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.