Eat Local Peppers
I Live for Pepper Season
What’s on the Local Family table a lot this time of year? Peppers. By August, we’re into pepper season, and there’s all sorts of ways to enjoy. My pepper recipes tend to be a mix of serendipity and aspiration.
My greatest discovery with peppers, coming last summer, was to forgo peeling. There is no task in the local kitchen that I both love and loath more than peeling peppers, for I love so much flame-roasted peppers, yet so hate the process of making them. How to skip the loath and just get the love? Believe me, I’ve tried 30 million ways to peel a pepper, and the best of ways still amount to drudgery and mess. Then, somewhere I discovered pepperonata, which is essentially (almost like) making roasted peppers without the peeling. See, by cooking the peppers a bit, with a little liquid, the skin softens enough. You get the delicious cooked flavor without nearly as much work. I’ll also say this, it’s a good way for using thinner pepper that may lose too much flesh in flame roasted. The liquid comes two ways. First, peppers themselves throw off a fair amount of water when cooked, and second, you add a few chunked tomatoes to the pan. Start with a layer of sweated onions, add a mix of peppers, sweet and hot, red and green, finally, the tomatoes. It takes about 20 or so minutes to soften and meld. Smoked paprika gives it a very Spanish flavor. Otherwise, all you need is salt. Finish with herbs.
Pepperonata may be my most recent pepper discovery, but my most enduring came after a visit to Old Town Serbian in Milwaukee about 12 years ago. We had a lot of good dishes at this dinner of about 10 chowhounds, who ventured from Chicago, but the dish that stood out, which stays in my mind to this day as I work all the time, now, to re-create, roasted hot peppers. Somehow, in the 40 or so years I had lived up until that meal, I had never had the variation of roasted peppers made with hot banana peppers. I have since made this dish often for others, and often (most), I find the same epiphany. There’s something about the combination of flame roasting and capsicum that makes all the hassles of peeling worth it, and unless you grew up somewhere in the former Yugoslavia, you probably weren’t doing it. Change that now. You can find all sorts of hot Hungarian, wax, banana, poblano, etc. peppers now. This time of year, we almost always have a spare dish of this pepper dish. Making it, it’s never easy. I allow myself a good half hour of skinning time and zumba music on the Spotify. And method, I’ve come to believe a knife works best as compared to hands, messy, and water, destructive. Personally, I use the stove’s flame, but I guess you could get by with an oven roaster. That time allowance was for peeling. Make sure you also give yourself enough time to sweat the peppers in a bowl sealed well with plastic. This helps a lot. After scraping off the skin, snipping the tails, and removing the guts, I cut the peppers into decent strips. Don’t forget to season with salt; then a splash of vinegar, sherry if you have it, and a good drench of good olive oil. Chunks of garlic add that Serbian touch but are not necessary.
Easiest way with peppers, fry them whole. Generally, one frys thinner fleshed peppers like shisheto, Melrose, Beaver Dam, or those padron’s pictured above. Yes, like a lot of you, I’ve been influenced by Calvin Trillin’s account of eating padron peppers in Spain. Now, I have never eaten padron peppers in Spain, so I cannot relate to how well my local peppers would stand up to Mr. Trillin’s quest to find something closer to his home that compared to Spain. I do know this. Trillin talks of the odd bomb. That part of the fun of eating padron peppers in the occasional Scoville mine that goes off in your mouth. I guess in Spain that happens about 1 in 10. With my peppers, usually purchased from Farmer Vicki’s Genesis Growers, it’s more like 9 in 10, or the fully palatable one is the exception. Still, once you get past the pain, they taste great. Just a little oil in a medium hot pan until they collapse. Invite Bud Trillin over.
Peppers play so well with their summer friends. As Tom Colicchio says, what grows together, goes together. There’re all sorts of classic dishes that combine summer vegetables like eggpants, tomatoes, and zucchini with peppers. Last summer, I learned to make the best. The Spanish call it escalivada, and it tends towards chunks; you see each component. The Tunisians call it mechouia and make it best. I’m talking about a “grilled vegetable” salad. As you would flame roast peppers, you also flame roast the other ingredients, the tomatoes, eggplant, etc. Peel them as they are done, discarding the skins, seeds and excess liquid. I like to go fine, but not quite puree when it comes to dealing with the cooked vegetables. Dress with olive oil and vinegar or lemon juice. What makes it Tunisian, as compared to other versions is a heavy hand in the spice cabinet. Add to your cooked vegetables, ground caraway, cumin and harissa until it tastes both delicious and exotic.
Do take full advantage of what’s in season now.