Tag Archives: melrose peppers

Melrose Peppers, Another Love Story

This is a story about Melrose Peppers. It is also a story about growing up in Melrose Park surrounded by family. Not everyone can claim that their hometown has a pepper named after it, but I can.

The Melrose pepper, an Italian sweet variety, came to Melrose Park along with many Italian Immigrants. My grandfather was one of those settlers and like so many others he had a garden. When I was little, I was fascinated with the garden across the street from our house. I remember my grandfather spending hours tending the tomato and pepper plants. There were lots of other vegetables, but those are the ones I remember most. I grew up taking for granted that everyone had a giant field of food within walking distance.

Sadly, my grandfather passed away and before long, so did his garden. The field became home to a trio of brick three flats. The tradition of garden fresh produce continued in Melrose Park, however. There was a converted school bus that came down our street several times a week in the summer. Inside was a veritable wonderland of fruits and vegetables. There always seemed to be plum tomatoes and Melrose peppers. That was a convenience that is no longer a reality.

If for some reason we missed the bus, there was always Tom Naples stand. To call it a stand is an understatement. It was huge (at least to an 8-year-old) and had every vegetable imaginable. There were fields of Melrose peppers growing behind his stand. I think he supplied the entire Chicago area Italian population with these sweet little beauties.

They were a staple in Italian kitchens in the summer. Fried in olive oil and seasoned with salt they crowned sausage and Italian beef sandwiches. They could simmer in tomato sauce and in a time when there was plenty of time they could be stuffed with sausage. My favorite treatment was when they were added to scrambled eggs for that Friday Supper Favorite, Pepper and Egg Sandwiches. Tucked into crusty Italian bread there was nothing better. It was delicious enough that I never missed the meat.

Years passed and access to the peppers did too. With all the bounty of produce we experienced living in California, there was never a Melrose Pepper. Once we moved back to Illinois it took some time before I re-discovered them. I have sung the praises of Caputo’s Fresh Market before, but I may love them the most because they reunited me with my cherished peppers.

This year my love affair reached a new level. I actually found Melrose Pepper plants and two have lived happily in my tiny garden plot. They have withstood heat, rain (and lack thereof), and rabbits and have given me if not a bounty at least some tasty meals.

Since I am always interested in the next “Can you grill it?” adventure I thought it was time to put my small bounty of Melrose beauties to the test. What better way then to pair them with one of their most popular partners, Italian sausage. I chose Scratch Family Chicken Italian Sausage because I got to talk to the creator at my favorite Caputo’s and his passion was as remarkable as his sausage. The sausage which is made with natural ingredients tastes remarkably like its pork cousin. The company is local, based in Montgomery, serving a limited market in the Chicago area. I think it’s due to get more widely known.

This sausage is also fully cooked which made it an even better choice for Mama D’s Grill Basket of Love.

While not traditional, I added a few red bell pepper strips for some color and some sliced sweet onions for a bolder flavor. Everything cooked together so the flavors really had a chance to blend. The result was a one dish meal that would have made my grandfather proud.

There isn’t much of a recipe to write. All you need is enough sausage, peppers, and onions to feed your family. Olive oil, maybe a bit of Italian herbs, and a sprinkle of some Pecorino Romano and you are good to go.

As my lead picture indicates, the last batch of peppers are turning their fully ripe crimson, an event that makes them even sweeter. The last peppers are waiting to be picked and I will miss them. A year is a long time to be without them. The season for these little guys is short and they may be hard to find but, keep an eye out for them, they are worth the hunt.

Memories from a Kitchen of Love

Mama D’s Kitchen of Love came to be because of the cooking  I witnessed growing up.  It was the 50’s. My father went off to work every morning and my mom stayed home and took care of the house. Monday was laundry day, Tuesday was for ironing. I don’t remember what specific tasks were assigned to the rest of the days, but I know that everyday at around 4 o’clock it was time to make “supper”.

My mother was a great cook. She was creative and took great pride in the food she created. My father was an amazing cook in his own right and loved to eat. My mother cooked the dishes my father loved. That combination of love and pride are the memories that are foremost in my mind and have influenced how I cook today..

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Every weeknight, except Friday, we’d have meat. Lamb chops, sirloin steaks, and hamburgers were prepared in our electric broiler. This was state of the art for the time. It sat on the counter and had a cast iron broiler tray with a separate rack that fit inside. The plug was a massive three-pronged affair that had to use more electricity than the TV. My mother’s broiling technique was unique. Meat went into the broiler frozen. The seasoning was garlic salt and little else. As strange as this seems to me now, the meat was always perfectly cooked, juicy, and delicious.

I loved summer because the vegetables were always fresh either from my grandfather’s garden or the produce bus that came down our street twice a week. Yes, a bus full of fruits and vegetables. It was a converted school bus that boasted a large bell that announced its arrival and wooden bins heaped with produce where the seats should be. You walked through and chose your produce which was weighed on a hanging sale and put in brown paper bags. My mother brought it home and that’s when the food memories began.

My mother did wonders with those vegetables. The green beans would be cooked and then tossed with olive oil, garlic and fresh mint from the garden to create a beautiful salad.file4021339082680 Melrose peppers were fried in a large saucepan that I still use. file0001269469362They started with the cover on  with a little olive oil and a good dose of salt. Then they were  fried uncovered until tender and slightly golden.

 

 

Tomatoes, OMG the tomatoes! Sliced and served in carpese style (without the cheese). Tomatoes (5)She made the salad early enough so that it would have time to get happy in the refrigerator resulting in a generous amount of olive oily, vinagery, garlicky juice. This juice was the best part because you could bagnare bread. That’s dip in Italian. Italian was not routinely spoken in our home but certain things could only be described with the Italian word.

My mother was an excellent baker. She made pies and cakes and enough Christmas cookies to keep our holiday table loaded for the entire 2 weeks of the season. She made the best buttercream frosting in the world. It was a cooked frosting that was creamy and not too sweet.I have tried for forty years to make this frosting . I can’t do it. I’ve flushed more failed frosting down the drain then I’ve put on cakes in my entire baking career.

The first real food preparation I did was baking Christmas cookies. I started with sifting flour and chopping nuts and gradually worked into cracking eggs and finally running the mixer. We would make at least 10 kinds of cookies  Pinwheels, Candy Canes, Chocolate Chips and the oddly named but delectable Rocks so named because that’s what they looked like.

Rocks    

1 1/2 C Brown Sugar                                           2 1/2 C Flour                                                         1/2 C Butter                                                         3 Eggs                                                                   1 t. Cinnamon                                                      Pinch of Salt                                                       11/2  t Baking Soda –                                          1 large box Raisins                                              mix in 1/4 C hot water                                      1 pound Walnuts

Cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs. Add cinnamon, soda, salt and flour and blend well. Stir in raisins and nuts. Drop by small balls on cookie sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 7 minutes. This recipe makes a ridiculous amount of cookies. Fortunately they are very good.

Like most little girls I learned a lot about cooking from my mother but I learned even more about cooking from my Dad.

To be continued…