My infatuation with green peppers began in the small Iowa farming town where I grew up. The soil there was black. Not dark brown, black. Like licorice. And that old cliché that anything you stuck into the ground would grow? Completely true.
I know this because of my father’s enormous garden. Tucked away on the upper part of our lot, it held row after row of onions, tomatoes, Swiss chard, sweet corn. And of course, bell peppers.
On long afternoons, when it seemed that nothing would ever happen in this little town where everyone knew everyone, we would sit silently on the ground, picking and eating fat green bell peppers like apples. Hot from the sun, almost lush but subtly bitter, they were curiously comforting, their crisp complexity somehow taking me to another place.
But my appreciation of these peppers is not based just on nostalgia. Over the years I’ve found that they have distinct culinary virtues. Instead of adding the sweetness of riper versions, they provide a subtle hit of a bitter, fresher, cooler flavor, as well as more of a crunch. You may even argue that they are more sophisticated than their gaudily colored mature selves. Sweeter is always easier to like.
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I am not the only one who thinks this way. In certain parts of the world, green bells demand respect. Chinese and Creole cooks, in particular, are fond of them. They’re a staple in moqueca, the Brazilian fish stew. But perhaps no one revels more in green peppers than cooks from Spain, particularly the Basque region.
So when I mentioned my love for them to Alex Raij, the Basque chef and owner (with her husband, Eder Montero) of Txikito and El Quinto Pino in Manhattan and La Vara in Brooklyn, I found a soul mate.
“I love green peppers so much,” she said. “They are great with salt cod and anchovies, both of which I use a lot. Plus, I love the liquor that comes out of them when they’re rested after being roasted or grilled. It has a really clean, lean pepper flavor.”
Raij uses this rare liquor in a dish of olive oil-poached cod that rests on a purée made from green bell peppers, a bit of onion and a single poblano, a mildly spicy relative of the bell. The finished fish is drizzled lightly with the liquor, perfectly integrating the two components. If any seafood dish can be described as simultaneously voluptuous and refreshing, it is this one.
Many traditional Basque recipes feature green peppers. Perhaps the most well known is piperade, in which green peppers, onions and tomatoes are simply sautéed together and flavored with piment d’Espelette, a mild red chili from the Basque region of southern France. Piperade can be a main dish (usually with the addition of ham), a side dish or a kind of condiment, my favorite use. It’s particularly nice with grilled chicken and fish.
But truly, if you have the land and the patience, the very best option is to grow your own peppers and eat them right off the plant. After a lapse of many years, I finally did this again last summer. And even in the urban surroundings of my present life, the clear, clean flavors of the sun-warmed peppers retained their curious power to comfort and inspire.
Makes about 2½ to 3 cups
3 plum tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped, about 2 cups
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 medium green bell peppers, stem, seeds and ribs removed, roughly chopped
½ teaspoon salt
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon piment d’Espelette (or substitute hot paprika)
1. Cut a small X into bottom of each tomato. Bring a pan of water to a boil, add tomatoes and cook until skin begins to wrinkle and peel at the edges of the cuts, about 30 seconds. Drain, rinse with cool water and peel off skin. Roughly chop tomatoes and set aside.
2. In a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat, heat oil until hot but not smoking. Add onions, peppers and salt and sauté, stirring frequently, until onions are translucent and peppers have started to lighten in spots, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and continue to sauté for 1 more minute.
3. Stir in tomatoes, sugar and piment d’Espelette, reduce heat to medium, cover and cook until tomatoes are starting to fall apart and peppers are soft but still hold their shape, about 15 minutes. Remove cover and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until mixture thickens like a slightly runny relish, about five minutes more. Adjust salt.
OLIVE OIL POACHED COD WITH GREEN PEPPER PURÉE
2 green bell peppers
1 poblano pepper
Half a medium onion, sliced into wedges
1½ cups extra virgin olive oil
4 4-ounce cod fillets of equal thickness
1. Heat oven to 450 degrees. Cover a baking sheet with foil and add the whole bell peppers, poblano and onion wedges. Salt well and roast, turning every 10 minutes, until peppers collapse and are dark brown or black on at least half of their surfaces, 30 to 35 minutes.
2. Set onions aside. Put peppers in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let stand for at least 20 minutes. Reserve liquor that accumulates in bowl and slice peppers open to catch any more. Remove skins, stems and seeds from peppers. (Avoid doing this under water, because it removes some of the smoky flavor.)
3. In a food processor or blender, purée peppers and onions to yield 1 cup, season to taste and set aside.
4. Salt the cod generously and allow to stand for at least five or up to 20 minutes. In an enameled or nonstick pan, heat oil over medium heat until just warm. Reduce heat to medium low, slide cod into olive oil, cover the pan tightly and cook until cod just begins to flake, about six to eight minutes.
5. Brush or dab a line of pepper purée on each of four plates, place a piece of cod over each line, drizzle first with olive oil from the cooking pan, then with pepper liquor.