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3:28 am
Wed October 3, 2012

It's Time To Pick A Peck Of Peppers

Originally published on Wed October 10, 2012 9:10 am

Ripe sweet peppers are seasonal ambassadors, offering color, flavor, goodwill and diplomacy during the transition from summer to autumn cooking. Sweet peppers surge into ripeness in late summer and flourish into fall. Supplies wind down about the time trees let go of their leaves.

Now is the time to pick up a peck of them for what a single sad specimen will cost come January. When in season and plentiful, peppers are a bargain.

The things that we call peppers are actually chilies, not peppers at all. The misnomer started with a persistent case of mistaken identity and wishful thinking by Spanish and Portuguese explorers who confused New World capsicums — chili plants — with the plants that produce peppercorns, one of the profitable spices they had hoped to discover during their travels. Chilies are berries because they are the seed pods of the plants, botanically speaking. That means chilies are a berry that we call peppers, and use as both vegetables and spices.

Botanists and culinary historians tell us that peppers are native to Central and South America, originating in the wild and domesticated by indigenous peoples. When trade ships began to crisscross the globe during the 16th century, they carried peppers that got planted on new shores. Cultivated varieties now grow in all but the coldest of climates. Compared with costly exotic spices, locally grown peppers quickly became an easy and low-cost way for people around the world to flavor their food.

Some peppers are hot, but the rest are not. Hot peppers contain varying levels of capsaicin, a colorless, odorless but unmistakable fiery compound. Mild and sweet peppers carry a recessive gene that keeps them from forming capsaicin. The only way to know a pepper is to taste it, but in general most sweet peppers are green while unripe and change into colors (usually red, orange, yellow or purple) and continue to sweeten as they mature. Sweet peppers tend to grow much larger than hot peppers. They also become more digestible as they ripen, which is why ripe peppers cause less gastrointestinal distress than green peppers.

Peppers are among the few foods that are enjoyed raw and cooked, fresh and dried, whole and ground. Although fire-breathing chili heads might disagree, most cooks and eaters prefer preserved hot peppers and fresh sweet peppers. Whether dried, smoked, pulverized or pickled, hot peppers can retain their pungency for months. Fresh peppers are a more fleeting treat.

This is prime time for vibrant sweet peppers. Almost any shopper can find at least one. Even pedestrian grocery store peppers often taste better and cost less this time of year, while they are grown and picked more locally. Explore local farmers markets and ethnic markets to discover more intriguing peppers, including obscure but treasured heirloom varieties. Beyond the ubiquitous bells, we can celebrate Corno di Toro, Marconi and other Italian frying peppers, plus pimento, piquillo, poblano, espellete, Cubanelle and cherry. They are crisp and aromatic when raw, silky and alluring when cooked.

Pepper season is sailing by; don't miss the boat.


How To Roast Ripe Peppers

No vegetable benefits from roasting more than ripe sweet peppers. Roasting intensifies their natural sweetness and removes their thin, tough skins. It's easy to do. You can roast a single pepper or a whole batch at once. The only requirement is a source of direct high heat. That can be a broiler or the open flame of a gas burner on the stove or grill.

The heat caramelizes the sugars in the peppers, so they must be ripe enough to have developed sugars. So don't try this with an unripe green pepper, because all you will get is an acrid, burned green pepper. (This caveat does not apply to green chilies because the point of roasting them is to char the skins, not sweeten the flesh.)

Leave the peppers whole and do not oil them. If using a broiler, arrange the peppers on a foil-lined baking sheet. If using a gas burner or grill (either gas or charcoal), place them directly on the grate as close to the heat source as possible. (Turn on the vent if doing this indoors.) Roast the peppers until they are blistered and blackened all over, turning as needed with tongs. Don't stop until they look ruined. Transfer the charred peppers into a large bowl and cover with plastic wrap, or enclose them in a zip-top plastic bag. Let the peppers rest until they are cool enough to handle. The captured steam will finish cooking them. Gently pull out the stem and core of each pepper; most of the seeds will come out still attached to the core. Gently rub or peel off the blackened skin. It's fine if a few charred bits stay stuck to the flesh. Do not rinse the peppers, or you will wash away their great flavor and waste your efforts.

Use the peppers at once, or cover and refrigerate up to three days. You also can freeze the peppers in an airtight container for up to three months. Frozen peppers retain their flavor, but they soften, so they are best used in cooked dishes.


