This installment of the Clean Plates series features an interesting variety of pepper: the Jimmy Nardello, a member of the Capsicum family. It's originally from the Basilicata region in Southern Italy, and was named for Jimmy Nardello, an early seed preservationist who brought the pepper seeds with him when he immigrated to America in the late 1800's. This sweet and delicate pepper becomes almost creamy when sautéed, and is an excellent source of vitamins C and A, plus calcium, phosphorus, iron, thiamine, riboflavin and niacin.
We spoke with Jessica Koslow, a Los Angeles chef, SoCal guru of natural preservation and fermentation, and founder of SQIRL jam. Her company has redefined preserving in L.A. and been heralded for its organic, local (within 350 miles of the kitchen) jams made without commercial pectin. She dished about her passion for lacto-fermentation, the joy of discovering a new pepper and how she came to create the word, "SQIRL."
We're fermenting a lot of peppers at the moment (lacto-fermented peppers); one of the varieties is Jimmy Nardello. It's actually more of a sweet pepper, so we're using it fresh, we're using it fermented, we're cooking it — it has such a fruity and sweet flavor with a tiny bit of kick, we're putting it in everything.
Do you remember the first time you had the pepper?
The first time was recently, just this year. I was at Windrose Farms [in Paso Robles, California], and they're growing such interesting things. They spoke highly of it, so I tried it.
Sometimes that's the best thing you can do as a chef: Be curious. Then you can figure out how to incorporate it into your own point of view.
Tell me about the different ways that you're using them.
Well, we're julienning them very thinly. We're doing a crispy rice salad with Kokuho Rose rice (a medium-grain, heirloom varietal rice grown in California) and we're using them raw there. We're fermenting it as a pepper mash and putting that [in dishes] as a hot sauce. We're also doing the Italian style of preserving, so we're salting and preserving them in olive oil so we can use them all year 'round. All different ways.
What are the health benefits of this pepper?
The thing about preservation, or lacto-fermentation, is that it can create lots of flavor without the added fat. So you can get a lot of nuances of flavor from the lacto-fermentation. You don't have to use a lot of olive oil, so I find the things that we serve here are really flavorful without having to use a lot of fat.
What's the craziest thing you've done with it?
I think lacto-fermenting it was the hardest thing. The pH is lower than most peppers, so it doesn't ferment as easily as a jalapeno, which has a higher pH.
What do you do to ensure that happens?
You have to add a little more salt to start the fermentation. You have to make sure the jars that you're using have a really solid airlock. A lot of other peppers can have a tiny bit of exposure to air; it's OK because they're fermenting and there's so much salt in there, but that pepper does require a pretty good seal.
As an editor, I need to know: How did you come up with the spelling of "SQIRL"?
It's a girl who's squirreling away, so it's a marriage of girl and squirrel. It's clever, except when you know you're spelling it wrong and you revere writers — I'm the type of person who doesn't like misspellings of words. So I understand my own hypocritical side, but it made sense. I get it all — either I'm spelling it wrong, or, "Do you have squirrels in there?" I didn't want people to think I was making squirrel jam.
Jimmy Nardello Fermented Pepper Mash
These sweet Italian peppers make a delicious sauce; jalapenos are an excellent substitute. If you can find red jalapenos, which are sweeter and hotter than green, use those. This tool may be useful in getting started with fermenting food in an anaerobic environment.
Total time: About 20 minutes, plus two weeks
Jimmy Nardello peppers in any quantity, or jalapeno peppers
Sea salt (do not use traditional table salt), 7.5% by weight
Wash, dry and stem peppers. Working in batches if necessary, process in food processor. Weigh resulting peppers; add salt at 7.5% by weight. (For example, 1 pound of processed peppers would require .075 of a pound, or 1.2 ounces, of salt.)
Place in an airlock style of container (see recipe introduction for more information), or place in crock with a fitted plate on top to create an anaerobic environment (one without oxygen). Ferment at room temperature for at least two weeks, or to taste.
When ready to use, store in refrigerator. Use as a sauce over eggs, on sandwiches, drizzled over steamed fish and vegetables, as a component in salad dressings or as a relish for roasted meats.
A NOTE ON FERMENTATION
The fermentation process creates lactobacilli, the same healthy bacteria (or microflora) found in yogurt, only dairy-free; this probiotic supports the immune system, promotes a healthy digestive tract and helps fight yeast infections. In addition, fermentation boosts the availability of food’s existing vitamins, minerals and nutrients.
Story by Clean Plates Contributing Editor, Tory L. Davis