Did you know that November is National Pepper Month? So many things come to mind when thinking about peppers in food: hot and spicy, cool and calm, or adding just a little kick to any and every food, from soups and spreads to stir-fries and even desserts! All peppers come from the genus piper, and contains about 1,500 species of peppers, many of which are suitable (and delicious!) for humans to eat. As a species, we’ve been eating forms of peppers for over 9,000 years! Guess we’ve always wanted a little spice in our lives 😉 There are a ton of different peppers from all over the globe: some mild, some spicy, some so hot they’ll burn off your taste buds and drive you insane! We’ve used peppers and peppercorns for food, medicine, and as cultural stimulants. Although the most varieties of peppers grow naturally in the Americas, they can be found all over the world, and have been used in cuisine on every continent. There’s quite a lot to celebrate when it comes to the pepper!
The peppers we’re most used to seeing around the Fairway are pretty tame, like bell peppers, which are mild in flavor and not hot at all (they’re the only pepper that doesn’t produce capsaicin, the stuff that makes peppers spicy!) And you’ll also see the most abundant of the spicy peppers, the jalapeno, which can vary in heat level from mild to hot and can be served in everything from salsa and chili to appetizers and even in margaritas! And of course there is the “true” pepper, which isn’t related to bell or chili or any hot peppers at all, but still packs a punch: black pepper is mostly found as the spicy supplement to salt on a restaurant’s table setting, but peppercorns have a colorful culinary history all their own. There are so many peppers on the culinary map today, all along the Scoville heat scale–from bell peppers to Ghost peppers and everything in between!–that it’s almost impossible not to eat something including pepper during National Pepper Month.
I wanted to take a look at a few dishes in New York City known for their use of peppers, in some way or another. Let me tell you, that wasn’t easy! But I selected one out of each “group” of peppers I could find: sweet, bell peppers, spicy chili peppers, and the ubiquitous black peppercorn. I hope you enjoy at least one of these today!
Let’s start out with the easy pepper that everyone can agree on: bell peppers. These big, seedy buggers come in green, orange, yellow, and red; the closer to a reddish color, the more ripe the bell pepper is, and also has the most nutrients. Bell peppers are sometimes called “sweet” peppers because they have no heat to them at all, and have a hint of sweetness to them when you cook them–especially when they’re roasted over an open fire. Used in sauces, stir-fries, sandwiches, and just about anything you could think to put a vegetable in, bell peppers are so versatile and beloved by many culinary cultures. To really experience what a roasted red pepper has to offer in terms of flavor, you’ve got to go to Lamazou on Third Avenue. A cheese shop and Italian delicacies store by trade, Lamazou has become famous not for its selection of cheeses, but for its utterly divine sandwiches. You can get your standard fare of ham and cheese on a fresh Italian loaf if you want, but the real flavor comes in the specialized sandwiches on the board. Try for the Lamazou Favorite, filled with imported prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and roasted red peppers, all drizzled with a basalmic vinegar. The creaminess of the mozzarella mixes so well with the fattiness of the prosciutto, but it’s the roasted red pepper’s distinct flavor that comes out on top, cutting through the fat and making this a rich, decadent sandwich. It’s not called the “favorite” on the menu for nothing!
370 3rd Ave (between 26th St & 27th St)
“At first glance, Lamazou looks like an unremarkable deli, but it’s this spot’s menu of traditional and inventive gourmet sandwiches that sets it apart. Classic Italian sandwiches like the aptly named Lamazou Favorite (proscuitto di parma, mozzarella and roasted red peppers, drizzled with balsamic) and the Italico (Mortadella, salami and provolone) showcase a mastery of the basics; unusual combinations like the Butterfly (pate, munster, cornichons & butter) or Z’Tuna (tuna salad with spicy harissa and olive tapenade) satisfy more adventurous appetites. There are plenty of vegetarian options, and all bread comes from Balthazar, Sullivan Street Bakery and Il Forno.”–New York Magazine
“With the weather warming—I say this as if one could will this harsh winter to be over—what a delight to get a well-crafted sandwich from tiny cheese emporium Lamazou to bring to Madison Square Park. I watched the hungry Shake Shack hopefuls in their long line while I tucked into the “Lamazou Favorite” ($5.95/half): mozzarella, just-sliced imported prosciutto di Parma, fat roasted peppers with blackened skins, a frill of lettuce and a dab of balsamic vinegar on a crusty ciabatta loaf.”–New York Press
“he mozarella is sliced thin, the prosciutto smoky. On that first bite my mouth missed the bread and went straight for the fillings. My teeth sunk through mozarella, into layers of salted prosciutto, hit the vinegary sweet juice of roasted red paper, and made it to the lettuce for a refreshing and crisp finish. The bread was unexpectedly soaked with a balsamic vinaigrette that played nicely with the red pepper taste and kept the sandwich moist. The bread wafted smells of rosemary as I bit into the meat. Hmm, I think next time I will ask them to toast the bread, yummm.”–GG Eats NYC
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“The Lamazou Favorite is one of the best prosciutto and mozzarella heros i’ve ever had. The prosciutto tastes great, and they give you a huge portion on this sandwich. The roasted peppers and oil on the sandwich were also awesome. I wish the sandwich was cheaper so i can have it more often, but when i want to splurge for lunch this is my spot.”–John P.
