I recently mistook a habanero for one of those mini-bell peppers and popped it in my mouth. It brought me to my knees. Obviously, I need to know more about peppers for my own safety. So, I was thrilled to see Ten Speed Press has a new book to save me and those like me from future disasters. Peppers of the Americas is a huge and beautiful book about those mighty flavor bombs that fall under the rubric of “peppers.” Maricel Presilla has been dubbed the Queen of Capsicum and it seems to be a well-deserved title.
The book is a deep dive into the peppers of the Americas. The introduction is full of the biology of the peppers, including a beautiful illustration of a pepper labeling all the pieces. There are lovely illustrations in the more scientific part of the book, showing how we can tell peppers apart by the calyx (where the stem attaches), the flower, and the seeds. There is a fascinating section on the archeological history of peppers, then its history of expansion and exploration carried around the world. Presilla talks about the five domesticated peppers and their essential traits and varieties. She grows her own and even explains how to grow peppers from seed.
There are two huge galleries of peppers, regular and dried. Who knew there could be so many peppers and we have not even left the Americas. There is also an extensive collection of recipes, most of them from Latin America for everything from spice blends and vinegars to stews, casseroles, and so much more. The end of the book is full of resources where you can buy seeds, seedlings, and peppers to get started.
The pictures by Romulo Yanes and the botanical illustrations by Julio J. Figueroa are beautiful. The book is one you will enjoy paging through looking at pictures and reading about the peppers. The information for each individual pepper describes their flavor and uses and then describes what they look like.
Peppers of the Americas is a rich reference book for people who like to know more than how to use the foods they eat. There’s a bit of science, a bit of history, information on preserving and making condiments, as well as identification and cooking information. It does not tell us everything, though. When I decided to write about my habanero mishap, I wondered if it needed a tilde or not, and looked for an answer in the book. Alas, no joy. I discovered from Google that habanero is named for Havana, so there is no tilde, and my desire to add one is a hyperforeignism.
I like the bits of folklore and tradition, like the “birds-eye”, a bit of smashed pepper at the bottom of a bowl before serving soup to flavor all the soup. There are also several recipes for flavored vinegars, pastes, and salts you can make for flavorings. Many of the recipes are complex, though thankfully there are a few relatively easy ones as well.There are several delicious sounding recipes. They are discouraging for the home cook, though, because they are over-particularized. What I mean is that a recipe will call for a Kirby cucumber instead of a cucumber, “Columbian panela, Mexican piloncillo, or light muscovado sugar” instead of sugar. When I read the recipe, I know I can make it with my ordinary ingredients, but it comes across as though it’s been posted with “Keep Out Home Cooks!” signs all over the place.
To be honest, even at New Seasons, there is no wide selection of peppers, so the specificity is discouraging. How much worse will the recipe be with a pepper in the family, not that specific pepper? What about the sugars? Can I use a regular cucumber? These kinds of recipes create doubt and difference. I read them and feel as though the book was not written for me.
I received a copy of Peppers of the Americas through Blogging for Books. It is published by Lorena Jones Books by Ten Speed Press.
- Peppers of the Americas at Penguin Random House
- Maricel E. Presilla on Twitter
- La Cucharamama – Presilla’s restaurants.