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Sweet Bell Peppers

Roasting brings out the best in these colorful vegetables

Fine Cooking Issue 72
Photos: Scott Phillips
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High summer is the season for sweet, crunchy bell peppers. Although they’re available year-round, this is the season when these beautiful fruit (yes, they’re technically fruit) are most abundant, most reasonably priced, and possibly even locally grown.

Bell peppers aren’t the only variety of sweet pepper, but they’re definitely the most famous (the term sweet pepper distinguishes it from the other main branch of the pepper family, the pungent chiles). And like most peppers, bells start out green before ripening to their mature color, which is most often red, yellow, or orange, although some varieties turn purple, pearl white, or chocolate brown. Green bell peppers are actually unripe, which explains their slightly bitter, less sweet flavor. They have their place in some dishes, but I tend to substitute ripe (red, yellow, or orange) bell peppers for green because I prefer their gentler flavor.

Raw or cooked, fully ripe sweet peppers are delicious, but they’re perhaps at their best when roasted. The sugars caramelize, and the softened flesh makes a pleasing addition to sauces, sandwiches, pastas, and much more. Raw peppers add a wonderfully sweet crunch to salads, or you can grill, sauté, or bake peppers to equally good effect (see the sidebar at far right). As for flavor partners, sweet peppers are very adaptable, pairing nicely with almost all other summer vegetables, with most herbs, and especially with pungent foods like black olives, capers, and anchovies.

How to roast peppers

You can “roast” bell peppers in an oven, on a grill, over a gas flame, even in a fireplace, but all the methods aim for the same result: blackened skin that, once cool, peels easily away from the flesh, which has become soft and tender from the heat. My favorite method is under the broiler.

Position an oven rack to 6 to 7 inches below the broiler element and heat the broiler. Put the whole peppers on a baking sheet and broil until the skins are blistered and blackened, about 5 minutes. Turn carefully with tongs to expose an uncooked side and broil again until blackened. Repeat until the peppers are charred on all sides. Transfer them to a large bowl, cover the bowl with a dinner plate, and let the peppers steam for at least 15 to 20 minutes or until cool.

Working over the bowl to catch the juices, peel the skin off a pepper, pull out the stem and seed cluster, and separate the pepper into wide strips. Strip away any remaining seeds and trim off any white membrane. Layer the slices in a container and repeat with the remain­ing peppers. Strain the collected juices over the peppers. Cover and refrigerate for up to a week or freeze for several weeks.

Peel off the pepper skin with a wet hand. By moistening your hand, rather than the pepper, with running water, you won’t wash away the pepper’s sweet flavor.

Fun appetizers with roasted peppers

Make bruschetta by brushing slices of country-style bread with olive oil, grilling until golden, then rubbing with a peeled clove of garlic. Then top with one of the following:

  • warmed goat cheese and diced or sliced roasted pepper.
  • a basil leaf, roasted peppers, and a drizzle of olive oil.
  • tapenade or chopped sautéed mushrooms and a strip of roasted pepper.

Use the cavity of tender inner romaine leaves or Belgian endive leaves as a cup to hold a mixture of diced red peppers, chickpeas, crumbled feta, and lemon juice. Grind on some black pepper and set a strip of roasted pepper on top.

Roll up wide strips of roasted peppers with cubed mozzarella, basil, and prosciutto. Secure with a toothpick.

Pretty bruschetta: Top grilled bread with warmed goat cheese, diced roasted peppers, chopped basil, and a drizzle of olive oil.

Cooking with roasted peppers

For a pretty antipasto, arrange roasted peppers on a dish and sprinkle with chopped chives and parsley, minced garlic, capers, and perhaps coarsely chopped anchovies. Scatter more chopped herbs over the top and drizzle with good olive oil.

For a sandwich with a kick, spread a wrap with horse­radish mayonnaise, top with thin slices of grilled beef or lamb, thick slices of roasted pepper, and tender romaine lettuce leaves, and roll up. For entertaining, slice the wrap crosswise into wide wheels and secure with toothpicks.

Use roasted peppers, cooked diced potatoes, sautéed mush­rooms and onions, and crumbled bacon as the base for a hearty frittata. Top with grated cheese.

Roasted peppers make a delicious soup. Simmer them with chicken broth, a chopped tomato, a pinch of saffron or a spoonful of grated ginger, perhaps some grated orange zest, and salt and pepper. Purée in a blender, adjust the seasonings, and serve at room temperature or chilled for a sweet pepper version of gazpacho.

For a rich-tasting and vibrant pasta sauce, purée roasted peppers with sautéed onion and garlic, and then thin the sauce with broth and a bit of cream. Toss with cooked pasta and garnish with toasted pine nuts, grated Parmigiano Reggiano, and chopped tenderherbs.

Use roasted peppers to make a romesco-style sauce. Purée a couple of roasted peppers with a handful of toasted almonds or hazelnuts, a dried chile soaked in hot water, a few cloves of garlic, plenty of paprika, a generous pinch of cayenne, a big splash of red-wine vinegar, and enough olive oil to create a pesto-like consistency. Use as a dipping sauce for raw vegetables, as a sauce for pasta or rice, or as a garnish for grilled vegetables or meat.

Four weeknight ideas for peppers

Bake a summer gratin with rings of sweet pepper, sliced summer squash, and sliced tomato. Season with salt, pepper, and chopped marjoram. Drizzle with olive oil and top with grated Parmigiano Reggiano and a scattering of breadcrumbs. Bake in a moderate oven until the vegetables are tender and lightly browned and the juices are bubbling.

Make a traditional ratatouille by sautéing chunks of red pepper, eggplant, tomato, zucchini, and onion in olive oil. Cook gently, covered, until all the vegetables are tender and then stir in a big handful of torn or chopped basil. Finish with a squeeze of lemon juice.

For an easy and delicious side dish, combine slivered peppers and onions in a baking dish, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and tuck in several thyme sprigs. Roast until the vegetables are tender, limp, and darkened in places. Leftovers make a great topping for pizza or focaccia or a delicious addition to an omelet or sandwich.

Sauté a succotash of diced sweet pepper, diced onion, and fresh-cut corn kernels. Season with a little ground cumin, chopped oregano, and a drizzle of lime juice. Or use the same combination of vegetables for a festive-looking salsa, with the addition of chopped avocado.

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