Julie Polak knew I was a cook long before she met me. She could smell it in the air. As an employee of Pretty Flowers, a Brunswick-based garden design and maintenance company, Julie tends the ever-changing beds that surround the Bowdoin College president’s house, which is located across the street from mine. That means she works downwind from the external extraction fan that pulls smoke and aromas from my kitchen and pushes them out into the neighborhood.

We met in person about five years ago when Theo (the dog) and I were headed to his favorite trail, conveniently availed to us by a footpath through the president’s side yard. From behind a bed of blooming dahlias, a husky voice tinged with the remnants of a Long Island accent (New York not Maine) told me it was difficult to get any work done when you’re distracted by the smells coming from the kitchen (mine) just across the way.

Julie had been a food lover since art school in Boston in the 1980s, a period when she become particularly fond of good, spicy Chinese and Mexican food. When she moved to Maine in the 1990s, she worked in hospitality, as front of house staff in restaurants and as kitchen help for catering operations. No surprise she has become one of my trusted recipe tasters. Her favorite thus far are the brownies laced with leftover cranberry sauce that I made for a column last November.

Jars of home-grown and ground Aleppo pepper and smoked paprika, courtesy of Julie Polak of Harpswell. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Julie’s first gift to me was smoked alewife pâté, and I often find small bouquets of flowers on my doorstep. For Christmas, she gave me small containers of paprika and Aleppo pepper she’d grown from seed, then harvested, smoked, dried and ground.

I was floored. I find exotic spices “from away” to be both necessary as a cook and troubling as a locavore. Yes, indeed, we are lucky to have several wonderful locally owned spice companies like Gryffon Ridge Spice Merchants in Dresden, Skordo in Brunswick, and Gneiss Spice in Bethel, all of which work hard to bring cooks sustainably sourced spices in as little plastic packaging as possible. My spice cabinet is packed with them.

But in Julie’s gift I had two of my favorites, totally locally produced. Turns out for about 10 years, she’s been growing Capsicum annuum, the iconic pointy red peppers used to make the smoked, only slightly spicy paprika that is widely used in cooking across the Balkan Peninsula, Hungary, Mexico and Spain. She does so with the help of a moveable 20-foot hoop house that extends Maine’s short growing season to accommodate the plants’ preference for warmer climes.


Julie Polak with a handful of her homemade paprika, destined for the potato hash. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

She purchased the seeds that led to her first batch of paprika from Fedco Seed Co., but since she removes many of the seeds from the peppers before smoking and drying the flesh, and plants some of those saved seeds each spring. Julie has also had great success growing cayenne and habanero peppers over the years. When I told her those might be too hot for my taste, she immediately produced a jar of pepper jelly to coax me into trying them.

Aleppo peppers were new last year to Julie’s 40-by-14-foot garden in Harpswell. “I love the mild, sweet spice they offer, so I gave them a try,” she said. The seeds for Aleppo peppers, also called the Halaby pepper, are not among the almost two dozen hot pepper varieties Fedco had in its seed catalog, so she sourced them from a small farm in Michigan.

Aleppo pepper is named after the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, the place from where the spice was almost exclusively exported until about 10 years ago. Now, the spice is largely sourced from Turkey, because of the civil war in Syria. Once the peppers ripen to their burgundy hue, they are semi-dried, de-seeded and coarsely ground.

Aleppo pepper is used in Middle Eastern cuisine to season meat; beans; salads; and muhammara dip, a spicy dip made from walnuts, red bell peppers, pomegranate molasses and breadcrumbs. “The Grammar of Spice” author Kaz Hildebran describes its taste as fruity, sweet and mild with cumin-like undertones. It can be used like any other dried red pepper – sprinkled into tomato sauce, on top of pizza, over pasta and mixed into soups, salad dressings and BBQ sauce – if you understand that it carries only about one third of the heat of grocery store red chili pepper flakes. Adjust it to taste.

If you don’t have any on hand, you can reverse-engineer the taste of Aleppo pepper. In “Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume, Cuisine of the Eastern Mediterranean,” author Silvena Rowe suggests substituting an equal amount of sweet smoked paprika and a good pinch of red chili pepper flakes for a close approximation. Or you can follow my friend Julie’s lead to ensure a steady local supply: Get your hands on some seeds and grow your own.

Harpswell resident Julie Polak sprinkles Aleppo pepper into potato hash. The dish will be served with lamb sausages and a swath of yogurt. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Sorta Spicy Potato Hash Browns with Sausage and Yogurt


After a long day in the garden, Harpswell resident Julie Polak often makes breakfast for dinner from potatoes, onions, spices and an egg. Here, we’ve swapped out the egg for local lamb sausage, and added a sweet potato that was lurking in the pantry and needed using up before it sprouted eyes.

Serves 4

4 cups cubed potatoes
1 cup cubed sweet potatoes
Kosher salt
Olive oil
4-8 thin lamb sausages
1/2 cup diced onion
1 tablespoon smoked paprika, plus more for sprinkling
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper, plus more for sprinkling
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, for garnish
Greek yogurt, for serving

Place the potatoes and sweet potatoes in a 4-quart pot. Cover with cold water. Add a teaspoon of kosher salt. Set the pot over medium high heat to bring the water to a full boil. Continue cooking for 2 minutes at a boil, then drain the partially cooked potatoes and set aside.

Warm 2 tablespoons olive oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add the sausages, cook for 3 minutes, turn them over and cook for 3 more minutes. They should have some browning on both sides. Push them to one side of the pan. Add the onion to the empty part of the pan. Stir to coat in fat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the onions are translucent, and the sausages are fully cooked, 4-6 minutes.

Transfer the cooked sausages to a warm plate. Turn the heat under the pan with the onions to high. Add another tablespoon olive oil, the par-cooked potatoes, the paprika and Aleppo pepper. Stir well so the potatoes are coated in the oil and spices. Spread the potatoes out evenly in the pan and let them cook, untouched, for 3 minutes. Stir the potatoes to loosen them from the pan, spread them out again and cook them, untouched for 3 more minutes. At this point, they should be cooked through. Taste and add salt as needed.

Garnish the hash browns with parsley and serve hot with the sausages and a dollop of yogurt. Sprinkle with extra smoked paprika and Aleppo pepper.

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