“This is a major standout in Murray Hill. Excellent selection of cheeses (generally with a french tilt), Charcuterie, and bread from Balthazar bakery. Combine this with amazing sandwiches (Lamazou Favourite: imported prosciutto di parma with mozzarella & roasted peppers on your selection of bread – try the ciabatta ) And while it might seem slightly pricey (9.99 for a whole) you would pay double anywhere else in the city for a sandwich of this quality.”–Dave P.
But when most people talk about peppers, they’re not thinking about the sweet, aromatic bell peppers that so go nicely in a mellow lunch sandwich. No, they want something higher on the Scoville heat scale–something that puts a fire in their belly and makes them feel alive! I don’t really get all the hype about eating super-hot peppers–I can barely stand a minced jalapeno inside a whole bowl of salsa!–but there are tons of people who believe that the spicier, the better. Chili peppers, the family of peppers that range on the hot side of the scale, are used in many culinary cultures for a special kick to food, including Mexican, Middle Eastern, Indian, and East Asian foods. You might be most familiar with Americanized dishes like hot enchiladas or Kung Pao chicken where chilies play an important role, but there are other dishes farther from the beaten path that are equally as delicious! Get out of your Manhattan rut and head to Flushing, Queens, where Fu Run, a Chinese restaurant that serves the rarer Dongbei style of Chinese cuisine, makes a chili pepper dish that’ll catch your attention and your taste buds. Called “Muslim lamb” because of the cumin and clove spices they also use in the dish, these spicy lamb chops are slow-braised and cooked to crisp perfection. The spice they use to make it “spicy” is chili peppers, served alongside the lamb so you can get that extra kick during your meal. It’s a definite departure from the sticky-sugary Kung Pao sauce at your local takeout place.
40-09 Prince St, Flushing
“But the most breathtaking version of this dish, which has tender meat and all the lusciousness of the fat under the skin, is at the bright and friendly Fu Run, formerly Waterfront International, on Prince Street. The dish called Muslim lamb chops emerges triumphant as whole slabs of lamb ribs, long-marinated, slow-braised and then torched to crisp the skin and laminate the cumin seeds into a crackly crust. “Some people shy away from the gamy taste of lamb, but we embrace it,” said Xuefang Zhou, the restaurant’s manager.”–The New York Times
“The enormous portion of meat—technically an entire lamb breast, despite the name—is braised with a chef’s-secret combo of Chinese peppers, staining it a deep ruby hue; then the whole thing is breaded, slathered with a half-inch-thick crust of more dried peppers, cumin and sesame seeds, and fried to a crisp. The result is some intensely tender lamb, steeped inside and out with spice, that leaves mouths smoldering with a warm, lingering heat.”–Time Out New York
“The crispy lamb with chili pepper ($10.95) is even more mouth-watering once you’ve taken a bite. You’ll quickly recognize cumin as an unnamed but dominant flavoring; it’s common throughout China’s colder climes.”–Eating In Translation
“My favorite dish of the night was, hands-down, the crispy lamb in chili pepper. While it wasn’t particularly crispy, I found the pieces of meat tender and chewy at the same time as well as redolent with a rich array of spices, the strongest being toasty cumin. It was a little gamier than usual—the fat in lamb, I think, is what holds the funkiness—but that’s also part of why I couldn’t stop sneaking pieces of it into my mouth.”–Salty, Savory, Sweet
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“I was most amazed with the Muslim Lamb Chop. The lamb just fell off the bone. It was encrusted with a zillion fried cumin seeds. Brilliant. The first whiff of cumin was enough to wake the senses. Tastewise, it was different but so good I saved whatever cumin seeds I had leftover and sprinkled them on my fried shrimp and fish.”–Rachel A.
