Aleppo, Kirmizi, Maras and Urfa Red Pepper

Stunning beauties, all !

Stunning beauties, all !

I am a big fan of Turkish and Syrian red peppers: Aleppo, Kirmizi, Maras and Urfa. So naturally I was thrilled to see the gorgeous story about Turkish red chile peppers in the May 2009 issue of Gourmet magazine. I instantly wanted to taste the lamb stew recipe that author John Willoughby provided at the end of the article. Follow this link to the Gourmet website to read the article:
www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2009/05/heat-of-the-matter-turkish-peppers

We recently began to stocking these exotic red beauties in our store: www.cooksshophere.com/products/pantry/spices.htm and are eager to introduce our customers to their delicious, food friendly nature. One you taste these, I promise you that these red peppers will become a staple in your kitchen as they have in mine.

Those of you who love experiment with new tastes need to know that these peppers are flavorsome and not searingly hot as some Mexican chile pepper varieties can be. The hot, dry climate of Turkey and Syria, along with the particulars of the soil and the varieties of pepper plants they cultivate ( terroir ) produces peppers that have deep, earthy flavors and that are distinctive and seductive. They are addictive in a subtle but powerful way, and easy to sneak into many of your favorite dishes. The differences between them are slight, and like one’s children, all are wonderful and essential.

These peppers are ground, but they are ground into kibbly bits, not the usual fine powder. This grainy-ness is pleasing as it gives the peppers some mouthfeel. Ways in which to use these peppers are endless; one does not have to cook Turkish or Syrian food to use them, but if one does, then they are essential. Sprinkle these peppers over grilled swordfish or tuna steaks, chicken or vegetable kebabs and their distinct flecks add eye appeal as well as flavor.

Like a mad-scientist in the kitchen, I use them liberally in spice rubs that I concoct according to my mood and what I am cooking. I apply liberally (and pat them gently in place ) to hanger steaks or pork tenderloins, adding a good bit of my favorite Maldon’s Sea Salt for good measure and grill-baby-grill.

Syria:

  • Aleppo pepper:  bright red, slightly chocolaty, slightly salty and medium hot
  • Halaby pepper: these are crushed Aleppo pepper flakes

Turkey:

  • Kirmizi pepper: described as a cayenne pepper, but still grainy
  • Maras pepper: bright red and fruity flavor and is medium hot
  • Urfa pepper: dark, sultry red-brown in color and tastes of clay and smoke and the good earth

Last week I visited the Middle Eastern markets in Watertown MA, just outside of Cambridge. I purchased some Muhammara in one of the markets and learned from the shop that they add Aleppo pepper to their delicious version of this condiment. Muhammara is made from ground walnuts, red bell peppers, pomegranate molasses ( yes, we sell that too ! ), tomato paste, olive oil, coriander, cumin seeds ( optional ) and hot pepper. The ingredients are ground into a paste in a food processor ( we like it best when the walnuts are finely chopped so the Muhammara is crunchy and toothsome ). Muhammara is usually spread on bread, but we love it served as a condiment along side grilled foods.

Muhammara

3 large red bell peppers
1 1/2 cups walnuts
1 1/2 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons Aleppo pepper
salt to taste

1. Roast the red peppers until the skins are blistered then put them into a brown paper bag to steam and cool for 20 minutes. Remove from the bag and peel the peppers. Disgard the seeds and cut the peppers into large pieces. Pat dry and set aside.
2. Toast the walnuts carefully in a skillet just until the fragrance comes up. Be careful not to burn the nuts. Let cool and chop by hand into fine pieces.
3. Add the roasted peppers and the remaining ingredients to a food processor. Blend well but not to a puree – it is best we think when it has some texture. Add a few drops of water if the mixture seems to thick.
4. Scrape pepper mixture into a bowl and mix in the chopped walnuts. Cover and refrigerate overnight to blend the flavors. Before serving, adjust the seasonings, adding more pomegranate molasses if you wish.

It’s Vegas, Baaaaaaby !

charming old neon sign on the north end of the Vegas strip

I just returned from a trade show and three days of detached reality in Las Vegas . For those who don’t know, Las Vegas is one of the busiest convention cities in the USA, hosting conferences for groups as diverse as plastic surgeons, hair-style artists, tech geeks, and tea enthusiasts. Yes, tea enthusiasts, myself included, attending World Tea Expo.

Roman fountain fantasy at Caesars Palace

Roman fountain fantasy at Caesars Palace

I stayed at the Wynn Hotel which was nice but very staid and high-end in tone, and for all of its hype, a bit dull in comparision to the vibe of hotel casinos with a livelier pulse. For example, the shops in the Wynn shopping arcade include Cartier, Chanel, Dior, Manolo Blahnik and Judith Lieber. Not your casual shopping experiences, and certainly not for the shopping faint of heart.

