir-fry while it comes to a boil. Taste for salt and acidity, and add more soy sauce or vinegar if desired. Using a slotted spoon or Chinese spider, transfer the peppers to a serving plate or shallow dish. Let the pan sauce return to a boil, then pour it over the peppers and serve at once. You can also refrigerate the peppers and serve them cold or at room temperature as a side dish like an escabeche.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound (about 6 medium) hot green peppers for roasting, such as poblano or NuMex peppers
  • 2 pounds (5 large) russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1⁄4-inch/6 mm slices
  • 1 pound (2 medium) yellow onions, cut into 1⁄2-inch/12 mm rings
  • 1 ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups light olive oil, or a mixture of 1 cup/240 ml corn or sunflower oil and 1 cupl extra-virgin olive oil
  • 8 large eggs, lightly beaten

When I first went to live in Spain in the 1970s, I ate eggs almost every night for supper. I wasn’t alone. Rain or shine, in every season, as night fell, the clatter of forks beating eggs for tortilla de patata (potato omelet) would ring through my neighborhood. As soon as the clanging began to fade, I could hear the hiss of onions and potatoes being sautéed in olive oil, followed by waves of delicious aroma wafting through the air.

Spaniards eat tortilla de patatas at all hours of the day, hot from the pan for supper or lunch, at room temperature as a midmorning snack, or washed down with a glass of wine at a tapas bar. For long car trips and picnics, this is the food they are most likely to bring along—something portable and filling that they can eat without fuss. To this day I think of it as comfort food for all seasons.

There is nothing quaint or fluffy about a tortilla de patatas. Shaped like a round cake because it takes the form of the frying pan it is cooked in, the Spanish tortilla is a sturdy and substantial egg, onion, and potato dish—a type of frittata. In my student days at Valladolid, I would go to a small bar not far from the university for a slice of the largest tortilla I had ever seen. What I loved the most was its spiciness because it was flavored with guindillas, Spain’s favorite hot pepper.

Making a great tortilla de patatas takes a bit of practice, as you need to flip the tortilla to cook it on both sides. It also requires a grassy olive oil and the freshest, most flavorful eggs you can find. I always look for free-range, organic eggs with bright golden-orange yolks. (You can always tell when an egg is fresh because the yolk is dome-shaped, never flat.) Don’t be stingy with the oil when sautéing the onions and potatoes. Once the potatoes are tender and the onion has cooked down to the consistency of a confit, you drain off the oil and reserve it to flavor and cook the eggs. Some Spanish cooks I know claim that extra-virgin olive oil darkens the tortilla. They prefer to use sunflower oil, but I can’t do without olive oil. Use a heavy-bottomed, well-cured or nonstick skillet and a gentle heat as high heat can result in a burnt crust and a runny interior.

My recipe is heavy on potatoes and roasted peppers, but you can reduce the amount for an eggier omelet. Bring it to the table on a platter with warm crusty bread, Romesco Sauce, and a crisp red wine from La Rioja or Ribero del Duero region for a rustic supper or lunch. To serve the omelet as tapas, cut into small squares and serve with romesco as a dipping sauce.

  1. Roast the peppers, according to the directions below. Stem, seed, devein, and cut into 1-inch/2.5 cm squares.
  2. Place the potatoes and onions in a medium bowl. Add the salt and toss well to coat. Warm the oil in a an 11-inch/28 cm nonstick or well-seasoned skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is rippling but not smoking, add the potatoes and onions. Lower the heat to medium, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are fork-tender and the onions are soft and translucent, about 20 minutes. Add the roasted peppers and cook for about 5 minutes. Drain, reserving 2 Tbsp of the oil.
  3. Transfer the vegetables to a large bowl. Pour in the eggs and stir gently with a rubber spatula to combine, being careful not to break up the potatoes. Return the reserved oil to the skillet over medium-high heat. Add the egg mixture and cook until the egg sets and separates completely from the sides of the pan, about 3 minutes. Using a spatula, lift the tortilla and check the bottom; it should be golden. To cook the other side, remove the skillet from the heat, cover with a plate that is slightly larger in diameter than the skillet, and, holding both the skillet and the plate firmly with oven mitts, flip the tortilla onto the plate. Return the skillet to the heat and very gently slide the tortilla back into the skillet. Cook until completely set and golden, about 5 minutes more.
  4. Using the spatula, gently slide the tortilla onto a serving plate. Serve warm or at room temperature, ideally the day it is made, though it can be eaten cold from the refrigerator or brought to room temperature. Store, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

Matt Gross

Matt Gross writes about food, travel, parenting, and culture for lots of places. The former NYT Frugal Traveler and former editor of BonAppetit.com, he is the author of the travel memoir “The Turk Who Loved Apples” and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two daughters.

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