Julie Polak knew I was a cook long before she met me. She could feel it in the air. As an employee of Pretty Flowers, a Brunswick-based garden design and maintenance company, Julie tends to the ever-changing beds that surround the Bowdoin College President’s House, which is located across the street from mine. . This means it works downwind of the external exhaust fan that pulls smoke and aromas from my kitchen and expels them into the neighborhood.
We met in person about five years ago when Theo (the dog) and I were heading to his favorite trail, accessible by a path through the President’s side yard. From behind a bed of blooming dahlias, a raspy voice tinged with the remnants of a Long Island (New York not Maine) accent told me it’s hard to do anything when you’re distracted by smells coming from the kitchen (mine) just opposite.
Julie had been a foodie since attending Boston School of Fine Arts in the 1980s, when she became particularly attached to good spicy Chinese and Mexican cuisine. When she moved to Maine in the 1990s, she worked in the hospitality industry, as a host in restaurants, and as a kitchen helper for restaurant operations. No wonder she’s become one of my trusted recipe tasters. His favorites so far are the brownies with leftover cranberry sauce that I made for a column last November.
The first gift Julie gave me was smoked gaspereau pâté, and I often find small bouquets of flowers outside my door. For Christmas, she gave me small containers of paprika and Aleppo peppers that she had grown from seeds, then harvested, smoked, dried and ground.
I was floored. I find exotic spices “from elsewhere” both necessary as a cook and unsettling as a locavore. Yes indeed, we are fortunate to have several wonderful local spice companies like Gryffon Ridge Spice Merchants in Dresden, Skordo in Brunswick and Gneiss Spice in Bethel, all working hard to bring sustainably sourced spices to cooks. in as little plastic packaging as possible. possible. My spice cabinet is full of them.
But in Julie’s gift I had two of my favorites, totally locally produced. It turns out that for about 10 years she’s been growing Capsicum annuum, the iconic pointed red peppers used to make the mildly spiced smoky paprika that’s widely used in the cuisine of the Balkan Peninsula, Hungary, Mexico, and India. Spain. She does this using a 20-foot moving hoop that extends Maine’s short growing season to accommodate the plants’ preference for warmer climates.
She bought the seeds that led to her first batch of paprika from Fedco Seed Co., but since she removes many seeds from the peppers before smoking and drying the flesh, she plants some of those saved seeds every spring. . Julie has also had great success growing Cayenne and Habanero peppers over the years. When I told her these might be too hot for my taste, she immediately pulled out a jar of pepper jelly to persuade me to try them.
Aleppo peppers were new last year to Julie’s 40ft by 14ft garden in Harpswell. “I love the mild and sweet spices they offer, so I gave them a try,” she said. Aleppo pepper seeds, also called Halaby peppers, aren’t one of the nearly two dozen varieties of hot peppers Fedco had in its seed catalog, so it purchased them from a small farm in Michigan.
Aleppo pepper takes its name from the city of Aleppo in northern Syria, from where the spice was almost exclusively exported until about 10 years ago. Today, the spice comes largely from Turkey, due to the civil war in Syria. Once the peppers have reached their burgundy hue, they are semi-dried, seeded and coarsely ground.
Aleppo pepper is used in Middle Eastern cuisine to season meat; Beans; salads; and muhammara dip, a spicy dip made with nuts, red peppers, pomegranate molasses and breadcrumbs. The author of “The Grammar of Spice”, Kaz Hildebran, describes its taste as fruity, sweet and sweet with undertones of cumin. It can be used like any other dried red pepper – sprinkled in tomato sauce, on pizza, on pasta, and mixed into soups, salad dressings and barbecue sauce – if you understand that it only carries about a third of the heat from the grocery store red pepper flakes. Adjust it to taste.
If you don’t have any on hand, you can reverse engineer the taste of Aleppo pepper. In “Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume, Cuisine of the Eastern Mediterranean,” author Silvena Rowe suggests substituting an equal amount of sweet smoked paprika and a good pinch of red pepper flakes for a close approximation. Or you can follow my friend Julie’s lead to ensure a steady local supply: get your hands on some seeds and grow your own.
Sorta spicy hash browns with sausage and yogurt
After a long day in the garden, Harpswell resident Julie Polak often cooks breakfast for dinner from potatoes, onions, spices and an egg. Here we replaced the egg with local lamb sausage and added a sweet potato that was hiding in the pantry and had to be used before it sprouted from the eyes.
For 4 people
4 cups cubed potatoes
1 cup cubed sweet potatoes
4 to 8 thin lamb sausages
1/2 cup diced onion
1 tbsp smoked paprika, plus more for sprinkling
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper, plus more for sprinkling
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, for garnish
Greek yogurt, for serving
Place potatoes and sweet potatoes in a 4-quart saucepan. Cover with cold water. Add a teaspoon of kosher salt. Set the pot over medium-high heat to bring the water to a full boil. Continue cooking for 2 minutes at a boil, then drain the partially cooked potatoes and set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the sausages, cook for 3 minutes, turn them over and cook for another 3 minutes. They should have a little browning on both sides. Push them to one side of the pan. Add the onion to the empty part of the pan. Stir to coat with fat. Reduce heat to medium and cook until onions are translucent and sausages are cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes.
Transfer the cooked sausages to a warm plate. Lower the heat under the pan with the onions over high heat. Add another tablespoon of olive oil, the half-cooked potatoes, the paprika and the Aleppo pepper. Mix well so that the potatoes are coated with oil and spices. Spread the potatoes evenly in the pan and cook, without touching them, for 3 minutes. Wiggle the potatoes to loosen them from the pan, spread them again and cook without touching them for 3 more minutes. At this point, they should be well cooked. Taste and salt as needed.
Garnish the hash browns with parsley and serve hot with the sausages and a dollop of yogurt. Sprinkle with additional smoked paprika and Aleppo pepper.
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