City Bites

IN SEASON: Shishito peppers, the little peppers with big personality and a story to tell

The way I understand it, Shishito peppers are the Japanese cousin to Northern Spain’s famed Padrón peppers — one of the most popular tapas dishes throughout Spain. Long before I had tasted either of them (Spoiler Alert: we can now get them in Ottawa!), I read Calvin Trillin’s brilliant book Feeding a Yen, which includes an unforgettable story about his devotion to the digit-sized Padrón green peppers — a passion that led him on a pilgrimage to Galacia for the annual pimientos de Padrón festival.

The New York-based writer considers the delectable little pepper among his favourite dishes in the world and lamented the fact that they are rarely found outside of their territory of origin. He wrote a follow-up story in Gourmet magazine (RIP) in 2005, about discovering a backyard Padrón pepper cultivator in his own backyard, New Jersey.

The story stuck with me, and when I saw those little salty suckers on the menu at a tapas bar in Paris last year, I jumped at the chance to try them. They are delicately sweet and usually mild, but more than anything, they are addictive. Every once in a while, you get a hot one — which is not doubt part of the pleasure of eating them. It’s a game of culinary Russian roulette. There’s no way to tell by looking at them — you won’t know until you pick one up by the stem and take a bite. They aren’t searing hot like a jalapeño, just hot enough to keep it interesting.

I was thrilled when I walked into Piggy Market the other day and saw plastic bags filled with Shishito peppers for sale. It turns out Dave Neil brings them in every Thursday from Waratah Downs Farm. I brought them home, tossed them in a bit of olive oil, then dropped them on a hot skillet for a few minutes until they were blackened in spots and began to collapse. Then I sprinkled them with a bit of sea salt and devoured at least a dozen within seconds. Beware: they are just as addictive as the best bucket of movie-popcorn you’ve ever tasted.

Through Piggy Market’s twitter feed, I found Audry Bond, a local photographer and fellow Shishito fanatic. I was curious about how she first encountered the tasty peppers and her story blew me away. I thought I’d let her tell it in her own words:

“My love affair with these little peppers started in Barcelona in 2009. I have been looking for Padrón Peppers in Ottawa since then. Last summer while in NYC I went to a fantastic tapas bar and ended up talking with the owner quite late into the evening. I found out that Padrón Peppers and Shishito are remarkably similar. A Google Search when I came home led me to The Piggy Market. I bought everything he had. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

To celebrate my purchase, my daughter and I went to a little spot on Preston Street for a snack. Two men at the table beside us were speaking Spanish and sure enough, they were born and raised near Barcelona. I showed them what I had just scored. They freaked out. The chef of the restaurant came out to see what the commotion was all about. I explained to him how difficult they were to come by, how seasonal they were, and how to prepare them. He took some inside and cooked them up for our two tables. It was fantastic!

One of the men said his grandmother used to make these back in Spain. She was now 93 years old. He suspected she had not eaten them since she had moved to Canada. He said he was going to see her that night and she would enjoy the story about what had just happened. I said “even better, take half of what I have left and cook them for her!”

After that, my daughter and I popped in to see a Spanish friend of mine and….well….you can imagine what happened. I went home pepperless that night but made a promise to myself that as long as they were in season I would never be pepperless again. I currently spend about $40-$60 a week on the peppers while they are in season. I swear I’m growing my own next year!”

As Bond will tell you, Shishito season ends when the frost comes so get them while you can.For now, Piggy Market brings them in on Thursdays. You might want to call first to find out if there are any left: 613-371-6124