Troy Hightower


The Best Pepper

We've traveled to both ends of the Basque country of Spain --Barcelona to the east and San Sebastian to the west--to sample the delicious and varied bar snacks or finger foods known either as tapas or pintxos. On a trip to Barcelona some years ago, and again recently to San Sebastian, we were served the most astonishing dish called simply Pimientos del Padrón--Peppers of Padrón. These are small, pointed green peppers related to Capsicum annuum (ornamental red pepper) with long stems that are sautéed in olive oil ‘til they blacken a bit and wilt, drained, sprinkled with sea salt and served hot.

They are sweet (most of the time) and amazingly flavorful, a bit nutty, with just a hint of the flavor of okra (possibly as they're eaten seeds and all). There is an element of culinary Russian Roulette, as an occasional pepper (or sometimes more) will be very hot.

A couple years ago I was nosing through the bins of the Tierra Vegetables farmstand just east of 101 in Santa Rosa when I came across a box of these exotic peppers. They were a good bit larger than the ones served in Spain, and one of the farmers stated his belief that the larger ones can be hotter. I bought a couple pounds anyway, and took them home to try my hand. They came out of the sauté pan looking exactly as they ought to, but--wow--most of them, not a few, were quite hot--had the right flavor, but way too much capsaicin (the substance in peppers that makes them hot).

Then last year at the Saturday Farmer's market, I came across a small basket of Padrones at the Crescent Moon Farm stand. Quite small, I bought what was left--about a half pound.  David Moring, Crescent Moon's co-owner stated that his Padrones are almost all taken by restaurants or reserved in advance by aficionados. He also said that in his experience about one in twenty is spicy. These tiny examples were perfect. Warm from the frying pan, sweet, salty, with that faint okra tang--so delicious. At a recent Friday Sonoma farmer's market, I spoke with David, one of the farmers responsible for peppers at Oak Hill Farms. Their Padrones were larger that day, and I asked if they intended to harvest any smaller. He said that these had gotten away from them a bit, and they intended to get the size back down, but interestingly disputed the idea that larger size correlates to higher heat, continuing "I had a tiny one the other night that was the hottest I'd ever had--blew my head off".

Some farmers also apparently believe that Padrones grown in June/July tend to be milder, while those grown in August/September tend to pack more heat. There is a reported study done in Spain on Padrón peppers that found all the peppers to have pronounced heat if the plants were water stressed. (It's said to be true that hot peppers will be hotter if grown in drought-like conditions.)

Last week the Orchard Farms stand at the Saturday Santa Rosa market had a huge basket of them--all perfectly tiny. Once again the result of a quick pan-fry was sublime: close your eyes, take a sip of dry sherry, pop those babies into your mouth, and instant transport to the pintxos bars of Basque Spain.
padron plants

The history of the Pimientos del Padrón was described by Calvin Trillin in the November 1999 issue of Gourmet Magazine. According to Trillin, Franciscan monks at the monastery in Herbón in Spain's northern Galicia province first tried growing the pepper seeds they’d brought back from the New World in the 18th century. This place still remains the heart of the Pimientos belt today. ”Nowadays there is a Padrón Festival in the town of that name every August and Pimientos de Padrón are becoming one of the most popular tapas all through Spain."

To prepare:
Clean and dry the peppers. Heat a skillet with 1/4" of olive oil in it until very hot but not smoking. Dump the peppers carefully into the hot oil--they will sizzle and pop--a splash guard helps. Turn frequently with tongs until blistered, wilted and partially blackened. Drain in a strainer, spread on layers of paper towels and pat to absorb some oil. Transfer to a hot plate, sprinkle liberally with sea salt, and commence eating--mind the roulette.


Stong Cuban Drink

The town of  Trinidad on Cuba's southern coast is a UNESCO World Heritage site which contains many historic buildings. A block and a half west of the main plaza on the Calle Martinez Villena is La Canchanchara, a long narrow arcaded bar housed in a mansion built in 1723. La Canchanchara is a famous bar serving a local drink called by the same name--Canchanchara--a beverage both smooth and strong made with clear aguardiente, honey, lime, water and ice. Served in squat clay cups, this fiery drink is said to have been originated by the Mambises, the guerrilla Cuban independence soldiers who fought against Spain in the Ten Years War which ended in 1878



There are dark wood benches facing each other the length of the shaded patio, in the rear of which a dozen or so locals argue at the top of their range about national baseball, gesticulating with cigars and the squat clay cups that bring the chanchancha.   At the end of the bar, the band Son Trinitario blasts out a driving beat.  Like Havana, music is ubiquitous in Trinidad-mostly traditional Cuban Son, and salsa.

 The drink itself is refreshing and fortifying--not unlike a Pisco sour, and certainly a welcome cooling respite from the strong Caribbean sun pounding the cobbled streets of Trinidad.