Roasted Fingerling Potato Salad With Lemon-Basil Vinaigrette

This potato salad is full of unexpected twists in texture and seasoning. Roasted potatoes are dressed with vinaigrette that is tangy with lemon and bright with basil. It contains not a speck of mayonnaise, making this a great salad for picnics, tailgate parties and potlucks. The beauty of this golden salad laced with ribbons of red pepper and green basil will draw people to the platter. The recipe is from The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers' Markets, Roadside Stands and CSA Farm Boxes by Sheri Castle (University of North Carolina Press 2011).

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Salad

2 pounds fingerling potatoes or other waxy variety

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 large roasted red ripe peppers, cut into thin strips (about 1 1/2 cups)

1/2 cup finely chopped shallots

1/4 cup lightly packed basil leaves, cut into thin ribbons

3/4 cup coarsely grated Parmesan, Manchego or other hard grating cheese

Lemon-Basil Vinaigrette

Zest of 1 lemon (about 2 teaspoons)

Juice of 2 lemons (about 1/3 cup)

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/2 cup lightly packed basil leaves

1 tablespoon whole-grain Dijon mustard

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil.

Cut potatoes in half lengthwise. Transfer to baking sheet, drizzle with oil, toss to coat and spread in a single layer. For extra-crispy edges, arrange cut-side down. Roast until tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes. Do not overcook or they will fall apart in the salad.

Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette.

Pulse the lemon zest, lemon juice, garlic, basil and mustard in a blender until chopped. With the blender running, add oil in slow, steady stream. Season with salt and pepper.

Transfer hot potatoes into a shallow serving bowl or platter. Toss gently with vinaigrette. Let cool to room temperature, tossing occasionally.

Gently mix in roasted peppers, shallots, basil and cheese. Season generously with salt and pepper.

Serve at room temperature.


Skillet-Scorched Shishitos

Shishitos hail from Japan and are a new darling of the pepper-eating world, showing up in farmers markets and well-stocked grocery stores all over the place. Despite being small and green, they have only a whisper of heat, except for the occasional random one that is hot enough to make you blink a little. Eating through a batch of shishitos is like a game of Russian roulette because you never know whether the next one will be the one that gets you. To up the ante, mix in a few of the more spirited Spanish padrón chilies, which look similar to shishitos. The result is a mix of delicious, salty, addictive treats that will either melt in your mouth or melt away a little of your tongue.

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 cups whole shishito and/or padrón chilies

Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon or fleur du sel

Heat oil in large cast-iron skillet. When oil shimmers, add chilies and toss to coat. Cook, tossing occasionally, until chilies begin to blister and char in spots, about 5 minutes.

Sprinkle liberally with salt and serve immediately.


Newfangled Stuffed Peppers

Any community cookbook and most family recipe boxes contain at least one recipe for stuffed peppers, usually green bells filled with a ground meat mixture and topped with a little tomato sauce. This recipe takes a new tack. Juicy and tender roasted peppers are stuffed with a tuna and bread crumb filling studded with currants, capers, fresh herbs and a hint of orange. Serve as an entree or as an appetizer atop grilled bread or salad greens. They are good warm or at room temperature, making them ideal for entertaining or make-ahead meals.

Beyond colorful bells, consider long, meaty Italian frying peppers, such as Cubanelle, Marconi or Corno di Toro. Large pimentos make charming little bowls, particularly the squat, pumpkin-shaped variety often called cheese or sheepnose pimentos. Premium oil-packed tuna is key to the filling because it is silky and deeply flavored, not bland and watery. For a vegetarian version of this dish, replace the tuna with cooked white beans and extra olive oil.

You can fill the peppers up to 1 day ahead. Store covered and refrigerated. Increase the baking time by about 5 minutes. The recipe is from The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers' Markets, Roadside Stands and CSA Farm Boxes by Sheri Castle (University of North Carolina Press 2011).

Makes 4 entree or 8 appetizer servings

8 large ripe, red, sweet peppers, roasted whole and cooled

8 ounces tuna packed in olive oil, preferably fillets in a jar

2 tablespoons currants, soaked in hot water for 10 minutes then drained

1 cup fresh bread crumbs from crusty bread

1/4 cup pitted ripe black olives, such as kalamatas, chopped

3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

3 tablespoons chopped basil

3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons capers, drained

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 teaspoon fennel seed

2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest

1 tablespoon fresh orange juice

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, or to taste

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, as needed

1/4 cup coarsely grated Asiago, Pecorino, or Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

If peppers are long, make a slit down one side of each pepper and open like a book. Remove stem and seeds. Arrange peppers in a single layer on a work surface. If peppers are more round, remove stems and seeds but leave intact like a little bowl.

