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Pick a Winter Pepper

Summer produce out of season is usually a disappointment--the beans are leathery, the tomatoes flavorless, and the strawberries taste more like tomatoes than the tomatoes do.

But peppers, both sweet and hot, are happy exceptions to the rule. Though they tend to have thick skins, the peppers available in winter also have lively flavor, crisp texture and a general juiciness that make them a most welcome break from--or addition to--seasonal vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, greens and roots. Healthful too: low in calories, high in fiber and, when red, rich in Vitamin C.

Though peppers are sturdy, they do get bruised, and the bruises are often not immediately obvious. Unless they are very inexpensive, it pays to pick up each pepper and inspect it carefully. Avoid wrinkles, soft spots and similar blemishes, but don’t worry about the hard, thin crackle lines that sometimes appear, especially on the shoulders and down the sides of jalapenos.

Green peppers that have begun to turn red will continue to ripen--quite quickly at cool room temperature, very slowly in the refrigerator--so sometimes you can get red peppers for the price of green. Other things being equal, keep them cold. They last longer in plastic wrap than when stored loose, but only if the plastic wrap has plenty of air holes. You want to keep the pepper’s own moisture in, but wetness on the skins will hasten decay.

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Most commercial peppers have been waxed, both for appearance and to preserve freshness. The wax, which is edible only in the sense that it isn’t poisonous, is hard to wash off even with warm water and detergent. Although the wax layer is thin, there is a solution: Wax and thick skin will both be removed while flavor is enhanced if you flame-peel the peppers.

To Flame-Peel Peppers

Use a gas burner or very hot broiler to char the pepper skin so it blisters and blackens all over. Place the peppers in a paper bag or covered bowl to steam for about three minutes, then cool rapidly and peel. The object is to blister the skin off at very high heat without substantially cooking the pepper. If pepper flesh does soften, reduce subsequent cooking time so peppers don’t get overdone.

Dealing With Hot Peppers

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Capsaicin, the chemical that makes a pepper hot, is in the “veins” that hold the slightly bitter seeds. It is volatile--don’t lean over when chopping hot peppers--and transfers readily to anything it touches. Rubber gloves protect the hands but are cumbersome to work in; disposable plastic gloves work somewhat better. I just rub butter under my fingernails so the pepper juice can’t get to the sensitive skin underneath and that seems to do the trick.

This recipe is tasty with pasta and cheese, dolloped onto pizza, stirred into vegetable stews. In other words, a universal hot sauce that for once doesn’t taste Southwestern.

HOT PEPPER SANDWICH RELISH, ITALIAN STYLE

1 1/2 pounds Anaheim

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large clove garlic, finely minced

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1/3 cup water

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1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Cut caps from chiles. Slit lengthwise then remove veins and seeds. Cut slices crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces. Heat olive oil in heavy skillet over medium heat. Add chiles. Reduce heat slightly and cook, stirring often, about 20 minutes or until chiles are tender and translucent.

Stir in garlic, tomato paste, water and salt and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until chiles are lightly coated with thick tomato sauce. Cool, then pack in glass jar with tight lid. Store in refrigerator up to about 10 days or freeze for longer storage. Makes about 2 cups.

Each serving contains about:

113 calories; 311 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 2.79 grams fiber; 43% calories from fat.

In addition to being inexpensive and easy, this recipe is a good way to use the bony parts of a roasting bird when you have other plans--such as fried chicken--for the meaty breast and thighs.

VAGUELY CARIBBEAN ONE-BY-ONE CHICKEN AND PEPPER STEW

1 tablespoon oil

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1 medium onion, coarsely chopped

Legs, back, wings and giblets of 1 chicken

1 large clove garlic, finely minced

Juice of 1 orange

1 cup water

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon salt

Dash ground cinnamon

1 large sweet red pepper, diced 1/2-inch

1 large sweet green pepper, diced 1/2 inch

1 Anaheim chile, including few to all of seeds, chopped small

1 ripe (yellow with brown spots) plantain, peeled and cut in 1/2-inch disks

Hot rice

Lemon wedges

Heat oil in deep, wide skillet over medium heat. Saute onion until tender and just starting to turn golden.

Remove skin from chicken and halve back. Trim gizzard and cut in half. Set liver aside. Add remaining chicken parts to skillet with garlic, orange juice, water, tomato paste, salt and cinnamon. Stir well, cover and simmer over medium-low heat 20 minutes.

Stir in sweet peppers, chile and plantain. Simmer, covered, 10 minutes. Add liver and cook, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes longer or until chicken falls off bones and sauce is slightly thickened. Serve over rice, accompanied by lemon wedges. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

225 calories; 635 mg sodium; 45 mg cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 14 grams protein; 0.78 grams fiber; 47% calories from fat.


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