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Originally published July 26, 2013 at 12:30 PM | Page modified July 28, 2013 at 7:04 AM

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Nancy Leson has fun with peppers: Padróns or shishito

Either/or, the preparation is easy, says The Seattle Times food writer.

Special to The Seattle Times

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I ATE MY first Padrón — simply fried in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt — at the tapas bar in Madison Valley's Harvest Vine. It was a revelation. But it wasn't until I saw the curvy little capsicums at my local farmers market that those bright green peppers became a star in my DIY firmament.

Pimientos de Padrón, the pride of Galicia, were hard to get when the Spanish restaurant Harvest Vine opened in 1998, recalls Basque chef (and former owner) Joseph Jimenez de Jimenez. "I brought the seeds to Seattle myself and had a farmer grow them for me."

When that experiment failed, he got a tip from his Galician-octopus importer and turned to Happy Quail Farms, a California outfit whose tender young peppers are typically harvested May through December — and at their peak as we speak. The sweet finish of the California Padróns greatly mimic the Galician ideal, says Jimenez de Jimenez, who (along with a fleet of Seattle chefs) also gives props to Viridian Farms in Dayton, Ore., a specialist in Mediterranean produce now supplying superior Padróns.

When I'm doing the shopping I head to The Spanish Table, where the Western Avenue retailer sells 4-ounce bags of Happy Quail Padróns for $6.99. Or to area supermarkets, where I keep an eye out for the Mexican import Del Rio (about six bucks a dry pint). And this time of year I hit up the Full Circle farmers market table (where I've paid as little as $4 a pound for the local version).

When I can't find Padróns, I opt for their longer, skinnier Japanese relation, the shishito. Known as "twist peppers" at Korean grocers, these aren't as sweet to my taste, and can be a touch bitter, but are well worth seeking as an affordable and readily available alternative.

Either/or, the preparation is easy: figure 8 ounces for four people. Wash and dry the peppers thoroughly (I use a salad spinner), then fry (in batches, if necessary) in good olive oil, turning with tongs till the "meat" starts to pull away from the blistered skin. Take care not to burn the oil (or yourself!). Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with sea salt.

"Are they hot?" is the first question I'm asked when I offer these with a cocktail or as a side dish. As the Spaniards say, "Unos pican e outros non": some are hot and some are not!

"The lore is that out of 100 peppers, you're going to find maybe five to 10 that are really hot," says Jimenez de Jimenez. (From personal experience, I'd go with the five.)

You never know when you're going to pick one up, pop it in your mouth — don't eat the stem — and hit a hottie. For me, that's part of the fun.

My dastardly little dog begs to differ. Often at my feet as I cook, she once devoured a Padrón that went airborne between pan and plate, and spent the next day curled in a ball whimpering while her humans went unscathed.

Grown near or far, Padróns "add a lot of flavor to the oil," says my Basque buddy, making me kick myself for having long tossed out that fragrant oil once I've fried my peppers.

"Use it for a steak!" says Jimenez de Jimenez. "Salt a rib-eye, pan fry it in the oil, then 'mark' it on the grill." Season with a short pour of the pepper-infused oil "and you'll have a steak like you've never had before: simple, simple, simple!"

Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times' food writer. Reach her at nleson@seattletimes.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.

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