There’s a burst of bright red here and there, and the vine maples put on a spectacular display of reds. Even the green bell peppers are turning into “crayon-bright” reds and yellows and oranges as they linger on the bushes.
When Columbus returned from the New World, one of the plants he brought back was the bell pepper. The bell pepper is among the most graceful of garden vegetable plants, with shiny fruit hanging delicately among the small, pointed leaves. At a certain point peppers turn red and yellow and orange, and even purple. They undergo a chemical change: the sweet peppers are sweeter whereas the hot peppers become hotter.
The sweet bell peppers will soon be coming into their peak, so when taking those back roads watch for fruit and vegetable stands and lay in a supply. When purchasing bell peppers, look for firm specimens with no wrinkling or soft spots. Bell peppers are delicious raw, baked, fried, blanched, sautéed or braised. But many insist that the sweet, smoky taste of roasted peppers makes that the best way to prepare them.
Roasting bell peppers was inspired by culinary traditions of coastal Mediterranean countries. The peppers have a pleasantly nutty, mellow flavor and a tender-crisp texture. Do your roasting and assembling the day before you use them so the flavors can blend. Roasted peppers add colorful interest and zest to sandwiches, salads and side dishes.
Roasting, or charring, makes the tenacious pepper skin easy to peel, meaning each bit will be wonderfully tender with a delicate smoky flavor that enhances many dishes. Here is how to do it:
Halve the peppers lengthwise. Lift out stems and seeds from each half; rinse. Cut small slits in the ends of the pepper halves; flatten. Place peppers, skin side up, on a lightly greased broiler pan. Broil 4 inches from heat till pepper skin is just charred. Watch closely, as this takes only about 5 minutes. Place peppers in a paper bag. Close the bag tightly; let stand for 10 minutes. This steams the peppers so the skin peels away easily. Or arrange peppers on a baking sheet; place on the lowest rack of a 450-degree oven and roast, turning peppers several times, until skins bubble and blacken, about 40 minutes. Enclose peppers in a bag; when cool, peel off skins and remove and discard stems and seeds. Pat dry.
SWEET PEPPER TART
Make a butter crust by combining 1 1/2 cups of flour and 1/2 cup of butter—cut with pastry blender until fine crumbs form. With a fork, stir in 3-4 tablespoons of cold water until dough holds together. Shape into a ball; cover and chill at least one hour. On a floured board, roll out dough to fit into a 12-inch greased pan with removable bottom. Press firmly in place; prick pastry bottom in several places with a fork. Bake in a 350-degree oven 30-35 minutes. Cool.
Combine 1/3 cup of olive oil, 2 cloves of garlic, minced, and 1 1/2 tablespoons of oregano leaves; add 5 each large red, green, yellow and orange bell peppers that have been roasted. Distribute 1 cup of grated jack cheese over the crust; arrange peppers on top overlapping the colors. Scatter 2 cups of grated jack cheese over the top; ring the tart with 1/2 cup of sliced ripe olives. Bake tart in a 350-degree oven until cheese is melted, 10-15 minutes. Remove pan rim and serve hot or at room temperature. Serves 4 to 6.
CHICKEN BROCHETTES WITH RED BELL PEPPERS AND FETA
1 cup of plain nonfat yogurt
5 tablespoons (packed) of crumbled feta cheese
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon of chopped rosemary
1/4 teaspoon of pepper
1 1/2 pounds of skinless boneless chicken breast halves, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
2 large red bell peppers, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
6 12-inch skewers
Mix yogurt, 3 tablespoons of feta cheese, garlic, rosemary and pepper in a large bowl. Add chicken; toss to coat. Let marinate at room temperature 30 minutes. Prepare barbecue (medium-high heat) or preheat broiler. Thread chicken and bell pepper pieces alternately onto skewers. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill or broil until chicken is cooked through, turning occasionally, about 8 minutes. Transfer brochettes to platter. Sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons of feta cheese. Serves six.
SPICY ROASTED RED PEPPER CORN MUFFINS
1 1/4 cups of yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup of flour
1 tablespoon of sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon of salt
1 cup of grated sharp cheddar cheese
3/4 cup of buttermilk
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 tablespoons of minced jalapeno chilies
7-oz. jar of roasted red peppers, drained, patted very dry between paper towels, and chopped fine
In a bowl whisk together cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cheddar. In a small bowl whisk together buttermilk, egg, butter, and chilies. Add buttermilk mixture to cornmeal mixture, stirring until just combined, and stir in roasted peppers. DO NOT OVERMIX.
Divide batter evenly among 12 greased muffin tin cups, and bake in a preheated 425-degree oven 15-20 minutes or until it tests done.
STUFFED BELL PEPPERS
4 medium bell peppers, different colors, tops removed and seeded
1/2 cup of chopped onion
2 tablespoons of butter
1 pound of lean ground beef
8-oz. can of tomato sauce
8-oz. can of whole kernel corn, drained
2-3 teaspoons of chili powder
1 teaspoon of salt
3/4 cup of grated sharp cheddar cheese
Cook peppers in boiling salted water 5-8 minutes; drain well. Turn the cut side down to drain. Sauté chopped onion in butter until tender but not brown; add meat and sauté until brown. Add tomato sauce, corn, chili powder and salt. Fill drained peppers with meat mixture and place in deep baking dish; add 1/2 inch of water to the bottom of the baking dish. Bake in preheated 375-degree oven 15 minutes; sprinkle tops of peppers with grated cheese and continue to bake for another 15 minutes or until cheese is melted and meat is hot.
Some have asked what the difference is between pimentos and roasted red peppers. They are similar but not the same—they are different varieties of sweet red pepper. Pimentos are roasted with the skin removed, then packed in oil in jars or cans. Their texture is usually very soft and they are often used as a colorful garnish for savory dishes. Roasted red peppers are packed in brine and usually have a more pungent, distinctive flavor and firmer texture.
This is the best time of the year to be on the road and to catch the early turning of color: greens becoming shimmering golds and deep russets, and patches of flaming reds. There is a warm, dreamy feeling to the air on these late summer days—and the sky has a softer, more delicate look to it. Some call it September’s song.
HINT OF THE MONTH: Take one of the colorful bell peppers and remove the top and seed it; fill with a dip, such as this old-time favorite—a pint of sour cream mixed with an envelope of onion soup mix—and serve it with celery and carrot sticks and chips or crackers.
Marian Platt's regional narrative cookbook of Washington’s Sequim Valley, From My Kitchen Window, can be ordered by sending cash, check or money order for $25 (includes tax and handling/mailing costs) to Marian Platt, 434 Chicken Coop Rd., Sequim, WA 98382. Phone (360) 683-4691