I did have a Carrie Bradshaw moment when I entered the Manolo Blahnik shop. The slim and handsome young male salesclerk seemed bored to tears despite his beaming smile, and very happy to have someone to talk to. He pretended to be thrilled that I ventured in to admire the shoes, even though I am sure he could tell that I was not going to be a contender for a sale. He gladly let me snap a few photos, and this is one of the shoes that I particularly admired. He was proud to tell me how lightweight the shoe was, but to me, shoes with a $1,650 price tag should include sides, a back and a good sole.

a Carrie Bradshaw fantasty come true

a Carrie Bradshaw fantasy come true

Like all hotels in Las Vegas the Wynn hotel touts its many celebrity-chef spawned restaurants. I decided on an early dinner at Red 8, the less expensive of two Chinese restaurants on premises. I ordered a pretty simple dish – Ma po dofu – a Sichuan-inspired dish of spicy hot, country-style tofu. As soon as the dish arrived I was disappointed – it looked nothing like the tantalizing versions of this humble dish that we have enjoyed in China. In fact, it looked very similar to the third-rate dishes my local ‘no-can-care’ Chinese restaurant cranks out every day.

Sadly, the sauce was thick and gloopy from too much cornstarch and not heating the sauce enough. It clung to the spoon like a hard-luck gambler refusing to give up his place at the gaming table. I complained to the restaurant that the dish was disgusting and insulting, and they apologetically re-made it for me. The sauce was thinned and the dish was hot, but neither improved the flavor of this dish. I will always wonder if they just heated up the same dish to thin the sauce.  I ordered something else, which was heavy and greasy, and they did not charge me for the dofu. Nevertheless, the moral of this story is – if you are staying at the Wynn, try your luck elsewhere.

Ironically, on this trip I was reading Nicole Mones engaging novel, The Last Chinese Chef. In these pages, through conversation between the two main characters, she presents the reader with a wealth of background information regarding the ideals of precise flavor and texture that constitute the basis of Chinese cuisine.  Coupling that with discussions of the sophisticated and exacting cutting and cooking techniques employed by Chinese chefs,  one is left wondering after finishing this book why this highly sophisticated and intuitive cuisine has been rendered so badly here in the USA.

Is it that we diners want nothing more from this cuisine than to choose from a handful of familiar, therefore ‘safe’ or non-palate-challenging dishes that feature the same oil-slickened presentation of bland, cornstarch thickened sauces ? Do we truly want every Chinese restaurant menu across the country to offer the same dishes ? Sadly, I fear so. Much Chinese food in America is seriously disappointing when compared to the experience of eating in mainland China. Yes, our many travels throughout China have shown us that the cuisine is quite different region to region within China, and that the idea of a national Chinese cuisine does not exist.

Some regions make tastier food that others, that is true, but all regions support local ingredients and regional taste preferences. Dishes simply do not come to the table with the ‘one-tasteless-sauce-for-all’ treatment that much Chinese food receives here. So here is the puzzle. Is it simply that in a new place in a new land Chinese restauranteurs have dumbed-down their food to a convenient level for them and one that seems to make us happy ?  Has our level of acceptance of their cuisine sent them the message that they should give up on trying to challenge our eating habits even if they might secretly wish to do so ?

So much is wrapped up in this question, all of which has to do with expectation and fullfillment of desire. Was I wrong to have expected more from a highly-touted Las Vegas Chinese restaurant or should I have known better than to hope for better food ? Even the Pu-erh tea I ordered was poorly made – too-big a teapot, too much water, not enough tea, and not good quality tea at that.

Clearly, some cuisines have been better interpreted in the USA than others. For example, on the plus side of Las Vegas dining experiences, I joined some colleagues at the Mixx restaurant on the 61st floor of  THE Hotel at Mandalay Bay. This is French chef Alain Ducasses’s Las Vegas ‘ joint’ on the strip ( as Sinatra would have said ) which, despite the bizarre and singularly unattractive decor (and the poorly-trained waiter who got into a tug-of-war with one of our party when he tried to pre-maturely remove  her bread plate) served superbly prepared food.

I chose the bison tenderloin with a chunky black peppercorn sauce for my entree, and if I close my eyes I can still taste the rich, deep flavors of the tender, silky meat. The sauce added just the right piquant counterpoint to the velvety texture of the meat, and was the perfect sopping sauce for the delicious house-baked bread. One of my companions ordered a preparation of foie gras three ways, and those sitting near him had the benefit of the wonderful aromas wafting from his plate. For dessert, I had a chocolate souffle with pistachio ice cream, the stuff of dreams.

Food aside, and when I was not attending to tea business, I just wandered the strip and had a good time enjoying what Las Vegas does best….. entertaining.  I can’t say that I like Las Vegas, but it does provide a healthy dose of perspective on the diversity of American tastes in the pursuit of relaxation and pleasure. It provides a great opportunity for colorful photographs – please enjoy my photos !

Dale Chihuly glass flower ceiling at the Bellagio

Dale Chihuly glass flower ceiling at the Bellagio

nighttime water show outside of the Bellagio

night time water show outside of the Bellagio

stageprop at the Rio Casino

stageprop at the Rio Casino

culinary offerings from the funkier north end of the Vegas strip

         culinary offerings from the funky                north end of the Vegas strip

ceiling lights in one quadrant of the Wynn lobby

ceiling lights in one quadrant of the Wynn lobby