Two Estonian Eateries

Tallinn has a beautifully preserved/restored medieval old town, but it is very heavily touristicated (thank the cruise ships, in part) with quite a touch of Disneyland--such as medieval-garbed wenches hocking sugared peanuts from a wood-wheeled cart, or shilling a 'medieval experience' dining hall. As such, restaurants in the core tend to cater to the common denominator, and be of less than outstanding interest. There are, however good and interesting restaurants to search out. Taking recommendations from chefs and sommeliers in both Riga and Pädaste, we zeroed in on two fairly new innovative eateries. Both are located outside the old town, one litterally hugging the walls, and one a few blocks away near the port.

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Bucolic Baltic Island

Off the Estonian coast in the Baltic Sea lies a pastoral island called Muhu. Reached by a half-hour ferry from the mainland, it’s extremely rural, with only a couple of tiny villages and the rest farms, fields full of russet cattle and round hay bales and forest. On the southern shore lies Pädaste Manor, an ancient estate and manor house that in recent years has been turned into a tranquil resort. After the four-hour drive from our first Baltic stop in Riga, Latvia, we arrived at Pädaste early one blustery afternoon for a two-day rural interlude in our itinerary of city centers.

After settling into our spacious room on the second floor, we took a half-hour walk around the estate, and arrived at what the owners dub the Sea House – a stone building with flagged terraces that fronts the marshes of the Baltic sea-front, and serves in summer as the estate’s lunch restaurant. Too cold and blustery to sit outside, we made ourselves comfortable in the cozy stone and wood-paneled dining room. Both the Sea House and the main restaurant in the manor house are overseen by chef Peeter Pihel, who produces what he refers to as Nordic Islands Cuisine. The lunch menu is dotted with fascinating and unusual combinations.

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Venetian Cicchetti

Venice has been said to be a place where it’s hard to find great food. There is some truth to this--there are many tourist-oriented restaurants where locals would never set foot—inflated prices, supercilious waiters and marginal quality. We’ve found some reliable favorites over the years, and can normally find a good meal. But our favorite way of eating in Venice is the moveable feast known as cicchetti (pronounced chi-KET-tee)--the Venetian version of tapas, served in stand-up taverns known as bacari. Many of these institutions are generations old, and there are also new ones appearing occasionally. Locals call this mobile feast the giro d'ombra—giro literally means “turn” – as in “to take a turn” and ombra is what the tiny 2 oz glasses of wine traditionally taken with cicchetti is called. On our year-end holiday trip this past December we ‘turned’ several tasty giri.

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Old Africa


We’ve seen elephant before—quite a number of elephant. But this is a really lot of elephant. As the sun creeps lower toward the horizon, we’ve rolled up to a water hole that’s holding a literal convention of the grey giants. This is a number of herds converging at once.  A rough count in a 180-degree sweep indicates there are at least 200 jumbos here. Many drink and squirt water over their backs and under their bellies at the waterhole’s edge. Several juveniles roll, kneel, and cavort in a mud pit, charcoal hides dark with muddy water. Groups of females cluster with their young winding under and around the adults.  Two young males spar and mock charge, trumpeting, flapping ears and twining trunks and pulling. For us they are the most fascinating of all the creatures to watch. And since this is Zambia, where safari tourism is just flowering in recent years, there is no one else around. We’re alone in a sea of elephant.

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Villas & Gardens on Lake Como

As we motor over calm water past a stunning villa, we notice a large hand-lettered sign on the iron railing of the lush gardens in front which proclaim "NO GEORGE" with an arrow pointing southward--presumably generally in the direction of the actual villa of George Cluny. Lago di Como is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, and it's easy to see why those with the means, like George, and his general-direction neighbor Richard Branson have shoreside villas here. We are touring the lake and some of its villas and gardens in a lovely wooden Venetian water-taxi, one of two trucked here by Italian Luca Venini and his Aussie wife Jennine who together operate Bellagio Water Taxis.

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Santa Barbara Birthday

Which in the pantheon of gods are those that decree that the day in spring that you elect to set out on a seven-hour road trip will be the day the skies open for the entire day? Turning what should be a lovely spring drive into an exhausting battle of peering through slam-dancing windshield wipers and gouts of truck-wheel spray at the slick road ahead well enough to stay in lane. Flashes of verdant spring California countryside come to the brain in brief glimpses, but can’t be paid any attention.

I had selected Santa Barbara for a short ‘milestone’ birthday trip to combine vistas of gorgeous spring California countryside with various garden visits spiced with interesting dining experiences. It was still sheeting when we turned up the drive lined in grand old olives under which a sea of French lavender bloomed purple, and wearily pulled up to the main lodge at the San Ysidro Ranch in the affluent Santa Barbara suburb of Montecito. We were quickly registered and escorted under umbrella through the splendid herbaceous borders to a cozy and welcoming cottage, this one named Pine, with comfy sitting room, deck overlooking a private garden and warming fireplaces in both sitting and bedrooms. A spacious bathing pavilion with indoor and outdoor showers overlooks a private enclosed hot tub. This cozy cottage in this renowned hideaway provides an auspicious start to a short stay. Now if only the weather will turn for the better. 

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