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Archive for Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Red peppers add appeal, flavor to variety of dishes

January 21, 2004

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Few things stop my shopping cart dead in its tracks like a sign that says red bell peppers are on sale for 88 cents. Red peppers usually are priced anywhere from $1.50 to $2 apiece, so when they drop below a dollar, I buy several.

This happened last week, and since then we've eaten red peppers in something every day. I love them fresh in salads, eaten alone as a snack or as a roasted ingredient in a variety of dishes. Once roasted, red peppers can be pureed for use in sauces or as a spread or used whole as a pizza topping or sandwich ingredient.

To my way of thinking, the only vegetables that have as profound a flavor as red bell peppers are ripe tomatoes and asparagus. These three are in a class by themselves.

I do not recall eating red bell peppers until I was attending college in California in the 1970s. They were missing from my childhood in Kansas, which makes me wonder when, exactly, red peppers became mainstream enough to be common in Kansas.

Most varieties of red sweet peppers have the elongated, Italian-style fruit, although bell-shaped peppers have become increasingly common during the past 10 years.

Those in our stores at this time of year are imported from distant and warmer places, of course, but red peppers are simple to grow here during the gardening season. Home gardeners who will be buying seeds to plant this spring should consider putting red bell peppers on the list.

While green peppers turn red after they have been left on the vine, the most flavorful red peppers often are those that are intended to be eaten red. Some, like Giant Marconi and Vidi can be harvested when they are either green or red, while others are meant to be picked only when they are fully mature. These varieties include Giant Aconcagua, La Rouge Royale and Red Beauty.

The sweetness of fresh red bell peppers is distinctive, but so is the flavor produced by roasting. One of my favorite ways to eat roasted peppers is on an open-faced sandwich. I spread Dijon mustard and mayonnaise on a slice of lightly toasted sourdough and then top it with slices of roasted pepper and, finally, with a slice of Fontina. Place the assembled sandwich under the broiler long enough to melt and brown the cheese.

Roasted peppers are sold by the jar, but it's simple to roast them yourself.

To prepare roasted red bell peppers, cut them lengthwise and remove the seeds. Place them skin side up on a broiler pan, brush with olive oil and set them under a preheated broiler, two to three inches from the heat source. Turn the peppers as the skin begins to blacken, so that the skins are blackened uniformly.

Remove the peppers from the heat, place them in a plastic bag and seal the bag. You also can place them in a bowl and cover it with plastic wrap. Either of these methods is more effective than steaming them in a paper bag, which is a common method. Let the peppers steam for 15 or 20 minutes, then remove them and peel off their skins.

Place the peeled peppers in a shallow dish, drizzle them with lemon juice, and sprinkle them with ground black pepper. Store them in the refrigerator to use during the next few days.

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