What's Fabulous: Piment d'Espelette
A little jar of smoky paprika can turn everyday simple recipes into something with a special kick.
How can a little jar of crushed red peppers have the same appellation as a Chateau Lafitte Rothschild grand cru? Piment d'Espelette, the first spice to receive the prestigious French A.O.C., are grown and air-dried in the small Pays Basque village of Espelette where soft ocean breezes help grow a unique paprika. Milder than cayenne, more smoky than the Hungarian but less so than the better known Pimenton de la Vera, piment d'Espelette is the stuff that gives Basque cooking its flavorful heat.
Until recently this French paprika was one of those French food souvenirs that travelers would stash in their suitcases next to tubes of truffle paste and jars of Hédiard jam. We had to carry these tiny glass jars of red powder back to our New York kitchens because it simply wasn't available here. But with cookbook masters like Paula Wolfert arguing that for cassoulets and daubes, the search was worth the trouble (substitutions only if you must!), some U.S. markets are making piment d'Espelette easier to buy.
These dried red peppers are produced as a powder, crème or a jelly, and can be added with either a light or heavy hand to all types of cooking. A pinch of the powder can be rubbed on a leg of lamb before roasting, or added to a citrus vinaigrette for a delicious sauce for grilled fish. The crème, which looks like a precious catsup in its small jar, adds smoke to a vegetable ragout or bean soup. And the jelly is a complex alternative to pepper jelly.
Where to buy: at Amazon, Kalustyan's and other better food stores.