By Sofia Perez
[Published by Zester Daily, November 4, 2014]
Dear Kale: Your 15 minutes are up. Signed, Cauliflower
While doing research online, I came across several articles that declared cauliflower the new kale and, frankly, I died a little inside. Not because I dislike cauliflower (although I do), and not because I ever want to read another word about kale’s magical abilities (“promotes world peace AND solves the nuclear dilemma!”). My problem is with the whole notion of “trendy foods” (see quinoa).
For much of human history, people ate what they could catch, forage or grow in their immediate area. Sure, that list of ingredients has evolved over time—human migration meant that foodstuffs traveled, too, and crops that were native to one region could be cultivated halfway across the globe. That’s a good thing; it’s what allows us to enjoy pasta with tomato sauce in Italy, rice with beans in Cuba and chocolate bars all over the world. (I am especially grateful for that last category.)
What puts a bee in my bonnet is the idea of declaring that a select group of ingredients is “hot” one year and passé the next. People, it’s food—one of life’s basic building blocks—not hemlines.
In addition to the capacity for independent thought, what we lose by blindly following trends is the joy that comes from getting to know a product over time. Only by repeatedly tasting and cooking with an ingredient can you discover the nuances—its flavors, aromas and textures—and learn how different techniques can alter these qualities in dramatic ways.
A Pepper Worth Picking
For example, take one of my favorite vegetables: the bell pepper. It’s a humble ingredient that rarely makes any top-10 list, probably because its cultivation has been widespread for some time. Though it has its peak seasons, this kitchen workhorse is available year-round in most places. Its availability means it often gets taken for granted, but if you ignore it, you do so at your own gastronomic peril.
As versatile as Meryl Streep (though not nearly as lauded), bell peppers play a key role in many dishes. Served raw, their crispness adds snap to salads; in their green state, they can provide a welcome bitter counterpoint, while the red ones lend a mild sweetness, the perfect yin to a raw onion’s yang. I can’t imagine preparing a pilaf without browning diced peppers first. If you stuff and bake them, you’ve got the makings of a terrific one-dish meal. And I haven’t even addressed the topic of stir-fries.
My favorite way to use bell peppers is to roast them. The smoky caramelization that results from singeing their skin adds a roundness to the sweet flavor of their flesh. Once you’ve roasted them at home, it will be hard for you to go back to the overly acidic, often mealy jarred versions you find on supermarket shelves.
And why should you, when they’re so easy to make? Yes, they require a little time and effort, but the technique is simple. And if you prepare a big batch in one go and top them with olive oil, they’ll keep quite well in your fridge for days. Having said that, I doubt very seriously that you’ll need to worry about spoilage—once you’ve sampled them, they won’t last long.
Roasted peppers are the utility infielders of the vegetable world; they can step in as needed, and they play well with others. Layer them over roast beef, tuna salad or grilled chicken in your next sandwich. Puree them with olive oil, garlic and salt to make an easy spread. Use them as garnish for baked polenta and other grain dishes. (My mother would never dream of bringing her paella to the table without fanning long strips of roasted red peppers across the rice, laid out in a circle like the rays of the sun.)
However, if I had to pick my favorite way to serve roasted peppers, it would be to top them with scallions and chèvre, drizzle with a high-quality extra virgin olive oil, and add a dusting of sea salt and black pepper.
You can keep your food trends; just leave me my bell peppers.
Some folks prefer to roast peppers whole and then remove the stem and seeds afterward to prevent the pepper from drying out. I have found, however, that if you seed them first and reassemble the halves in the roasting pan (instead of placing each half down separately), they retain most of the moisture and you save yourself the hassle of seeding them when they’re hot and harder to handle.
This recipe is easy to scale up—double or triple the ingredients—and the ratio of toppings to peppers is also adaptable. Simply alter the amount of scallions, goat cheese, and seasoning to taste.
Prep time: 8 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes (This is approximate, depending on the thickness of the peppers.)
Total time: About 45 minutes (includes time for prepping, cooking, peeling and plating—you can prep the scallions while the peppers are cooking)
Yield: 4 servings
4 medium red bell peppers
2 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 ounces chèvre
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
1. Rinse and dry the peppers. Slice them in half and stem and seed them.
2. To make the cleanup easier, place a layer of aluminum foil in your roasting pan or on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle the foil with about ½ tablespoon of olive oil.
3. Place the pepper halves in the pan, reassembling each pair to form one whole pepper.
4. Place the pan on a rack as close to the broiler element as possible and allow all the skin to blacken. (Be careful when flipping the halves, as the moisture from the peppers will have collected inside of them.)
5. Once the skin has been charred, remove the peppers and place them in a large bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap to allow them to steam for at least five minutes.
6. When the peppers are cool enough to handle, peel off the blackened skin and discard. Cut the peppers into long strips and place in a serving dish.
7. Clean and slice the scallions into thin rounds, about ⅛ inch to ¼ inch thick, and sprinkle them over the peppers.
8. Break the chèvre into small clumps with your fingers, and sprinkle these over the peppers.
9. Drizzle the peppers with the remaining olive oil, and season them with sea salt and black pepper to taste.