Located at the southern tip of Italy, Calabria forms the toe of the Italian boot and is adjacent to the island of Sicily. The hot, Mediterranean climate provides the perfect conditions for growing peppers. Ever since they were brought to Italy from the New World, chile peppers (known as pepperoncini) have been embraced by the people of southern Italy and become essential to their culinary heritage. One of their favorite uses is Calabrian chile paste.
How the Paste Is Made:
The most popular method for preserving peppers for use year-round is to dry them. Calabria gets about 300 sunny days a year, and the summers can be dry and hot, which makes it easy to preserve much of the harvest by drying. To make the paste, the dried peppers are ground up with extra virgin olive oil, salt, and sometimes a little vinegar to help preserve the color and flavor. The olive oil picks up the bright red color from the peppers, and the slight bitter flavor of the oil works well with the intense heat of the chiles.
It’s important to remember that a little goes a long way when using Calabrian chili paste. The intense heat can overwhelm other flavors, so it’s best used in a supporting role or as a substitute for your favorite hot sauce.
This may seem obvious, but it’s still worth mentioning. Kicking up pasta dishes with a teaspoon or two of chili paste will add a whole new dimension of heat and bright, spicy flavor. Cook some minced garlic in olive oil until softened. Add the Calabrian chile paste and al dente pasta, toss rapidly until a sauce forms; then dust with a salty sheep’s cheese.
Add a little heat to shrimp dishes, make a spicy dipping sauce for fried calamari, or spice up the simmering tomato sauce for Calabrian swordfish.
A touch of chile paste added to creamy scrambled or poached eggs is another tried-and-true application. The richness of the egg yolks balances the fiery heat of the chile paste. Serve with a slice of fresh bread or focaccia.
Bagel and Cream Cheese
Whip some chili paste into a fresh block of cream cheese to add a fiery burst of flavor to your morning bagel. The flavors work particularly well with sesame, everything seasoning, and green olive bagels.
Our Favorite Calabrian Chili Pastes
- Tutto Calabria, Paté di Peperoncino, $13.95
- This smoother paste is easy to blend into any dish you like, and gives you more control than other pastes over how much you add. With a bright flavor and deep red appearance, this paste features 100% Calabrian-grown peppers.
- Italian Harvest, Bomba di Calabria, $11.75
- Made with 100% extra virgin olive oil, the Bomba di Calabria sauce also features Calabrian-grown peppers and is produced in the region.
- Sanniti Calabrian Hot Crushed Peppers, $11.99
- This paste features bigger chunks of pepper and is manufactured in Calabria, but it uses sunflower oil instead of olive oil, which leads to a less complex flavor.