Red Pepper Paste One of Life’s Culinary Secrets
Mary Vetrice, my paternal grandmother, was my culinary mentor from a very early age. She taught me the cooking basics and a world about herbs for flavoring, but most importantly, she made sure I learned that a good cook always cooks “smart”.
She’d say never roast one chicken when you can just as easily roast two – you know you’re going to be hungry tomorrow about this same time. I remember once I incurred a light scolding when she walked into the kitchen to discover that I was boiling a couple of eggs in a large saucepan. She explained that if you are going to bother to light the stove, it didn’t take much more effort to go ahead and boil a full dozen eggs. They could then be used for so many different dishes in the next few days, and if nothing else, any left could be quickly pickled on the weekend.
She was the queen of expeditiousness in the kitchen. Anything you could do to lighten the load and move the existing cooking project forward was music to her ears. Understand, she was the second child of eight siblings and had ten children of her own. Feeding the troops was her life’s work, and here she was feeding not only me but eight other folks in my father’s house.
Grandmother was never a really big user of hot chiles, but she often made a tasty rendition of what she called San Antonio Chili-Stew. Not a real chili nor a real stew – but truly delicious it was kind of a combination of the two. I think now on reflection it was a sneaky way for her to get more garden carrots, potatoes, and peas onto our plates.
My grandmother always had a pantry of culinary secrets. Many jars and miscellaneous containers were filled with herbal combinations, compounds, and concoctions. Each was specifically designed to simplify the cooking process for one or more of her many wonderful dishes. She told me she learned how to make the chili-stew from an old cowboy who was drifting through her western Kentucky hometown of Fancy Farm.
He had stopped at their farm looking for work or a handout – whichever came first. She invited him to join the family and farmhands for lunch and he began regaling the group with stories of his life in Texas. She became really intrigued when he told of working on the cow trail and detailing the trials and tribulations of his on and off work as a chuckwagon cook and with it the technique for making Red Pepper Paste.
“Three little peppers and how they grew,
so many peppers I smashed up two.
Added some seasoning, a bit of oil new,
a tasty condiment for the whole dang crew.”
This red pepper paste is a real boon for any cook who is looking for substantial depth of western flavor obtained quickly. It reminds me a lot of the Spanish sofrito, a combination of onions, tomatoes, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, and salt that is cooked slowly in olive oil for a long period until the mixture becomes almost paste like, then jarred and squirreled away for quick use in the daily preparation of dishes like paella and patatas bravas.
Red Pepper Paste
Use the paste to enhance your favorite chili recipe or to flavor sauces, beans, vegetables, soups, and meat loaves or burgers. Keep refrigerated for several weeks or freeze in tablespoon-sized portions on waxed paper until solid and transfer into a zip-lock bag and store in the door of your freezer for up to a year.
Makes about 1 1/4 cups
- 8 red serrano chile peppers, fresh (or pepper of your choice)*
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
- 2 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon cumin seed
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons corn oil
- 1 to 1 1/2 cups bread cubes, day old, crusts removed (I use sourdough)
Put the chile peppers into a heat-proof bowl and pour the boiling water over. Allow to sit for three minutes, pour into colander and cool under cold running water. Drain well. Remove stem, seed membrane, and seeds. Chop and put peppers into the work bowl of a food processor. Add the red bell pepper, garlic, smoked paprika, cumin seed, oregano, and Kosher salt. Process in pulses, scraping down the sides as necessary, to pulverize. Add the vinegar and corn oil and process to combine. Add the bread a few cubes at a time; work in pulses until the bread softens and blends into the puree forming a paste. Stop adding bread cubes when the paste is firm enough to your liking.
*If you need to use dried chiles instead of fresh simply soak them in the boiling water for about 20 minutes before draining and then proceed with the recipe.
COOKS NOTES: Vary the heat of your paste depending on the likes of the folks youll be feeding. If your group doesnt like much heat, substitute poblanos and a green bell pepper – youll have a green pepper paste, but it will be delicious. If you regularly cook for hotheads, use habaneros peppers and a yellow bell pepper and watch the steam build. Here is a list of the most commonly available peppers from mildest to hottest:
Bell, poblano, guajillo, anaheim, new mexico, ancho, banana, pasilla, cascabel, jalapeño, chipotle, red finger, fresno, serrano, cayenne, pequin, tabasco, macho, habanero, ghost, reaper.
You can mix and match a whole different bunch of peppers if your goal is to make a special formula paste that becomes a signature for you. I cant imagine using “ghost” or “reaper” peppers for this paste but I know there are adventurous folks out there.
I hope that I have tempted you to want to try to be a “smart” cook. Make your own batch of Red Pepper Paste and get cooking. Here is my Grandmothers recipe for San Antonio Chili-Stew, just as she gave it to me years ago. I’ve not changed a word; it tastes like home, and who really believes that you cant go home again, at least in your culinary dreams.