“If you love lamb that’s busting with robust spices, you will seriously love the Muslim Lamb Chops – covered in copious amounts of cumin, dried chilis, sesame seeds, etc. The cracker like crust of spices that coat the tender meat underneath are fun little bits to nibble on or mix in with warm rice. The lamb meat falls off the bone with the slightest touch so a knife or sharp canines are not required. If you’ve ever tasted the lamb ribs at A Fan Ti (R.I.P.), these are a big step above – more intense flavor, less fat, and a textural treat.”–Lizz K.
After that spicy meal, you know you’ll want to cool your palate down with a cold, creamy dessert like ice cream. But you’ve never had ice cream like this before! At Graffiti Food & Wine Bar in the Lower East Side, celebrity chef Jehangir Mehta makes a dessert with warm truffle almond strawberries, and a side of ice cream. Sounds pretty tame, and also sounds like something that doesn’t fit National Pepper Month…until you realize that the ice cream has black pepper in it! Black peppercorns, which are dried drupes of the pepper plant, have been used as a ground spice for at least 2,000 years, and at one time was so high-valued that it was traded like a commodity currency. It’s so readily available to us now that ground black pepper is at the table of every restaurant in the city–even the pizzerias–and we don’t give it another thought. Here at Graffiti, Chef Mehta makes you take a look at the lowly peppercorn and how it changes something also well-known to us: ice cream. The smooth, creamy consistency is still there, and it’s still a sweet treat at the end of a meal, but the black pepper infused throughout the ice cream gives it a stark kick of robust flavor that you don’t expect and is a pleasant surprise. It goes perfectly with the sweet strawberries and the savory taste of the truffle oil. A perfect way to end a day of National Pepper Month!
Graffiti Food & Wine Bar
224 E 10th St (between 1st Ave & 2nd Ave)
“The sweet dish is the strawberry truffle, strawberries cooked with truffle, with black pepper ice cream. So it has this very savory note to it, though the ice cream is sweet, it has the sharp taste of pepper. And the strawberries are sweet but cut with the truffle. It’s been there since we’ve opened. We have a small basement storage area where we store the ice cream maker. We bring it up and down every single day. Then the strawberries and truffles are made on the flattop, just cooked in a saucepan.”–Gothamist
“The true dessert stand-out, however, was the strawberries. Warmed until soft and leaking their juices, the berries were made infinitely more delicious by a pour of white truffle oil, just enough to make them earthy and warmly sensual. Crunch was provided by toasted almond slivers, and black pepper ice cream completed the dish. The dessert perfectly bridged the gap between summer and fall as well as the gap between savory and sweet.”–Columbia Culinary Society
“So it was obvious that I would be having dessert and I am so glad I did. The name of this dish seems sort of just thrown together. Should it be warm strawberry almond truffle? No! You soon realize that the strawberries are not made into an almond truffle. But rather they are tossed with almonds and truffle (mushroom) oil! Bizarre, yes? But delicious! Along with the spicy, but refreshing black pepper ice cream, the sweetness of the strawberries is enhanced by the earthiness of truffle oil and the texture of the crunchy almonds.”–Eat This NY
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“Warm Truffle Almond Strawberries, Pepper Ice Cream – Since it’s such a small space, I love that you often get whiffs of truffle throughout dinner when other people order this dessert. If you are a truffle fan, this is a MUST TRY. I can’t even do it justice with words. Just get it.”–Susan Z.
“After the meal we each had a dessert. my boyfriend – the hazelnut chocolate caviar cupcake, and myself – the star – warm truffle almond strawberries with pepper ice cream. Sounds crazy, of course, but it might have been the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. No exaggeration. The warm truffle oil on the sweet strawberries with the pepper ice cream. OMG. I would have licked the bowl if there weren’t so many people around me.”–Jaime D.
Make sure you check out the updated NYC Food Holidays Map to find this most recent holiday!