September 10, 2020

Jeanelle Olson

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A Taste of Melrose Park

What to do with a popular heirloom pepper from Chicago

Ask almost any Italian-American in the Chicago area about Melrose peppers, and they’ll tell you about an uncle, a cousin, or an old neighbor of their grandmother’s who grows them. Over there, next to the tomatoes, behind the basil going wild, in the hottest, brightest corner of the yard. They’re available via neighborhood whisper network and the occasional local farm. Sometimes, they show up at the Italian supermarket for a day. If you’re lucky, it’s the day you’re there.

Some folks like to wait for their Melroses to ripen to a firecracker red, but I’ve only ever had them green. The flavor of the long, craggy pepper is sweet and subtle, and the skin is super thin, making it a dream pepper for frying in olive oil with garlic—fennel sausage optional. For the last century and a half, kids in Elmwood Park, Franklin Park, Schiller Park, and Melrose Park, the pepper’s namesake, have come in from the summer heat to parents and grandparents (in my mother’s case, her grandfather, Carmen) offering heels of crusty bread smeared with soft fried Melrose peppers.

A Taste of Melrose Park - Quote

They’re available via neighborhood whisper network and the occasional local farm. Sometimes, they show up at the Italian supermarket for a day. If you’re lucky, it’s the day you’re there.

It’s common knowledge that Italian sausage and peppers are the best of friends, so I don’t need to tell you to make that. And anyway, in my family, sausage and peps (sweet bells, Melroses, or whatever) are for gatherings, where cousins chase each other through the yard, where cheeks get kissed once, twice, then pinched, where you ask your grandma to ladle a little extra “juice” (olive oil, pepper liquid, garlic and other savory drippings) on your plate so you can swipe the bread through it. We’re not gathering that way right now, so I’m saving those food memories until we can again.

In the meantime, luckily, we have pasta. (We always have pasta, thank goodness.) The peppers, relaxed and sweet, get to shine here, boosted by crisp bits of pancetta and punctuated with lemon zest and salty ricotta salata. I love a sauceless pasta, where the starchy cooking water does the work of binding the whole thing together.

Pasta with Melrose Peppers and Pancetta

Pasta with Melrose Peppers and Pancetta

Serves 4-6

You can use this first part of this recipe as a loose guide for frying sweet peppers for nearly any application, including the classic smear-on-crusty-bread move.

6 oz. pancetta, thinly sliced
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to finish
2 lb. Melrose peppers, stemmed and seeded, or 1 lb. sweet green bell peppers
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Kosher salt and fresh black pepper, to taste
1 lb. rigatoni pasta
1 cup shaved ricotta salata (You can also use shaved pecorino or any hard-ish sheep’s milk cheese.)

Heat a deep skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, add a few slices of pancetta and cook, about 3 minutes per side, until crisp. Transfer the crisped pancetta to a plate and repeat with the remaining slices. Leave the fat in the pan.

Place the pan back over medium-high heat and add 1 tbsp. olive oil. Add the garlic, peppers, and a good pinch of salt. Stir and turn the peppers until they’re all evenly coated in the oil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for 8-10 minutes, until the peppers have softened a bit and some have begun to brown. Stir and turn again, cover, and cook for 10 more minutes. Repeat until the peppers are very soft and sweet, usually after about 30-40 minutes of total cooking time. Add the lemon juice and zest and stir to combine. Taste and check for seasoning, adding salt if needed and a good bit of black pepper.

While the peppers cook, cook the rigatoni in well-salted water according to the package directions. Try to use a little less water than you usually might. That will concentrate the starch in the pasta water and make for a better binder later on. Note that you’ll want to check and stir it a bit more often, too, so the pasta keeps moving and doesn’t stick to the pot.

Using a slotted spoon or small strainer with a handle, transfer the cooked pasta directly from the pot to the peppers. Alternately, if you’re not sure all the pasta will fit, reserve about a cup of pasta water and drain the pasta in the sink. Return the pasta to the hot pot and add the peppers, being sure to scrape the garlic and oil out of the pan. Gently fold the pasta and peppers together, adding a few splashes of pasta water as you go. If you accidentally add too much water, turn the heat on low to help some of the liquid evaporate as you stir.

Transfer the pasta to a large serving bowl. Break up the crisped pancetta rounds with your hands and add them to the bowl, along with the ricotta salata. Toss gently to combine and finish with a drizzle of olive oil.


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