If you’ve ever planted peppers then you know what overwhelming bounty is. It always amazes me how many peppers a scrawny little pepper plant can produce. And the variety! There’s a flavor for everyone, from hot to spicy to sweet. I love them all, but my heart belongs to the bell, that stir fry perennial.
Green bell peppers are unripe red or orange bell peppers, and they are great raw, and cooked with fish and shellfish. Red (or orange) sweet peppers are also good raw, and perfect for broiling, marinating, and stewing. Look for wrinkle free peppers with shiny, taut skin. One medium sized bell pepper yields about ½ cup chopped pepper, and there are 4 or 5 medium peppers to a pound. They grow in eleven out of thirteen hardiness zones, and from what I can tell, that means everywhere on the continental US. Bells are resistant to most pests, which may be why you see a gazillion of them in farmer’s markets in the summer, usually at pretty great prices. Yeah, it’s hard to just buy one.
That’s what got me started marinating and canning them. I put up a pint or two a week throughout the season, usually while I am hanging around the kitchen cooking dinner anyway. And I eat them like crazy in fresh dishes. I broil and peel them and make salads with boiled shrimp, or warm potatoes, or canned tuna fish. I’ll sauté a mass of sliced ripe bells with onions and sometimes garlic and from that make multiple dishes: pan cook veal chops with peppers, onions, and white wine; pureed peppers and onions thinned with a bit of chicken stock and poured over penne, then garnished with Parmesan cheese and chopped parsley; a summer fish stew composed of skate, squid, and mussels, peppers and onions, and seasoned with a dash of vinegar.
But I think my favorite summer pepper dish is sautéed peppers and onions with eggs poached on top. This was the dish that my father dreamt of when he was a frightened infantryman in Austria in 1944, the dish I dreamt of when I was living in a windowless room in the back of a bar in New Orleans in the early ’80s, the dish my daughter dreamt of as she trudged through the Canadian snow to get to class last year. No dish is more personal to me, and I think that’s because it is simple and true and embodies two very important things: summer and home.
Eggs Poached on Sweet Peppers and Onions
This is the perfect summer dinner: light, fresh, nutritious, and easy. It is simply cooked vegetables with eggs poached on top. You can use any vegetable combination you like (zucchini, onion, and boiled potatoes, for example) but if you don’t use tomatoes you will need to compensate for the lack of moisture by adding about ½ to ¾ cup chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water to the vegetable sauté. SERVES 4
¼ cup olive oil
2 sweet red peppers, sliced
2 medium onions, sliced
2 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 large eggs
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
In a large skillet with a fitted lid, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the peppers and onions and cook until the peppers are almost soft, about 8 minutes. Add the tomatoes and basil and cook until all the vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes. Add salt to taste.
With the back of a spoon, create 8 indentations in the vegetables. Carefully crack the eggs in the indentations. Don’t let the eggs touch the bare bottom of the pan or the sides or they will burn or stick. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the pan and simmer until the whites of the eggs are set, 6 to 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with the Parmesan and parsley. Serve promptly.
Marinated chopped peppers are an incentive to make great food fast. Just the fact that I can spoon the peppers out of a jar and not even have to cut them up has led to spontaneous and delicious dishes. For example, I toss these peppers with boiled shrimp, garnished with parsley, or make a quick dip/spread by mashing the peppers with feta cheese or softened goat cheese and dill or cilantro, or brown sausages, chicken parts, or lamb shoulder chops, add the peppers, and finish cooking. I love to make pimento cheese (in the food processor, ½ cup homemade mayo, ½ cup grated cheddar, ½ cup goat and/or cream cheese, ¹/³ cup drained, marinated peppers), and always, romesco sauce (recipe below). MAKES 3 PINTS
2 pounds sweet red peppers (8 to 10 peppers)
2 cups white wine vinegar (5% acidity)
1 cup fresh lemon juice (5 large lemons; save the zest—it freezes well)
1 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons dried oregano
1½ teaspoons pickling salt
Char and peel the peppers (description on page 32). Allow the peppers to come down to room temperature. Halve the peppers and remove the seedpod and stems. Chop the peppers.
In a medium saucepan, combine the vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, oregano, and salt and bring to a boil over medium heat. Add the peppers and toss them in the marinade.
Have ready 3 clean pint jars (or a combination of half-pints and pints) and bands, and new lids that have been simmered in hot water to soften the rubberized flange. Spoon the peppers into the jars and cover with the marinade, making sure the garlic and oregano are distributed evenly throughout the jars. Leave ½ inch of headroom. Wipe the rims, place on the lids, and screw on the bands fingertip tight.
Process the jars in a water bath for 15 minutes at sea level. Process the jars for an additional 2 minutes for every 1,000 feet above sea level. Remove from the water, let the jars rest for 24 hours, and then check the seals. If the jars seem a little greasy, it is okay. Just wipe them down with a bit of vinegar. The peppers may float at first but don’t worry; they will settle down.
