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How-To

Three Steps to the Sweetest Peppers

Char, steam, and peel bell peppers; then use the tender flesh for salads, soups, sauces, and appetizers

Fine Cooking Issue 39
Photos: Martha Holmberg
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A ripe bell pepper is delicious raw, so why mess with it by roasting it? Because fire does something magical to a pepper, transforming its flavor and texture into something sweeter, juicier, and softer—and ultimately more versatile—than it was before. Abandoning its raw and crunchy personality, this new pepper has a greater affinity to pasta and crosses a flavor bridge to roasted meats and fish. It purées into a silky coulis, makes a velvety soup, and rolls up into a tidy appetizer. All this, and you also get the primal satisfaction of cooking with fire, which is something I always get a kick out of.

Choose your fire—gas, electric or charcoal

Your main objective when roasting a pepper is to separate the outer millimeter of thin skin from the thick flesh of the fruit. The best way to accomplish this is by charring the outer skin of the pepper over (or under) high heat. Regardless of your heat source—an open fire, a charcoal or gas grill, a broiler, or a gas flame (more on this below)—your goal is to blacken the skin of the pepper all over. As the pepper heats up and blackens, moisture weeps from the flesh. As a result, the skin blisters.

In the time it takes the skin to blister away from the fruit, the flesh of the pepper itself is cooking. Therefore, a higher, more direct heat (from a charcoal fire or a high-BTU gas burner) will separate the skin more quickly, rendering a firmer, less intensely flavored roasted pepper. A lower heat (from an electric broiler, for instance) will cook the flesh of the pepper more because the skin takes longer to blister, producing a softer, and slightly sweeter, pepper. Both results are tasty; it’s just a matter of preference as to which you like better.

My favorite source of heat for roasting peppers is a wood fire. But I realize it isn’t exactly an everyday event to get a campfire going, so a backyard grill would be my next choice.

I also roast peppers directly on the grate of either a gas grill cranked up to its highest setting or on the grate of a charcoal grill stocked with hot hardwood embers. I really prefer a charcoal fire fueled with hardwood charcoal, as I think the peppers pick up some of the fire’s smoky aroma. Remember, peppers that have been roasted over a less intense flame (such as a low-output gas grill) will be softer since their flesh continues to simmer and cook as the skin takes longer to char and blister. Slow-roasted peppers may also give off more of their juices when you go to peel them.

In the kitchen, peppers can be roasted over the flame of a gas stove or under a broiler. On a gas stove, put the peppers directly on the spider grate over the gas element, and turn the flame to high. The skin should start to crackle and blacken within two minutes. Give the peppers a quarter-turn with tongs as they begin to blister and char.

There are two ways of using a broiler to roast peppers. One method is to simply slide the whole peppers under the heated broiler. Slide the peppers back out to turn them as they blacken; don’t try to reach under the broiler, even with tongs, and run the risk of burning yourself. For the second method, cut off the top and bottom of a pepper, cut a seam in the remaining cylinder, seed it, and unroll the pepper, skin side up, onto a baking sheet.

When the peppers are fully blackened, let them steam. The moment the entire pepper is charred, put it into an airtight container such as a snap-lid tub or a bowl covered with plastic wrap. The peppers will continue to steam, further separating the charred skin from the softened flesh.

Once the peppers are cool enough to handle, put a sieve over a bowl and clean one pepper at a time. As you hold each pepper over the sieve, slip the charred skin from the roasted flesh with your fingers. Once the skin is removed, break the pepper to release the juice and seeds. The sieve will capture the charred skin and seeds and let the juices collect in the bowl below. Store the pepper flesh in its own juices, and be sure to include some of these delicious juices when making sauces and soups.

After they are charred, steam the peppers in an airtight container, such as a bowl sealed with plastic wrap.
Peel and seed the cooled peppers over a sieve set in a bowl to catch the juices.

Involtini of roasted bell peppers

In Italy, different involtini are made by rolling up slices of meat or thin fish fillets with a stuffing. Strips of roasted peppers make terrific involtini or “roll-ups,” filled with any number of delicious stuffings. Serve involtini as an appetizer with a few salad greens, as part of an antipasto, or as a savory side dish to grilled meat, depending on the filling. Served at room temperature, slightly warmed (if you’re using a cheese filling, 3 to 5 minutes at 350°F will do), or hot (if raw ingredients in the filling need to be baked). Some of my favorite fillings include the following:

• Thinly sliced prosciutto, a leaf of fresh basil, and a small cube of really good feta or fresh mozzarella
• A blend of fresh goat cheese, a little Parmesan, and fresh herbs
• Seasoned mashed potatoes with smoked trout and a dol­lop of horseradish folded in
• A thin anchovy fillet and a fat clove of roasted garlic
• Lump crabmeat mixed with a small bit of crème fraîche or cream cheese and fresh herbs (warm through)
• A stuffing of minced or ground lamb, beef, or chicken, mixed with minced olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh herbs and bound with cheese, breadcrumbs, or egg (bake at 350°F for 15 for 20 min.)
• A seafood stuffing of cooked crabmeat bound with a purée of raw scallops, a little heavy cream, salt, and pepper (bake at 350°F for 15 min.)

Roast, peel, and seed several bell peppers. Cut them into strips about 1 to 1-1/2 inches wide (following the natural sections of the pepper, if possible) and 4 to 5 inches long (the length of the pepper). Each pepper will yield 5 or 6 strips. Lay the strips of pepper in a row on a cutting board. Put about 1/2 to 1 Tbs. of prepared filling at one end of each pepper, roll, and arrange on a baking sheet (lined with parchment or foil, if you like). The involtini can be made up to this point an hour or two ahead of time. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to warm or bake, or bring to room temperature and serve raw.

Use the peppers right away, or freeze them if you like

Roasted peppers are best used soon after they’re prepared, although they can be stored in the refrigerator or freezer. Add a few fresh basil leaves before putting them in the refrigerator, covered tightly, where they’ll keep for up to a week. You can also freeze roasted peppers, along with their juices (use zip-top freezer bags), for several weeks. The flesh will be slightly less firm when defrosted, which is fine if you’re using the peppers for soups or purées, but not ideal for salads or appetizers. Sometimes I take the extra step of turning roasted bell peppers into a coulis first, since this versatile sauce freezes well.

Roasted peppers to the rescue

Roasted peppers can add verve and body to many quick-to-make dishes.

• Roasted peppers are essential to an antipasto platter. Slice the peppers into thin or thick strips and toss them in a bowl with some of their own juice, a little extra-virgin olive oil, roasted or minced fresh garlic, salt, pepper, and a little grated Parmesan or slivered fresh basil. Let sit at room temperature for half an hour before serving.
• Toss a julienne of roasted peppers in a cool pasta dish, or use them as a garnish for a hot pasta.
• Dress a green salad with chopped roasted peppers, grilled corn kernels, pine nuts, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.
• Combine chopped roasted peppers with softened goat cheese, fresh thyme, and a few breadcrumbs to make a stuffing for chicken breasts or a crostini topping.
• In a processor, purée roasted peppers with grated Parmesan, pine nuts, roasted garlic, olive oil, and basil to make a roasted pepper pesto.
• Make my favorite summer sandwich: layer roasted peppers, a bit of olive tapenade, arugula, slices of crisp cooked pancetta, and some fresh mozzarella between slices of crusty Italian bread.

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