The Accidental Vegetarian: Fire-Roasted Peppers
I’m not sure what (if anything) this strangely cool, damp year in Northern California says about global warming, but it definitively changed the relationship between the physical calendar on my wall and my erstwhile sense of the natural culinary seasons: I didn’t eat a ripe tomato until well into August, and I’m still picking chili peppers from our garden in mid-December. And, in a proximal vein, I managed to procure a Technicolor Dreamcoat of richly hued, perfectly ripened late-season peppers from Soda Rock Farms at our very last farmer’s market of 2010; it took about 90 seconds for my middle daughter – she’s been crazy for the pepper at least since age 3 – and I to decide on a piquant little salad of fire-roasted peppers, marinated in EVOO, balsamic, and local garlic.
The cusp of winter notwithstanding, there must have been a dozen different bins of distinct and thoroughly ripe capsicum, so we chose a half-dozen or so based on little more than a palate of interesting and contrasting colors: Brooding greens of forest floor and bright greens of sun-drenched limes; a little Hollywood sunset of lifeboat orange, Ferrari red, sunshine yellow, and deep, horror-film reds. I honestly haven’t the slightest idea which peppers, exactly, I used; I suppose it matters, particularly if you’re sensitive to heat, but I like to wing it, relying instead upon the aesthetic of pleasing shape and color to yield a natural balance of flavors. I also knew I was going to cook them over open flames, which makes the pepper calculus considerably more forgiving: Fire-roasting, peeling and seeding tends to reduce the heat and the potentially unpleasant, vegetal bitterness that can dominate some peppers, while the charred husks and light cooking impart a lightly smoky sweetness that plays off the spice of the fruit.
Roasted, marinated peppers will last for a while in the fridge, longer certainly than it ever takes us to eat them: Served hot on a spicy Little Italy-style sausage sandwich; with stinky cheeses, cold cuts, pickles and olives; or simply on their own, with roughly torn hunks of crusty sourdough on which to pile them and with which to mop up the dressing left behind.
Salad of Fire-Roasted Peppers (Home Cooktop Version)
- Wash and dry the whole peppers and char their skins over high heat. The way to do this is to crank a gas burner all the up to its Smoke Detector level and – using tongs, always tongs! – turn them until they are evenly burnt all over. They should be pretty much black everywhere: This will impart a better flavor but, just as importantly, it will allow you to peel them without grief. You can work several batches at once, although I usually don’t use the back burners, in deference to my arm-hair and general aversion to burns.
- As soon as the peppers are thoroughly charred, drop them in a paper (not plastic!) lunch bag and roll the top over. This will steam the peppers and release the skin from the flesh, making them much easier to clean.
- Once they’ve cooled, remove from the bag and use a paring knife to cut out the stem and core, and slice open from top to bottom. Scrape each side with the knife blade across the pepper, then the other, in order to remove all seeds and skin (you can also use a paper towel and ‘wipe’ the charred skins off); if the skins are difficult to remove, then they weren’t charred hard enough. Try to get rid of all skin and all seeds, as they and unpleasant taste and texture.
- Lay the peppers flat, stack or place side by side, however you prefer to cut, and slice them into Julienne strips (uniformity of is not strictly important, although the flavors will meld and the salad will look and eat better if you keep them approximately so).
- Dress with olive oil, balsamic vinegar (I really like the sweetness of balsamic vinegar with peppers, but its dark color can sometimes muddy the colors of the peppers, so sometimes a sherry or plain white-wine vinegar, or a ‘white balsamic’ I got from TJ’s for this purpose), a healthy pinch of salt, and a small clove of very finely minced fresh garlic (I like to use a purple rocambole that I get from Bernier Farms – it is very aromatic and flavorful, but without too much heat, and peels easily). If you can, cover tightly and leave in the fridge overnight to allow the peppers to marinate – the salad will be great fresh, but even better a day later.