The Louisville Courier Journal - February 24, 2006
In search of good food
Spanish piquillos are perfect for stuffing
My pal Rob is a master wrapper. Stick him in a room with some savory fillings and a stack of phyllo dough, some wonton wrappers or a few flour tortillas, and 15 minutes later he'll come out with a perfect pyramid of the niftiest hors d'oeuvres you've ever seen.
Me? Not so much. I'm a kitchen klutz who can barely fold a piece of wax paper around a sandwich. The last time I tried to fold a burrito, it ended up looking like a preschooler's papier-mâché project.
Fortunately for me, there are peppers. Peppers can be diced, chopped or sliced, added to soups, sauces, stir-fries and salads, but the finest fate that can befall a pepper is to be stuffed -- their architecture just calls out: "Stuff me! Stuff me!"
And so I do.
I love cafeteria-style stuffed peppers filled with ground meat; I relish chiles relleno, oozing with melted cheese.
And even a klutz like me can scoop fillings into little peppers and serve up a colorful tray of fashionable appetizers.
I've experimented with a variety of smallish peppers, but lately I've had a crush on piquillo peppers -- or, to be precise, pimientos del piquillo (sticklers for proper Spanish pronunciation will say this as pi-kee-yo).
Piquillos (the name means little beak) are triangular peppers, about 2 inches long, that curve to a graceful point. In the Navarre region of Spain, the peppers are roasted in wood-burning ovens, then peeled and seeded by hand. The result is a sublime pepper with a smoky, spicy bite and a texture as smooth as fine suede.
In an e-mail, Miguel de la Torre, chef-owner of De La Torre's Spanish Restaurant and La Bodega (where piquillos sometimes can be found on the menu), wrote that in Spain piquillos are tapas bar staples, often filled with fish or shellfish, or served in a salad with salt cod and onion.
At home, I fill them with simple concoctions: Capriole goat cheese blended with roasted tomatoes or kalamata olives; spinach sautéed with minced onions and mushrooms.
But they'd be sublime with a spicy filling of sausage or crabmeat.
In the United States, piquillos have been hard to come by, but they're starting to pop up in cookbooks like Mark Bittman's "The Best Recipes In the World," and now they're showing up on grocers' shelves as well.
If you want authentic Spanish piquillos, you might have to shop the Web (I ordered a few jars of El Navarrico piquillos from www.latienda.com). Locally, you can find cans of Roland Peruvian piquillos at Creation Gardens and Burger's Market.
At a recent dinner party, where guests compared the Spanish and Peruvian varieties, results were mixed. Heat-seeking diners (like me) couldn't get enough of the Spanish piquillos; the heat-averse slightly preferred the Peruvians. But not a soul in the room didn't love them both.