Our good friend and award-winning food writer/editor Doc Willoughby has a thing for great ingredients for grilling and indoor cooking. Over the years, he’s introduced us and his readers to countless amazing spice mixes. When we told him that we were doing a whole show dedicated to chilies and hot peppers, he was excited to tell us about his favorite magical French pepper powder, piment d’Esplette. Put piment d’Esplette to good work in your kitchen with Doc’s recipes for Classic Pipérade and Easy Cocoa Cookies with Piment d’Espelette.
Francis Lam: Doctor, I have never told you this, but you have always been my powered pepper guru.
Doc Willoughby: Wow! That is an awesome title.
FL: I learned about Aleppo powder through you. I learned about Urfa pepper through you. And now you’re here to tell us about piment d’Espelette.
DW: I just call it Espelette and leave out the Piment part. The other pepper that I always loved is Pimenton de La Vera, which is from Spain.
John "Doc" Willoughby
Photo: Keene Vision Photography
FL: And that is smoked?
DW: It is heavily smoked. And it’s awesome. Through it I got to Espelette, which comes from the Basque region of southeastern France. It’s a very different pepper. It’s become my favorite pepper recently because it’s mildly hot. Sort of like the other ones we just talked about, it’s sweet, smoky and has a bit of a citrus-y flavor. To me it has an aftertaste of peaches. It’s rich, deep and just a little bit hot. So, you can use it in anything and it makes it better. You can easily get it online or in any spice shop.
I’m not sure I should be confessing this but pretty much every weekend I make a grilled cheese sandwich with a bunch of Espelette on top. It’s become my favorite lunch; it’s so simple. It’s great on eggs. There are some classic Basque dishes that feature it like Eggs Pipérade or just plain Pipérade, which is a mixture of bell peppers and onion cooked a long time with a lot of Espelette in it. There’s also a classic veal stew that they use it in. But again, you can use it in just about anything – sprinkle it on anything you’re eating to make it taste better. I like to put it together with salt, black pepper, and powdered thyme and rub it on lamb. It’s super versatile and it has all of those flavors going on, so it’s more dynamic than most other peppers.
Piment d'Esplette Pepper Review for Refining Fire Chilies (via YouTube)
FL: This sounds amazing. I don’t have any in my home, but now I want it. When buying peppers like this, ones with really unique flavors, what are the ways to highlight that flavor?
DW: The people in the Basque region of France use it in place of black pepper, so they just put it on everything. In a somewhat more unusual use of it, they will include it in chocolate desserts because it does have that sort of fruitiness that goes well with chocolate. My favorite way to use it is just sprinkled on things like a grilled cheese sandwich or a lamb chop – which I’m going to do tonight. If you use it chocolate desserts, it’s very surprising. And that’s always a good thing.
FL: Are there particular brands you should be shopping for if you are looking for piment d’Espellette?
DW: Two things. This is an AOC [appellation d’origine contrôlée] product, which means it can only called Espelette if it’s grown around Espelette – the village. So, if you look at any brand it should have the AOC on top. Any of those will be good. My favorite is an odd brand called Biperduna. If you look online, it’s one of the most prevalent ones so you won’t have trouble finding it. It’s a little milder than the other brands, but I think it has a chunkier texture, which I like, and it has more of that peach-y flavor. I’d go for that.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.