I am one of those people who are always reaching for that jar of little red pepper flakes.
I find a way to sneak them into soups, pastas, marinades for grilled foods, vegetable dishes, and salad dressings. Well, at least it’s not ketchup! I especially love the kick that red pepper gives to two classic Italian dishes—pasta arrabbiata and pasta with seafood fra diavolo.
But lately I have been reading a lot of recipes that call for Calabrian chilies. So, I went searching at my favorite gourmet food stand at the West Shore Farmers Market—Peggy’s Silver Spoon. From imported olive oils and pastas to unique sauces, condiments and spices, I can usually find culinary treasures there. To my surprise, I discovered she is selling a little collection of Calabrian chili products from a company called Tutto Calabria.
Calabria is the region of Italy that occupies the “toe of the boot,” the very southernmost part of the Italian peninsula. It is a warm, dry and sunny place where tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil and all the Italian produce we love thrive in the arid climate.
The Tutto Calabria website explains that the Calabrian chili has an official name: “Peperone Picante Calabrese”—the Spicy Pepper of Calabria. It is a small fruit about the size of a cherry that matures to bright red in color. A spicy and smoky pepper, it can be found dried, pickled, stuffed or packed in oil.
But back to the market. I bought a jar of Calabrian chilies packed in olive oil, vinegar and spices, along with a jar of whole, peeled plum tomatoes. I envisioned making a simple pan sauce of peppers, tomatoes, olive oil and perhaps a little basil.
This is what I cooked up.
- Extra virgin olive oil—several tablespoons for the pan and extra for finishing
- A large can or jar (24-28 oz.) whole, peeled plum tomatoes (San Marzano, if you can find)
- 1 medium sweet onion (Vidalia or candy), chopped
- 2-3 cloves fresh garlic, chopped
- A jar of pickled Calabrian chilies
- Several tablespoons chopped fresh basil
- A pinch of sugar and salt and pepper to taste
- 1 lb. buccatini or other long pasta (like spaghetti or linguine)
- Gently heat olive oil in a large sauté pan or other pan deep enough to hold the cooked pasta.
- Sauté the chopped onion until it becomes soft and golden in color. Add the chopped garlic and cook for just about a minute.
- Take the plum tomatoes and squeeze them between your fingers right into the pan. Reserve the juice to thin the sauce later if needed.
- Add a pinch of sugar and some freshly ground pepper (save the salt until last).
- Cook the tomato/onion mixture down until it is thickened, almost like jam.
- Add the jarred chili peppers along with their oil and vinegar and break them up with a wooden spoon.
- Over low heat, simmer the sauce until it thickens again and then add the chopped basil. Season with a little salt if desired.
- Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until al dente and reserve a cup of the cooking liquid.
- Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce in the skillet. Cook over medium-low heat turning the pasta with tongs and thinning it with a little pasta water if needed.
- When the pasta is nicely coated, add a little more olive oil to coat the strands until they glisten.
- Serve in bowls with lots of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Not much could be simpler than this spicy Calabrian pepper and tomato pasta. I served it with a green salad and didn’t feel I needed any meat to accompany it. It was perfect for a cool fall evening.
Now that I’ve discovered Calabrian chilies, there is no end in sight. Perhaps a few hiding in the Thanksgiving stuffing might be perfect.