The creative and knowledgeable people at Melissa’s Produce have managed to bring forth another beautifully photographed, informative, and immensely useful book: The Great Pepper Cookbook – The Ultimate Guide to Choosing and Cooking With Peppers. This one is very close to my heart as I cannot imagine my life as a Serb without the formidable influence of the humble peppers.
Ever since I arrived to the shores of the U.S., many of my friends found themselves smitten by the number of dishes the Serbs can make with peppers. Used only to an occasional pepper ring in their salad, they were easily seduced by roasted peppers sprinkled with garlic and dressed with a vinaigrette; ajvar, the roasted red pepper spread that takes hours to make, but worth every second of hard work; hot yellow bell peppers filled with unpasteurized milk and left to ferment until the milk becomes creamy, spicy, and tangy; banana peppers blanched in water, oil, vinegar and spices, and marinated with parsley and garlic; and stuffed colorful bell peppers.
I opened the book expecting to pat myself on the back as a proven pepper connoisseur, but in mere minutes I found myself immersed in facts that were never a part of my vast trivia knowledge. I pored over the first several pages devoted to various types of fresh and dried chiles, their descriptions, photos, and the place on the Scoville scale. I discovered that the hot peppers of my childhood and youth are considered pretty mild compared to their fiery Latin or Asian cousins, and immediately thought of the ways to bring some seeds to my relatives and friends who enjoy the spicy heat.
The rest of the book consists of recipes divided in chapters according to the course: there are Appetizers, Snacks and Drinks, Breakfast and Brunch, Soups and Salads, Sandwiches, Main Dishes, Side Dishes, and Desserts. Each recipes shows the photos of the peppers used, the index of heat, and tips on toning it down, heating it up, or making it ahead.
I started placing post-it notes to the recipes I was eager to try, but after most of the pages were marked, I had to give up. I am never without fresh peppers in my fridge and now I have a few bags of different dry peppers, thanks to the generous folks at Melissa’s Produce. I have already tried a few recipes which were greeted with accolades. The book sits on my coffee table, pretty enough to be a conversation topic, but incredibly useful and informative as a guide. I know I will reach for it any time I am short on inspiration and I am positive that it will not disappoint me.
The first dish I tried was Grilled Steak and Potato Salad (p.111), which asked for both dried Chile de Arbol and Pasilla Negro. It was simple to prepare, with several layers of flavor, and served at room temperature, a perfect meal for a long, hot California evening.
The next was Spicy Pork Stir-Fry (p.175) with yakisoba noodles and Napa cabbage, which called for both dry and fresh peppers. It was a zesty, slightly spicy dish, with a great balance of crunchy and soft.
And then there was Beef Barbacoa (p. 171), a rich, comforting dish that filled my home with a heady aroma while it simmered for several hours. I used dried Hatch chiles, poblanos, and multicolored bell peppers.
I urge you to go get the book if you want to learn everything there is about fresh and dry peppers. You can find it at your local bookstore, Amazon, or at Melissa’s Produce website. It made me look at the world of peppers in a completely different way and now I can walk in any grocery store or farmers’ market with real confidence to choose the perfect variety for my meal.