If you love Turkish food and crave its flavors at home, you’ll soon find yourself stirring up the Turkish pantry staple, spicy red pepper paste. It’s a basic flavoring ingredient for many dishes in southern Turkish cuisine. There are no tomatoes in the paste; its deep red color comes from slow-cooking red bell peppers and chilies. The ingredients are simple, but the finished paste gives your food spicy complexity.
A typical red pepper paste will be hot. But vary the heat factor to your taste. If it suits you better, make it milder, with fewer chilies or even none at all. Or ratchet the heat up with the hottest chilies you can find. The paste lasts four weeks refrigerated. You can freeze part of it for later.
The first step will be to char the peppers and chilies. The way that yields the best flavor is to place them on a grill over a flame and let them cook, turning them from side to side, until the skins are blackened and the flesh is soft. You may need to do this in two batches. Keep your kitchen window open, as the odor will be strong. You can also char the peppers under the broiler in your oven, but they won’t have that hint of smokiness that you get from charring them on the stovetop (or even better, over charcoal in the open air).
The rest comes easy: pureeing the peppers in a food processor or blender, then cooking them with the rest of the ingredients, stirring every so often.
How to use this spicy red gem? First, find some fascinating Turkish recipes like Bulgur Balls in Eggplant and Tomato Sauce. Or just use your culinary imagination. I like to slip a spoonful of red pepper paste into a pot of beans, beat a little into eggs for a spicy omelet, or mix it with za’atar, smear it on open pita halves and pop the bread into a hot oven to toast. Once you taste the finished pepper paste, you’ll know what to do with it.
Turkish Red Pepper Paste
6 large red bell peppers
6 meaty red chilies
3 teaspoons any variety paprika (sweet, hot, or smoked), according to taste
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
More olive oil to cover the finished paste
Place the peppers and chilies on a metal grill over an open flame, toasting them and turning them to their uncooked sides every so often. This should take about 10 minutes. The skins should be blackened and the vegetables starting to ooze a little juice.
Place the peppers and chilies in a large bowl and cover them with dish or a re-used plastic bag. The skins will loosen as the vegetables cool down.
Skin the peppers and chilies. Take off the stems and and seeds. You may want to wear gloves when handling the chilies if they’re a really hot variety. Turkish chef Ozlem Warren recommends scraping the flesh off the chilies’ skins with a knife, rather than peeling them.
Process the vegetables in a food processor or blender until smooth.
Pour the pureed peppers and chilies into a large pan. Add the paprika, lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Cook over medium heat until the combination simmers, then reduce the heat to low. Stir often. It will take up to 50 minutes for the moisture to evaporate until a thick paste forms. As for jam, test by dragging a spoon over the base of the pan. If you see a trail, the paste is ready.
Once the paste has cooled, spoon it into a very clean, very dry jar. Pour a little additional olive oil over the surface to seal it. Place the lid on the jar and keep the paste refrigerated.