This is the decade of the pepper. Red, green, yellow or brown. Hot, mild or in between. We started with black peppercorns, green peppercorns, then pink peppercorns being sprinkled over everything, even strawberries. We went on to chile madness. Then we finally realized that bell peppers are green in only one of their stages; when they ripen they are red, a brilliant and beautiful red. And they taste all the sweeter for that ripening.
So now we are inundated with the newly discovered red peppers -- sliced, slivered, minced and pure'ed. Most often, though, they are cooked into a smooth, mild scarlet sauce -- a coulis, as today's fashion calls it.
And unfortunately, like the kiwi before them, they are being coulis-ed to death. The once-welcome red pepper coulis is moistening everything from swordfish to hamburgers. It is about to become a running joke.
Unlike the kiwi, red peppers are so versatile that we could eat them in every meal for a month without duplicating a taste or texture. Peppers can wear infinite disguises.
The Hungarians share top billing with the Mexicans for pepper madness. Hungarians serve them as often dried -- powdered into the spice we call paprika -- as fresh. Dried paprika appears on the Hungarian table in a shaker along with salt and pepper. It is the underlying seasoning for salami, and it even flavors croissant-shaped rolls. Dried paprika colors the flour used to coat fried fish, and tints cheese spreads. Hungarian chicken soup is red-gold from a dash of paprika, and fried eggs glow slightly red. But fresh and dried are often used together as well as interchangeably -- the taste is milder and sweeter when the peppers are fresh, more tangy when they are dried.
Fresh Hungarian red peppers are stewed with the dried paprika, tomatoes and onions in lard to blend into lesco, a thick sauce that accompanies everything from sausages to foie gras. Whole peppers are stuffed with cheese and baked, raw ones are filled with sauerkraut. And ropes of red peppers decorate markets and food shops.
Italians use peppers, as do the Spanish and Mexicans, as a basic seasoning, saute'ing them to flavor tomato sauces and dicing them into stews. And the Italian peperonata -- onions, peppers and tomatoes cooked to a thick paste -- is a close relative of Hungary's lesco. Of course the Italians, too, stuff peppers. But the greatest Italian contribution to pepper cookery is roasted peppers with anchovies, the salty fish cutting the richness of the oily peppers in a perfect balance. Spain, too, has its pepper-onion-tomato sauce combination; in the Basque country it is known as pipe'rade.
Peppers have been used as edible containers, as slivered garnishes, as coloring agents. They serve equally well cooked or raw, hot or cold. They stand up to strong meats and bolster otherwise-bland fish. Eggs and peppers are natural allies. Around the world peppers are mated with cheese, with sausage, with olives, with everything short of fruits. And certainly someone will proclaim peppers and kiwis the perfect marriage before long.
It took the Americans, though, to make peppers most portable, by packaging fiery red hot sauce in tiny pocket-sized bottles.
We had hardly finished celebrating the first American being hired as executive chef of the White House when he also became the chef with the shortest reign. Jon Hill left that White House job a mere four months after he started and just a week into the new year. Rumors flew, among them that Hill's skills and experience weren't up to the rest of the kitchen staff's. In any case, Hans Raffert, European-born and bred, has been promoted to acting chef from the job of sous chef, which he had long held under Henry Haller. Roland Mesnier continues as pastry chef, and newly hired Steve Junta will remain as personal chef to the first family.
Young American chefs will not go unrepresented in the White House banquet lineup, however. The talented Frank Ruta, who left the job of first family chef last June to work in Italy, was invited back by Mrs. Reagan herself to complete the Reagans' term and has been promoted to sous chef.
Food festivals, chocolate weekends, cooking conventions -- they are the darlings of the hotel business these days. So another announcement often means another yawn. One that drew my attention, though, is at the Sheraton Lakeview Resort and Conference Center in Morgantown, W.Va., Feb. 5-7. The surprise is that it costs only $159 per couple (plus tax and tips) for a double room for two nights, continental breakfasts, wine reception, Saturday evening buffet, plus all classes and tastings. The classes will include Cajun cooking, a celebration dinner, an Italian dinner, "lite" French Gourmet, kitchen gadgets, microwave cooking and a talk by Betty Groff, Pennsylvania restaurateur and author, on Pennsylvania Dutch cooking. To fill in the crevices will be a "grand tasting" of local foods. For reservations and information call 1-800-624-8300.
HUNGARIAN COLD RED PEPPER SAUCE
(Makes about 1 cup)
This pepper pure'e has a very different flavor from the usual pepper coulis. And if fresh peppers are not available, it can be made with dried powdered peppers -- paprika -- as in the recipe below. Just be sure to buy a good brand of Hungarian paprika for the occasion.
4 red bell peppers
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons paprika
7 tablespoons dry red wine
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Peppers can be used raw, but if skins are thick and bitter you may prefer to char and peel them. To do so, hold peppers over an open flame with a fork or cook under the broiler, turning frequently, just until the skin is charred. Put peppers in a paper bag and close for 5 minutes to loosen skins. Remove and peel peppers.
In a food processor or blender, grind the peppers finely. Add salt to taste, paprika, wine and black pepper to taste. Process until smooth. Serve with grilled meats.
COLD PAPRIKA SAUCE
(Makes about 1/3 cup)
2/3 cup water
4 tablespoons paprika
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 to 1/2 cup dry red wine
Bring water to a boil. Whisk in paprika and keep on whisking until sauce begins to thicken. As it cools it will get thick. Add salt and pepper to taste, then thin to the consistency of tartar sauce with wine. Serve with grilled meats. Also good on baked potatoes.
1988, Washington Post Writers Group