Red pepper paste is one of those secret ingredients that a cook might neglect to mention when sharing the recipe with someone else.
My maternal grandmother, Yeranuhe Nanny, came from Musa Dagh, Musa Ler, in Armenian. Many of her homeland recipes incorporated red pepper paste – from Sarma Gurgood (Tabbouleh), to Banerov Hatz (Cheese-Onion Flatbread), to potato salad – or whatever recipe she fancied.
When anyone asked for her recipe, she wasn’t sneaky; she’d mention the use of red pepper paste. What she didn’t tell them was that you had to make it yourself! In her day, there was no such thing as commercially prepared red pepper paste, nor would a shortcut version be considered acceptable.
Sure, today you can buy the paste in Middle Eastern stores, but if you want to capture the true essence of Nanny’s recipes, nothing beats her very tedious homemade version.
As a child I’d watch Nanny toil over the preparation. She’d go to the farmer’s market and buy several bushels of red peppers at the peak of their season, and when prices were low.
She’d cut them, remove the seeds, wash them, then hand-grind the peppers. Then she’d cook the ground peppers in a large pot until the liquid was evaporated. The next step was to spread the pepper mash onto baking sheets and sun-dry them for 1 to 3 days depending on the heat and humidity.
Nanny sat outside, guarding her trays against flies and other insects, or change in weather. If there was a threat of rain, she’d quickly snatch the trays and haul them upstairs to her kitchen.
The paste was ready when it turned a brownish-red color, and the consistency was more like tomato paste. Nanny would place the paste in small sterilized jars, put a little olive oil on top, tightly cover the jars, and refrigerate the amount that would be used soon.
The rest went into the freezer for year-round use.
Thankfully, this modern spin on Nanny’s original recipe is quicker and easier!
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