Photo by Stacey Ballis via Getty Images

OK, most of them—but definitely stock up on espelette

Stacey Ballis
May 21, 2018

My relationship with black pepper is tenuous at best. Sometimes, and I do mean sometimes, salt needs some backup. But I have always had issues with black pepper. I find that it can be bitter or acrid, or overly assertive in certain applications if one isn’t careful. I’ve never understood the obsession with the “freshly ground pepper for your salad?” assault in restaurants. For me it always overwhelms the delicate lettuces, and if a dressing is properly seasoned, why would you risk sending it out of balance? I also am a total wuss when it comes to spicy, so while my pals happily dole out pinches of cayenne pepper and shakes of red pepper flakes, if not used carefully, those too can blow out my palate.

But I do understand that often food needs a bit more than just salinity to make it sing. This where I tell you that if you are on my side of the black pepper debate, and if you too like a gentler heat, espelette pepper is going to be your new best friend. Even if you are madly in love with black pepper and order your meats au poivre, pick pastrami over corned beef, think cacio y pepe is the most perfect food on the planet, and shake those red pepper flakes all over your slice, you’re still going to want to hook up with espelette.

The espelette pepper is a small red pepper grown in the Basque region of France, in the Pyrenees near the border of Spain. While it packs some heat, the heat is much milder than cayenne or red chili flakes, and the flavor is fruity and has a bit of citrus on the finish. You can get it dried and flaked, or in a paste, or even as a flavored salt. And it will go anywhere that black pepper or cayenne pepper or chili flakes would go, but in a totally next level kind of way.

I use it instead of black pepper when seasoning meats or making salad dressing. It is a great finishing pepper, where the flavor can really pop, and it is good pals with cheese and veggies alike. Making a chocolate dessert that could use some kick? Espelette will jump into your hot fudge or brownies or chocolate frosting and make them a party. The paste is a wonderful addition to sauces, especially tomato sauces, and I use a generous dollop in my chili and no one complains. You can also mix it with mayo for a secret sauce that is so much better than one with ketchup can ever be.

If you are lucky enough to have some European travel in your future, (or you have a friend willing to shlep for you), bring a bunch back, it freezes beautifully. Otherwise, if you can’t find it at a good spice purveyor near you, there are a lot of sources online, including Kalustyan's and Amazon.

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