Pimentos are familiar to anyone who's ever dropped an olive into a glass of gin. Commonly used to stuff green cocktail olives, these red strips of soft, sweet pepper can be purchased separately in jars or cans to use as a garnish. Although they are a common sight, few give any thought to their origin.
The Origin of the Term
Pimentos are a variety of capsicum, or pepper. The misleading name results from explorer Christopher Columbus, who found natives of the New World eating a vegetable with a fiery, peppery heat. Reasoning that it must in some way be related to black pepper, one of the objects of his voyage, he proudly presented it as such on his return. The English corrupted the Spanish word pimiento, or pepper, to pimento in English, and English-speakers perpetuate Columbus' misnomer to this day when they speak of chilli "peppers."
Although the term pimiento in Spanish is applied to all peppers, in English it refers to one specifically. These are a large, red chilli pepper, almost comparable in size to the sweet bell peppers widely sold in American supermarkets. They are very mild for the most part, providing just enough chilli heat to be discernible while remaining gentle enough for the most timid of palates. The ripe peppers are vividly red, with thick fleshy walls and a distinctively heart-shaped growth pattern.
In Spain, pimentos are widely available in season as a fresh vegetable. They can be eaten cooked or raw in the same ways as any other sweet pepper. Dried pimentos can be ground to make paprika, which is one of the signature ingredients of Spanish cuisine. In America, pimentos are almost invariably in preserved form. They may be found as a garnish and flavouring ingredient in olives, cheese or luncheon meat, and are sold roasted or pickled in cans and jars.
Uses of Pimentos
The pickled variety of pimentos provides a pleasantly tart accent to rich canapes, strongly flavoured cheeses and sandwiches filled with cold cuts. The roasted variety can be used as a substitute for freshly roasted red peppers in any recipe. They can be puréed and seasoned to make a roasted pepper coulis, an excellent sauce to serve with chicken or pork dishes. Use puréed pimentos in vinaigrettes or mayonnaise-type dressings, where they add flavour and colour. Pimentos make a good emergency ingredient to keep in the cupboard for use in pasta dishes or on pizzas.