Good things come in little red packages.
Twenty five years ago I found myself in a tiny cafe in a sleepy part of Budapest. My breakfast eggs came with a little bowl of red pickled peppers — roughly chopped, slick with oil and fragrant with white vinegar. I was unclear as how to proceed; seemingly the only non-local in the place, I looked to other patrons for guidance. To my surprise, they were adding the peppers to everything: omelets, sandwiches, soups.
Intrigued, I added a half teaspoon onto the over-easy eggs slathered on my thickly sliced and buttered toast, and I took a bite. It was spicy, tangy, piquant, subtly sweet, and with just a touch of heat. The pepper garnish contrasted beautifully with the rich yolks and breathed new life into the bland toast.
Right then and there I fell for those ruby rascals– and remain enthralled with pickled power to this day.
Turns out Hungarians aren’t the only pepper picklers around, and one version or another of these peppers can be found all over parts of the U.S. and Europe.
Did you know Portland has its own brand as well?
First time I came across Mama Lil’s Peppers was years ago at Nostrana. We ordered their justifiably famous radicchio salad and two pizzas — the spicy sausage pizza and the clam, both of which included Mama Lil’s in its ingredient list.
Huh, I thought; Cathy Whims knows her stuff so I figured this condiment must be really amazing to demand such name-brand mention on her menu. We waited.
The first pizza came, and it was a mind-blower – the crust a revelation of char, air and crunch, the sausage spiced just right, and the combination of homemade mozzarella and provolone working in perfect tandem.
Ditto for the clam — sweet little nuggets of briny chew and again the killer crust (and I love how the waiter leaves an elegant pair of scissors with each pie so that diners may cut slices of their preferred size).
But guess what? It was Mama Lil and her pepper roadshow that ripped up the dance floor – they did a sweet and spicy foxtrot while its lingering tang cut through the richness of meat, clams and blanket of cheese.
Heaven help me, I was smitten with Mama.
I made it a mission to track down these little savory buggers. Soon after, I located them at retail (Whole Foods, New Seasons, Sheridan’s and Fred Meyer, as seen below, to name just a few), sometimes in bulk alongside the olives, and sometimes in jars of their own. I became a regular consumer.
I found myself replenishing my supply with an increasing frequency. One day I’d add Lil’s into a lentil salad for a piquant kick in the pants, and just days later they were all that was needed to make my frittata shine.
I bought more and kept experimenting. I loved the spinach salad dressed simply with avocado oil and pomegranate vinegar and tossed with feta, soy nuts and Lil’s.
Next up grilled cheese sandwiches with Mama Lil’s and smoked cheddar. Grilled flank iron with Mama Lil’s butter. Roasted broccolini, Reggiano, garlic croutons and more Lil’s.
This last dish was one of my favorite usages — and it made the perfect accompaniment to a garlicky roasted chicken.
And like an obsession that takes over you, prolonged exposure meant more frequent usage and greater quantities were necessary to satisfy the need. Which is why I went from buying small amounts in bulk or small jars to this —
Alas, there are worse obsessions than a 4 pound jar of peppers, right? (Need I remind you of Fox News and lederhosen?).
It’s okay — I’ve made peace with it. Now it’s your turn; make room in the fridge.
A new friend is coming to town and you’re going to love her.