Some like it hot, as the saying goes, but those heat-seekers better also be gamblers if they're looking to pimientos de Padrón to stoke their flames: Only about one in ten of the small green peppers from the Spanish municipality of Padrón, in Galicia, are wildly hot, while the rest are as mild as a green bell pepper.
The exciting part is that it's pretty much impossible to tell them apart until you actually put one your mouth. It's part of what makes eating them so damn exciting, though I gotta admit: I love their flavor so much that I'd be perfectly content knocking back a bowl without the added adrenaline of a game of capsicum roulette.
I'm not sure when I started seeing U.S.-grown Padrón peppers, but I'm glad they seem to be so prevalent now. Even my local Safeway has started carrying them from time to time. Like New Mexican Hatch chilies, some folks may say that Padrón peppers can't rightfully be called Padrón peppers unless they're actually grown in Padrón. Suffice it to say, it's the same cultivar with the same eating qualities no matter where it takes root these days.
As with many Spanish ingredients, the best way to prepare Padrón peppers is with plenty of heat, plenty of olive oil, a pinch of salt, and not much else. If you own a good cast iron pan, now is the time to pull that sucker out, because nothing handles high-heat searing better than cast iron.
A little while back, Daniel Gritzer did a great set of experiments testing whether or not it's ok to sear and fry with extra-virgin olive oil. His well-documented results imply that in almost all situations, searing or frying with olive oil is perfectly fine. There are, however, a scant few situations in which I personally prefer to avoid it, and they all involve cooking relatively delicately-flavored items at ridiculously hot temperatures.
I've tried frying Padrón peppers in pure, smoking hot olive oil, but the high heat produces a more intense peppery, pungent flavor in the softer and sweeter Spanish Arbequina olive oil I prefer to use for this dish. It's a characteristic that's not necessarily bad in all contexts, and one that with a more robustly flavored dish like, say, a steak or a pork chop, may not even be noticed, but Padrón peppers have enough of that back-of-the-throat pungency on their own without having to be overwhelmed with overheated olive oil.
For these peppers, I stick with searing in a neutral oil like canola or grapeseed. I start by first heating the oil to its smoke point in a cast iron skillet, and then add the peppers in a single layer, cooking them without moving for a good 30 seconds until they're deeply blistered and charred.
A few tosses and in less than two minutes they're ready to come out. Now is the time to drizzle them with that extra-virgin olive oil (and plenty of it!) and give them a big sprinkle of coarse sea salt, which not only seasons the peppers, but also gives them some extra texture.
There. You've got yourself one of the finest (not to mention most exciting) bar snacks to ever grace the earth. And yes, if you want to sound fancy and cosmopolitan, go ahead and call them tapas and serve them with sherry (or, keep it Galicia-style with some hard cider), though woe befall the diner who gets one of the really hot ones without some good, cheap, ice cold, guzzle-able beer or wine close at hand!
P.S. If you're in a grilling mood, I can't recommend charring Padrón peppers on the grill highly enough!