Back in the old days, we’re talking 10 or 15 years ago, this time of year was something special. As soon as the weather started to turn, we’d go down to the specialty produce guy and put in an order for a case of red bell peppers. You got them only once a year and they cost the earth, but they were worth it.
That weekend we’d have a big party. We’d char the peppers on the grill, then, sitting out back at the picnic table, peel them, seed them and stick the soft, warm flesh into plastic bags to go into the freezer.
Well, actually they only went into the baggies after everyone had eaten their fill. There’s little that tastes better than roasted red bell peppers and even though they are available year-round now, this is the best time of year to enjoy them.
Roasted peppers are one of food’s sure things. They’re beautiful to look at, a deep Titian red. They have a voluptuous texture, closer to a nice, fatty piece of tuna sashimi than a vegetable. And their flavor is a profound mix of sweet and earthy, pungent and perfectly balanced by itself.
The simplest dish in the world, and one of the most satisfying, is a plate of roasted, peeled peppers dressed only with a little good olive oil and a sprinkling of salt. The pepper repertoire doesn’t stop there, of course, but anything else you do is a matter of adornment rather than improvement.
One of the most common pairings for peppers is with tomatoes, one of nature’s other perfect foods. All over the Mediterranean basin, these two show up in dishes both simple (roasted pepper and tomato salad) and complex (peperonata, found under different names from Spain to Morocco).
Roasted peppers are utterly unlike raw ones. In the first place, roasting removes that thin skin of cellulose. That’s the tough part that’s so difficult to digest. And it gently cooks the meat, softening it and bringing out hidden dimensions of flavor.
The sources of heat
There are any number of ways to roast a pepper. Perhaps the most primal is simply throwing them on the grill. This has the advantage of accommodating a large number of peppers at the same time. A regular 21-inch kettle grill will easily hold more than a dozen large peppers at once. Just keep turning them to hit every bit of skin (including the bottoms and the tops), and move them from place to place so every pepper gets its turn over the hottest parts of the fire.
Go ahead and char them. You’re not looking for browning here, but a definite blackening of the surface. So tough is this skin that even after this rough treatment, when you peel it off, there will be red flesh underneath. Roasting peppers over fire also lends a distinct but subtle smokiness to the flavor.
You can roast large batches even more easily in the oven, if you’re willing to forgo that smoky grace note (indeed, in recipes such as the peppers stuffed with tuna, a purer flavor is better). To do this, arrange the peppers on a jellyroll pan and bake them at 400 degrees, turning them once or twice to keep them from sticking. Cooked this way, the skin will puff up like a balloon without nearly as much blackening.
Roasting peppers on the grill will take from 25 to 35 minutes, depending on the heat (it’s a good thing to do while you’re waiting for a really hot fire to die down enough to cook meat). Roasting them in the oven takes 20 to 30 minutes.
Whichever method you choose, once the skin has begun to loosen, cover the peppers with a damp cloth and let them cool for 10 to 15 minutes. The steam will finish the job.
Some cooks recommend roasting them under the broiler or over an open flame on a stove-top burner. Although these methods will work, they have significant drawbacks. The broiler cooks the peppers too unevenly. Doing them stove-top has the obvious disadvantage of letting you do only one or two at a time. And heaven help you if a roasting pepper pops, as they are wont to do, spilling its juices so it bakes onto the stove.
Peel the peppers by rubbing away that charred skin with your fingers. For tough spots that might have been a little underdone or were in hard-to-reach crevices, use the back of a knife. Though you may be tempted to rinse them to get rid of the last little flecks of skin, don’t. The flesh is coated with a thick, delicious juice and you don’t want to lose any of it.
How to pick a pepper
You’ll find red bell peppers ranging in size and shape from small and boxy to long and tapered. Some of the biggest ones are proprietary varieties grown in California, Florida and Mexico. Don’t let that dissuade you. In taste tests, we were amazed at the quality and depth of flavor of the peppers we found at our decidedly un-gourmet neighborhood supermarket.
And, of course, you’ll find peppers in colors other than red. Almost any grocery store will have yellow ones, too, and many will have purple, orange and even chocolate brown.
These peppers taste essentially the same -- the colors come from a nearly flavorless family of pigments called carotenoids. These are the same chemicals that make tomatoes red and peaches yellow (peppers, like tomatoes, are botanically fruits, even though we eat them as vegetables).
And just like peaches and tomatoes, the emergence of the bright colors is tied to the ripening process. While all peppers start out looking green, their more flamboyant plumage is actually there all the time, masked by the dominant pigment chlorophyll.
As the peppers ripen and the sugar levels increase, the chlorophyll breaks down. The green cloak drops and the mature colors are revealed.
Because roasting peppers is one of those things where it’s just as easy to do a dozen as it is to do one, you might want to store some to use another day.
They do freeze remarkably well because of their high moisture content (one more reason to save all those juices you’ll find on the inside). You don’t even need to peel them -- stick them straight into the bag once they’ve cooled enough that they won’t melt it. Later, when you’re ready to use them, you can defrost and peel as many as you need. Pickled peppers you find in jars in the grocery story have a much different flavor because of the vinegar they’re preserved in.
Of course, since they’re available so constantly in these modern times, freezing them doesn’t carry the same sense of urgency as it once did. But as any pioneer will tell you, having roasted red peppers in the freezer is the culinary equivalent of money in the bank.