The Farmers’ Market is always a feast for the eyes, and some days the feast includes fireworks. Lately I have been admiring the pyrotechnic display of peppers. Stalls are overflowing with specimens of different colors, shapes and sizes. Looking at this bounty, I feel like a child in front of an amazing array of (vegetable) candies, overwhelmed by the range of options.
The numerous members of the species Capsicum annuum are grouped into two broad categories: hot and sweet peppers. The latter lack capsaicin, the compound that gives pungency to hot peppers. Bell peppers are the most common sweet peppers. They can be green (when unripe), red, purple, yellow or orange. Bell peppers are the ultimate versatile vegetable: Whether they are used raw, roasted, stewed or fried, they always perform well. They lend themselves to accompanying meat or fish, and can be used to prepare pasta sauces. Having given up meat over 10 years ago, I make them accompany tofu. Bell peppers can be stuffed or can be an ingredient in stuffing. They are not only flavorful but colorful, and so they please both the palate and the eye. (I will get to the nose in just a paragraph.)
My favorite cooking method for fresh-from-the-market bell peppers is roasting: I love peperoni arrosto . I believe that each person has his or her own personal way of roasting peppers. If you have your tried-and-true technique, by all means use it. Some people prefer to do it over a flame: Earlier this year Bob Doran described his method in this column (“Table Talk,” Jan. 11). I don’t have a gas range, so I roast them in the oven. I like the appetizing smell bell peppers give out while they roast. It thrills my nose.
The baking option comes with different possible combinations of temperature and time. Mine is to place four whole bell peppers resting on their sides in a baking pan lined with foil and roast them at 375 degrees F for about 40 minutes. Every 10 minutes I make the peppers do a quarter turn on their longitudinal axis. As the roasting proceeds, the skins darken and blister. The actual cooking time varies — size and thickness of the bell peppers are important variables — so I frequently check the their progress.
Once they are roasted to my satisfaction, I place the peppers inside a paper bag with a plate underneath, since they will ooze some liquid. Alternatively, you can place them in a bowl and cover it tightly. This step makes the skinning process easier. Once the peppers are cool, I pick up each pepper, open it, remove the core and seeds and slip off the skin. In the process, I break the pepper into wide strips, which I then spread on a serving plate.
A short detour: During my most recent visit to the farmers’ market, I purchased two flat sweet peppers, enchanted by their peculiar shape. I roasted them with two bell peppers. Because of the shape, the flat peppers can only be in a vertical position, so while they were in the oven I made them alternatively stand up and be upside-down. They were meaty and tasty and contributed quite nicely to the final dish.
Back on the main road and to the seasoning: I mince two cloves of garlic and mix them with half a tablespoon of minced fresh oregano and a tablespoon of minced fresh parsley, then distribute the mixture over the pepper strips. I sprinkle some salt and freshly-ground black pepper and finish off the dish with a thread of olive oil. I let the roasted peppers rest for an hour or so, serving them at room temperature. If I need to store them in the fridge, I take them out early enough before serving time to allow them to regain room temperature, because I don’t like them fridge-cold.
The seasoning for my roasted peppers, minus the oregano, is an old friend. The addition of oregano was suggested to me by a recipe displayed on a website dedicated to Italian author Andrea Camilleri. His most famous novels (some are available in English translation) narrate the adventures of a gourmet Sicilian police inspector and contain a lot of culinary references that lately have been a source of inspiration.
My other favorite recipe using roasted bell peppers is a personal interpretation of involtini di peperoni (bell pepper rolls). I choose tallish symmetrical bell peppers for this dish, in order to have relatively long and nicely cut strips that are easy to roll, and I roast them, skin side up, already cut into quarters, cored and seeded, which precludes turning them. (You could certainly roast the peppers whole as before, then cut each into four strips.) The oven temperature is the same as before, the baking time shorter (30 minutes or so, with the usual variability). The quarantine in the paper bag or bowl is the same and the subsequent peeling should produce eight even-size strips ready to become the substrate for a savory filling. Two bell pepper rolls should serve four people with two rolls each. They make a tasty appetizer.
The recipe for bell pepper rolls is more like a framework, in the sense that once you have the base you can let your imagination run and mix and match ingredients to make different fillings. To start with, you may want to try to roll the strips around a piece of fresh mozzarella, whose sweetness and softness match those of the bell pepper wrap. Once you become familiar with the process (or devoted to it, as has recently happened to me), you can get creative and choose ingredients that contribute different nuances.
My most recent combination includes two tablespoons each of small capers, rinsed and drained; pecans, lightly roasted in a dry skillet and finely chopped with a knife (about eight halves); raisins, first soaked in warm water for 15 minutes then drained and chopped; minced fresh parsley; and soft bread crumbs. I combine all the ingredients and add two teaspoons of olive oil (or more, if you like), a pinch of salt and some fresh-ground black pepper. I mix well and then let rest for a little while.
The mixture is enough to allow you to apportion one tablespoon of filling to each bell pepper strip. Place the filling at one end of the strip and roll it up. Place the rolls in an oiled frying pan and warm up on low until they are heated through. Serve immediately and enjoy little fireworks of flavor in your mouth, which will probably leave behind a sweet longing for more.
Event reminder : Humboldt County’s Local Food Month rolls to a close Sunday Sept. 30 with the Taste of Place Gourmet Garden Dinner hosted by the Community Alliance with Family Farmers at Redwood Roots Farm in Bayside. Local chefs, including Jon Hoeschen (from WildPlatters Café) and Brett Schuler (of Brett Schuler’s Fine Catering), are assembling a farm-fresh menu (omnivorous with a vegetarian option) to be paired with local wines. Dinner starts at 4 p.m. Tickets are $65 or two for $100. Contact CAFF at 444-3255 for reservations and further details.
4 bell peppers 2 cloves of garlic, minced 1/2 Tbsp minced fresh oregano 1 Tbsp minced fresh parsley salt, freshly-ground black pepper and olive oil, to taste
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Place peppers in a baking pan lined with foil.
Roast for about 40 minutes. Turn peppers every 10 minutes.
Place roasted peppers in a paper bag.
When cool, open peppers, remove cores and seeds and slip off the skin.
Break peppers into wide strips and spread them on a serving plate.
Distribute garlic, oregano and parsley over the strips.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and season with olive oil.
Serve as a side dish.
Involtini di Peperoni
2 bell peppers, quartered, cored seeded and roasted 2 Tbsp small capers, rinsed and drained 2 Tbsp pecans, lightly roasted in a dry skillet and finely chopped (about 8 halves) 2 Tbsp raisins, soaked in warm water for 15 mins., drained & chopped 2 Tbsp minced fresh parsley 2 Tbsp soft bread crumbs 2 tsp olive oil (or more, to taste) salt and pepper to taste
Combine filling ingredients.
Place a tablespoon of filling at end of bell pepper strip and make a roll.
Place all the rolls in an oiled pan and warm on low heat.