Drain tuna in a mesh sieve set over a small bowl, reserving oil. Transfer tuna into a large bowl and break fillets into large bite-size pieces. Gently stir in 3 tablespoons of reserved oil, currants, bread crumbs, olives, pine nuts, basil, parsley, capers, garlic, fennel seed, orange zest and orange juice in a medium mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper.

Divide filling among the peppers. Fold peppers closed, roll up to enclose filling, or leave open at the top, depending on their shape.

Place peppers in a 9-by-13-inch glass or ceramic baking dish. Drizzle with remaining 3 tablespoons of tuna oil. If there is not enough tuna oil, make up the difference with olive oil. Sprinkle with cheese and bake until cheese melts and filling is warm, about 15 minutes. Serve warm or let cool to room temperature.


Freezer Slaw

This colorful, creative slaw is a real keeper. Like most slaws, it tastes best when served within a couple of days after it's made, but it also holds in the freezer up to 3 months. In the freezer. Honest. When packed into airtight containers, it retains all its flavor and much of its crunch, like magic. Because it contains an impressive variety of late summer and early fall vegetables, this recipe is a great way to use up a bounty of produce before the first killing frost.

Try this slaw on hot dogs, grilled brats or barbecue sandwiches, or as an accompaniment to simple legumes such as a pot of beans or lentils. The recipe is from The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers' Markets, Roadside Stands and CSA Farm Boxes by Sheri Castle (University of North Carolina Press 2011).

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 1/4 pounds green cabbage, cored and finely chopped

1 pound sweet peppers, stemmed, cored and finely chopped

8 ounces yellow onion, finely chopped

8 ounces green tomatoes, cored and finely chopped

1 tablespoon kosher salt

3/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup cider vinegar

1 teaspoon whole yellow mustard seed

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/2 teaspoon celery seed

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

You can chop the vegetables on a box grater or in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. (The processor's shredding disc leaves the pieces too long and stringy.) Do not fill the bowl more than halfway, and use short pulses so that the vegetables bounce up and down over the blade instead of grinding into mush.

Toss together cabbage, peppers, onion, tomatoes and salt in a colander set inside a large bowl. Cover and set aside at room temperature for 1 hour or refrigerate overnight. Discard the accumulated liquid. Transfer the vegetables into a large bowl.

Bring the sugar, vinegar, mustard seed, dry mustard, turmeric, celery seed and ginger to a boil in a small saucepan over high heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Pour over vegetables and mix well.

Cover and refrigerate until chilled, at least 4 hours and up to 3 days. For longer storage, pack slaw into airtight containers and freeze up to 3 months. Thaw before serving.


Roasted Pepper And Pear Soup

Beautiful and aromatic, this soup is like a bowl of fragrant liquid rubies. It's ideal for the transitional season when summer crops are slowing down and the early fall crops are ramping up. The weather is usually mixed as well, with hot days downshifting into cool evenings when a little warm soup would taste good. The pears play well with the natural fruity sweetness of the roasted peppers. Likewise, the smoked paprika boosts the smokiness from the roasting, especially if the peppers are charred on a grill. An elegant way to serve this soup is to ladle it into a shallow soup plate and float a thin slice of a bloomy, rich, aged goat cheese in the center, instead of the creme fraiche and chips. The recipe is from The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers' Markets, Roadside Stands and CSA Farm Boxes by Sheri Castle (University of North Carolina Press 2011).

Makes about 2 quarts

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 cups peeled and chopped carrots

3/4 cup chopped shallots or leeks

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

4 cups chicken stock

2 large, very ripe pears, cored, peeled and chopped (about 3 cups)

8 large, sweet red peppers, roasted, peeled and seeded (about 8 cups)

1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste

1/2 cup pear nectar, plus more as needed

1 teaspoon smoked paprika (pimenton), or to taste

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

Creme fraiche, for garnish

Root vegetable chips, for garnish

Heat oil in large, heavy pot over medium heat. Add carrots, shallots and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to soften, but not brown, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute.

Add stock, pears, roasted peppers and salt. Bring soup just to a boil; reduce the heat and let the soup simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes.

Puree in a blender (working in batches to not fill the blender more than half full) and return to pot, or puree the soup directly in the pot with an immersion blender. Stir in pear nectar and season the soup with the smoked paprika and cayenne. If the soup is too thick, thin with more nectar.

Cool to room temperature, cover and refrigerate at least overnight and up to 3 days.

Return to room temperature or reheat gently over medium heat, stirring often. The subtle flavors and aromas are best when the soup is not piping hot. Check the seasoning.

To serve, ladle into shallow bowls and top with a dollop of creme fraiche and a few chips.

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