Recipes drawn from many cuisines contain the elusive instruction that a pepper -- be it a sweet multicolored bell pepper or its first cousin, the fiery chili -- should be "roasted, peeled, seeded and ..."
There are almost as many ways to accomplish this task as there are species of peppers; knowing how can make the difference between success and failure of a satiny Italian roasted pepper salad sparked with heady balsamic vinegar, or a red pepper pure'e sauce to top grilled fish or chicken.
Right now, colorful peppers are usually at their most affordable, since they are harvested from local farms as well as being imported from Holland amid bunches of tulips. Green peppers -- always available and most always cheaper than colored peppers -- are merely immature peppers picked before they turn color. They are less expensive because they are not as perishable in this young condition, and they are easier to transport.
While green peppers are a pleasing color, mature peppers can achieve a range of rainbow hues -- red, yellow, brown, orange and purple. Green peppers also are harsher in flavor and less mellow than those that have ripened.
Peppers are native to the Americas. Most species of sweet peppers now grow abundantly in Europe and Asia, where they arrived in the 16th century.
In regard to their botany, the seeds should serve as a clue that peppers (genus Capsicum) are part of the nightshade family, along with tomatoes and eggplants, other New World crops. It's with these vegetables that they are frequently prepared in the Mediterranean countries. Pepper Perfection We all remember the era before people were wary of sunbathing and overdosed on noontime rays, frequently leading to sunburn. The skin from the sunburn would peel off in a thin layer, exposing pale skin. That's what happens to peppers before they are used in many recipes.
Achieving this perfect pepper is a two part process; some form of heat is necessary to cause blistering or charing of the outer skin, a shiny epidermis protecting the tender flesh. Once that occurs, the pepper must be cooled so the skin separates from the flesh and can be pulled off.
Partially cooking the pepper's flesh while heating it to remove the skin changes its texture from crisp crunch to tender and supple. The degree of tenderness is not only determined by the type of pepper, but also the methods chosen for roasting and peeling.
For recipes such as a pepper salad in which you want the peppers to retain a degree of firmness, it is better to roast and chill them quickly. For recipes such as a sauce in which the pepper is pure'ed, more tender peppers are desirable. Simulating a Sunburn The heating stage can be accomplished by a variety of means. While I've seen professional chefs blast peppers with a blow torch, I do not recommend it.
Here are some suggested alternatives for both bell peppers and chili peppers. If peeling chili peppers, make a small slit into the flesh by the cap since chilies have a tendency to explode; this is not necessary for bell peppers:
For a large number of peppers, and to retain the most texture, lower them gently into 375 degree oil and fry until the skin blisters. Turn them with tongs when one side is blistered, since they will float on the surface of the oil. This method is also the most effective if peppers are not perfectly shaped, since it is difficult to get the heat from a broiler into the folds of peppers. It is also the method recommended for dishes such as chilies rellenos, since peppers need to be almost raw to withstand a second frying.
Place the peppers six inches from the broiler element of the stove, turning them with tongs until all surfaces are charred.
Place the peppers four inches above a hot charcoal or gas grill, and turn them until the skin is charred.
Place a wire cake rack or grill top found in gourmet shops designed for this purpose over a gas or electric burner set at the highest temperature, and turn the peppers with tongs until all surfaces are charred.
Place the peppers on a rack on a cookie sheet in a 550-degree oven until totally blistered. While this technique does not require the amount of attention as other methods, and it cooks a number of peppers at once, it does render the flesh mushy. Only use it for a sauce or other recipe in which the peppers are destined to be pure'ed. The Big Chill As the peppers are roasted (or fried), the next decision is how to cool them. The options are not as plentiful as ways to roast them, and the decision should be predicated by their final disposition.
The fastest way to peel and seed them is to place them in ice water. This stops the cooking action immediately, and cools them enough for peeling within a minute.
(It's a good idea to keep a bowl of ice water handy when cooking all vegetables. In addition to stopping the cooking action, a plunge also sets the color to keep cooked vegetables from fading.)
The other alternative is to wrap the peppers in a plastic bag and allow them to steam. This also effectively separates the flesh from the skin, but it will be 20 minutes or longer before they are cool enough to handle, and they are continuing to soften during that time.
There are no choices to make for the final step: Pull the skin off, remove the seeds, and rinse the peppers under cold water.
Congratulations. You've completed the task summarized as "roasted, peeled and seeded."
EASY ROASTED PEPPER SALAD (6 servings)
6 bell peppers (preferably of different colors, such as a few each of red, yellow and green), roasted, peeled and seeded
DRESSING (Makes 3/4 cup):
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon finely minced shallots
Pinch of pepper
Pinch of thyme
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons anchovy paste (or 1/2 teaspoon salt)
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup fruity olive oil
The best method for preparing the peppers would be broiling and plunging into ice water (see above). Then, cut the peppers into strips 1/3-inch wide, and drain in a colander.
Combine the garlic, shallots, pepper, thyme, mustard, anchovy paste and vinegar in a mixing bowl and stir well to blend. Slowly whisk in the olive oil in a slow stream, beating until emulsified. Stir in the peppers, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Remove from the refrigerator 1 hour before serving.
Note: The peppers and dressing can be made up to 2 days in advance and refrigerated, tightly covered with plastic wrap. Do not combine them more than 1 day in advance of serving.
Per serving of salad with 1 tablespoon dressing: 75 calories, 1 gm protein, 4.5 gm carbohydrates, 6 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 44 mg sodium.
Per tablespoon of dressing: 57 calories, .3 gm protein, .6 gm carbohydrates, 6 gm fat, .9 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 42 mg sodium.
CHILIES RELLENOS STUFFED WITH HERBED CHEVRE (6 servings)
6 Anaheim or poblanoSTART NOTE: END NOTE chilies (or small green or red bell peppers if desperate)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon minced shallots
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil ( 1/2 teaspoon dried)
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme ( 1/4 teaspoon dried)
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary ( 1/4 teaspoon dried)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pinch of white pepper
1/4 pound mild goat cheese, crumbled
1/4 pound whole milk mozzarella cheese, grated
Oil or shortening for deep frying
2 tablespoons milk
Flour for dredging
Fresh tomato salsa (your favorite recipe) on the side, optional
The best way to peel these peppers is to fry them in oil and then plunge into ice water (see above). Carefully remove the skin, keeping the cap and flesh whole. Make a slit down one side, and carefully cut out the seeds. Rinse the peppers in cold water, and drain on paper towels.
Heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic, and saute', stirring constantly, for 3 minutes. Scrape the mixture into a bowl and add the basil, thyme, rosemary, parsley, salt, pepper, goat cheese and mozzarella. Mix well, and form the mixture into 6 cylinders the same size as the peppers. Place one in each, skewer the peppers shut with toothpicks, and chill for 1 hour.
Heat the oil to 375 degrees. Beat the egg with the milk, and dip the filled peppers. Roll in flour, and fry in the hot oil until brown, turning gently with tongs. Remove with tongs, drain on paper towels, and serve immediately, accompanied by salsa, if desired.
Note: The peppers can be completed up through the chilling stage a day in advance and refrigerated, tightly covered with plastic wrap.
Per serving: 401 calories, 9 gm protein, 22 gm carbohydrates, 32 gm fat, 9 gm saturated fat, 61 mg cholesterol, 381 mg sodium.
Ellen Brown is a Washington-based food writer and prize-winning author of "The Gourmet Gazelle Cookbook."