Romesco sauce is a lively Catalonian pesto full of roasted garlic flavor. Serve it with grilled shrimp, over cold sliced boiled beets, or with lamb meatballs. The romesco sauce freezes perfectly. You can also cover the sauce with oil and hold it in the refrigerator for about 10 days. MAKES ABOUT 1 CUP
1 garlic bulb, peels on
2 small dried chipotle chiles
4 dried tomatoes
1 cup chopped marinated peppers, drained, oil reserved
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Place the garlic bulb on a baking sheet in the middle of the oven and roast for 15 minutes until very tender.
In a small bowl, soak the dried chiles in ½ cup water until soft, about 10 minutes, then drain.
In a separate bowl, soak the dried tomatoes in ½ cup water until soft, about 10 minutes, but do not drain.
In a food processor, or with a mortar and pestle, combine 2 cloves roasted garlic, chiles, tomatoes, tomato soaking water, marinated peppers, pine nuts, and salt to taste and puree.
If needed, to keep the sauce soft and loose, add the oil reserved from draining the peppers 1 tablespoon at a time.
To make the sauce very smooth, press through a fine-mesh sieve. If you are going to serve immediately or freeze, add water to loosen to the consistency of yogurt. Do not add water if you are going to preserve in oil.
To freeze, pour the sauce into a freezer container leaving ½ inch of headroom. To preserve in oil, spoon the sauce into a sterilized jar (boiled in water for 10 minutes at sea level, adding 1 minute for every 1,000 feel above sea level). Tap down the jar to eliminate air pockets and cover the sauce with a layer of oil. Refrigerate. Pour off the oil (it can be use to recover the sauce) and spoon out the sauce as needed.
Note: Even though I only need 2 garlic cloves for this recipe, I roast a whole bulb to combine with butter and smear onto grilled meat. Yowee.
How to Broil Peppers
Some recipes will call for the peppers to be charred and the skin to be removed from the pepper. You can do this under the broiler or on top of a gas burner, directly on the heat. Under the broiler is more convenient and faster, but the peppers easily overcook. Cooking on the burner, where you place a couple of peppers on each burner and turn them with tongs until they are blistered all over, is more work, but produces a more controlled result. (If you use this technique the kitchen will fill with a tasty burning smell. I always get calls from my neighbors when I use this method.) I use the broiler with the door open so I can watch them more closely. Heat the broiler to hot. Place the peppers on a cookie tray. Place under the broiler. Turn the peppers as they blister. It takes about 5 minutes for a tray of peppers to roast. Some people like to put roasted peppers in bags to loosen the skin for easy removal. I don’t do it when using the broiler to blister peppers, because doing so steam cooks the peppers. As soon as you can handle the peppers, remove the skin. Usually, the skin will slip off in a few big peels. If some skin sticks, it’s okay. Remove the seedpod, and rinse out the seeds.
Peppers are a low acid food and generally have to be pressure canned to be shelf stable. You have to blanch or blister them first, then pack in jars and cover with boiled water, leaving 1-inch headroom. Pints process for 35 minutes at 10/11 psi at sea level, depending on the type of pressure canner you have. Be sure to make altitude adjustments when canning (check nchfp
.uga.edu/how/can_04/peppers.html for altitude adjustments). The USDA has developed a recipe for marinated peppers, a kind of mildly pickled peppers that can be safely water bath canned. And of course, you can pickle peppers, from sweet or hot cultivars, and water bath can the jars. Peppers can be frozen raw, halved and seeded, and packed in freezer bags. Sweet peppers dry really well, much like a dried tomato, and can be used in many of the same recipes. Remove the seeds and cut them in quarters. Blanch for 4 minutes and drain well. Dry in a food dryer at 135°F for 8 to 12 hours until the peppers are tough. Store in a jar in the pantry or fridge.
Grow Your Own
Peppers love Florida’s heat and humidity, but not harsh sunlight. If you plant before the recommended window in August and September, look for a spot with dappled shade or try seedlings in containers placed on a patio. For tips from a Master Gardener, look for your county’s UF/IFAS Extension office at solutionsforyourlife.com.
Eugenia Bone is a cook and author whose stories and recipes have appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country, including The New York Times Magazine, Saveur, Food & Wine, Gourmet, Fine Cooking, The Wine Enthusiast, Martha Stewart Living, and The Wall Street Journal, among many others. She is the author of five books, among them Italian Family Dining, and Well Preserved: Recipes and Techniques for Putting Up Small Batches of Seasonal Food (nominated for a James Beard award); Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms, and The Kitchen Ecosystem: Integrating Recipes to Create Delicious Meals. Visit Eugenia’s blog, thekitchenecosystem.com.