Monday, May 30, 2011


I have a lifelong love affair going with peppers of all types. There are many ways I like to enjoy them, but  certain iconic preparations are truly quintessential expressions of pure pepperness. One of these is the Italian dish called peperonata--a genuine comfort food if ever there was one. It was among the very first Italian classics I tackled when I was just embarking on my journey into the exotic kingdom of fine cooking.

I first had to learn how to roast and peel peppers--something I had watched the maids do with poblano peppers at home, as they prepared to make  chiles rellenos (mmmm!). The recipe I was working from at that time had me roasting the peppers over an open flame, turning them as their skins burned, to blacken them evenly. Then I was instructed to put them in a plastic bag and let them steam in their residual heat, which would loosen the skins for easy removal. This worked marginally well, but it took forever and the skins were still pretty hard to get off. I've since figured out a much easier and more effective way to do this, which I'll share with you. What follows is not so much a recipe as a step-by-step guide to making peperonata:

Wash the peppers. Select the fleshiest ones you can find for this, because after roasting them, their flesh will shrink by almost half the original thickness, and if the peppers are too thin, they will virtually cook through at this stage, and then the final result will be way too mushy to properly satisfy the peperonata craving.

Cut them into quarters, remove the seeds and membranes, and trim the cut sides so the pieces will lie flat in the next step.

Lay the quarters, cut side down, on a foil-lined baking sheet. You don't have to alternate the colors like this; it's just something I do because it's fun (and in case you didn't know this about me, I'm all about the joy). Set the broiler to high heat and slide them under the flame. Leave the broiler door open to disperse the ambient heat, so they won't cook all the way through. You just want to roast the skins and a little bit underneath.

When the skins have blackened nicely, remove the tray from the oven. Some may need to be turned and roasted a little longer in order to get the whole surface.

Immediately immerse the peppers in cold water. This is a much better way to loosen the skins, because it stops the cooking, so you'll still have a firm, fairly uncooked pepper to start the dish with, instead of a very soft one. The skins will almost all slip right off. Drain them well before proceeding.

Cut the peppers into pieces about an inch and a half square.

Cut some onions into similar-sized pieces. Peel and thinly slice some garlic.

Heat a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a large pot and add the onions. Stir until they're turning translucent and the edges begin to brown lightly. Add the garlic, stir a minute or two, and then add the peppers. Stir to combine thoroughly, and cook another few minutes.

Add "passata di pomodoro," an Italian staple, which is plum tomatoes that have been skinned, seeded and passed through a sieve. It may look similar to "tomato puree" sold in American markets, but it's a world apart in flavor and texture. This is rich, delicious, semi-raw tomato of the most luscious order. Stir it in.

Once you've incorporated the tomato, add a splash of red wine vinegar, a good pinch of sugar (I use evaporated cane juice), some sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, red chile powder, and a bay leaf or two. Get the mixture boiling, and then turn the flame way down, cover the pot and let it bubble and stew for an hour or two, stirring from time to time to make sure it isn't sticking.

Consider it done when the juices have reduced down to a thick sauce and the vegetables are very tender. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if needed, to suit your palate. That's it.

This is wonderful stuff, with more than a couple of uses. To start you off on a long list I've yet to reach the end of, it makes a fabulous pasta sauce, a rich condiment, something to dip bread into, an accompaniment for polenta, a side dish in its own right as part of an Italian-inspired menu, a thoughtful gift to bring when you're invited to someone's house, and something to eat in the middle of the night if you're still up. I just made some today, and it's past midnight where I am...

I do recommend that when you make this, make a lot of it. It isn't a lot more hassle to do eighteen peppers than it is to do six, and a freshly made peperonata will keep at least a week in the refrigerator (not that it will last that long, trust me). If you want a detailed recipe, stay tuned--it'll be in my next book, due out spring of 2012. Chopped parsley is the ideal garnish for this, by the way.

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