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Modernist Christmas: Shishito Peppers with Pomegranate Caviar

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The holiday season is full of traditions, particularly when it comes to food. Everyone has a different must-eat food during the season, from Christmas cookies to ham to pannetone. While I respect and admire festive classicists for keeping tradition alive, I also welcome innovation, and I figured I'd start with the holiday appetizer.

It's a small, unassuming course and there are often so many of them spread out on the buffet table, why not slip a little something modernist in there along with the cheese balls and beef logs?

Recently I've been obsessed to the point of possessed with shishito peppers. Shishitos are about the length of a jalapeno but thinner and more malleable to the touch. They're also not quite as fiery but definitely pack a healthy dose of lingering, pleasant heat. They are very common in Asian markets, but if you can't find shishitos you'd do fine substituting another small pepper, as long as you can stand the heat.

My favorite serving method for shishito peppers is to blister their outsides then drizzle them in olive oil and salt, but I've been making them this way for months and I recognize that it's time for a change.

I contemplated what was missing from my standard preparation and decided that a little sweetness might complement their spiciness well, but also with a hint of acid. I dismissed citrus as too intense (plus what was I going to do, douse them in lemonade?). I settled on pomegranate; its slightly tart properties are mellowed by the underlying sweetness.

I'm also not going to lie, the green and red color contrast did not escape me (Merry Modernist Christmas, indeed!). The chiles en nogada vibe is in full effect, but without the heaviness or hours of labor.

The real fun came in when I put my nerdy scientista thinking cap on and pondered how to make the dish suitable for this column. Pomegranate foam seemed a tad too 2001, plus even pomegranate is not quite strong enough to sustain its robust flavor in a foam, which is a substance better suited to extremely strong tastes such as Sriracha or straight citrus juice.

Pomegranate arils are naturally spherified, but I got to thinking. What if I left half of the arils in their natural state and spherified the other half to make pomegranate caviar? This way there is a surprise textural element that shocks people a little when they first try the dish expecting the sensation of biting into a classic pomegranate aril.

The soft, jellylike pomegranate caviar in contrast with the crunchy and springy raw aril is just unexpected enough to delight us. Have yourself a Merry Modernist Christmas.

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