On a recent trip to Union Market in Washington D.C., I spotted a single, small plastic baggie of piment d'esplette at the spice shop. “Oh my god,” I called out to Paul. “What? What?” He rushed over. I picked up the baggie, eyeballed it, pressed my nose to it, and breathed deeply. The aroma was complex and sweet with a hint of heat. “Amazing. Smell this.” I lifted it to his nostrils.
The high culinary praise and relative scarcity of piment d’esplette has intrigued me for years. I occasionally see it in recipes but have never seen it for sale.
After he breathed through the plastic and swooned over the same mysterious aroma, I noticed the price sticker: $25. “I’m not paying that.” He grabbed it from me. “We’re getting it.” Paul lives to spoil me. I live to prevent such spoilage (and preserve our collective wallets). But against this precious baggie, I had no defenses. He handed it to the cashier, who placed it in a small paper bag. I squeezed Paul's arm. “Thanks, honey.”
I discovered that the rich-flavored esplette pepper is cultivated in the small French commune of Esplette near the border of Spain, and hung on balconies to dry. An annual pepper festival attracts thousands of tourists, marking the end of harvest season. I pictured French grandmas with pale blue sundresses and big arms wrestling shiny red pepper bundles from balconies and felt better about the $25. (The reality is the AOC-designated spice has spurred an entire industry of hard working farmers with regulated production techniques. Still, I picture the grandmas and smile.)
I sprinkle the jewel-red powder on everything from baked eggs and frittatas to soups and braised dishes. It lends a complex, mild and sweet heat to many dishes. Occasionally, I combine it with a pinch of paprika and a pinch of cayenne to give my dish the full spectrum of pepper flavor.
For this fish stew, I drew inspiration from Lynn Rossetto Kasper’s Sicilian fish soup recipe in her iBook “Italian Holidays.” I admire Rossetto Kasper but found her version lacked heat and acid. Piment d’esplette – and a touch of Pernod (another recent discovery) – was exactly what it needed. My coveted French ingredients transformed this stalwart Italian fare to a remarkably delicious bowl of soup.
When I returned to the spice store at Union Market last week to plop down $25 for another baggie, they were out of stock. The young woman tending to customers said she had never heard of it but she was intrigued. "What does it taste like?"
Fennel Fish Soup with Salami and Piment d'Esplette
2 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 cup diced spicy Italian salami
3 large leeks, white part only, coarsely chopped
2 medium fennel bulbs, trimmed and thinly sliced into sticks (fronds reserved for garnish)
1 tablespoon fennel seeds, bruised with a mortar and pestle
1/2 cup tightly packed Italian parsley leaves, minced
6 garlic cloves, crushed and quartered
grated zest of one orange (reserving a small amount for garnish)
2 cups drained whole canned tomatoes
8 cups fish stock
15 pitted black oil-cured olives (for garnish)
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon (or more to taste) piment d’esplette (if you can't find it, substitute paprika with a pinch of cayenne)
2 tablespoon Pernod
2 pounds of mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1 pounds white fish
1 pound shrimp, shells on, or shelled with tail left intact (if you shell the shrimp, use the shells to enhance or supplement the fish broth by simmering the shells in water or fish stock, and straining out the shells, before adding the stock)
In a large Dutch oven or soup pot, sautee the salami in olive oil over medium heat for two minutes. Add the leeks, fennel bulb, and parsley and cook until the leeks are soft. Stir in the garlic, bruised fennel seed, and three-quarters of the orange zest. Sautee for another minute. Add the tomatoes. Cook over medium high heat for three minutes. Add the broth. Bring to a boil and then let simmer for 20 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, then the piment d’esplette and Pernod.
About 30 minutes before serving, add the mussels and fish and cook covered for 2 - 3 minutes. Finally, add the shrimp and cook uncovered for another 2- 3 minutes. Once the shellfish are open and the shrimp have turned completely pink, it’s time to eat. Garnish each bowl with chopped olives, fennel fronds, and remaining orange zest.