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Roasted red peppers

After many years, I?ve finally got round to adding some pictures to this page! Conveniently, today?s (8 August 2011) batch of four peppers exactly filled our grill-pan.

Roasted vegetables are one of the finest of Italyís many wonderful contributions to the life of the dedicated eater, and for me roasted red peppers are the best of all. Regardless of the wild fluctuations in the price of peppers through the year, I consider these to be an absolute necessity, and they are rarely absent from my fridge.

A slight diversion - to Milan

Wife Number Two and I spent a strange August afternoon and evening in Milan with our friends Giorgio and Marisa a few years ago. Like many other southern European working cities Milan is more-or-less closed in August, and Giorgio had a wonderful time driving his Lancia Thema to places where he can only ever normally take his Vespa.

We visited the Galleria, which must be the up-market-est shopping mall in the world. Better, Marisa - who liaises with posh shops for the city council - took us into some of the poshest and got us VIP treatment.

We visited the Duomo - the vast Gothic cathedral with its hundreds of intricate spires, and then had an espresso on the top floor of a neighbouring department store whose windows overlook the roof, and the spires, at close quarters.

We visited the Castello Sforzesco, an immense citadel where Wife Number Two got into trouble for taking flash photographs of the unfinished Rondanini Pietŗ, on which Michelangelo was working until a few days before he died (can a flash of light really damage Carrara marble?).

And, after a luxurious wash-and-brushup in Giorgioís sumptuous office (heís a financial consultant of considerable standing), where the staff loo actually has a bidet, we went to a thoroughly Italian restaurant run by a thoroughly Egyptian management and staff. I had sensational spaghetti followed by carpaccio - what looked like a vast amount of paper-thin slices of raw beef fillet drizzled generously with fragrant olive oil and covered with flakes of Parmesan, all accompanied by light, crisp bread.

Wife Number Two, meanwhile, had discovered a huge buffet table offering a vast array of roasted vegetables, and feasted on these.

Back to business

The trick with peppers is to get rid of the skin - which is tough, acid and indigestible - leaving behind only the sweet flesh. Roasting - and cooling my way - does this, with the added benefit of caramelising some of the sugar in the flesh to enrich the flavour and the colour of the juice.

My friend Anne (she and husband Jeff have a house in Provence, our base for many wine-buying expeditions) has always served roasted peppers drizzled with olive oil. I discovered that, left alone in the fridge for a day or so, they bleed the most wonderful sweet juice, deep red-brown with natural caramel if youíve got the cooking right. Freshly turned in this, with no other dressing or seasoning, they are simply sublime.

If you want to experiment, the only improvement Iíve found is to drain off the juice and stir in a few drops at a time of good balsamic vinegar and keep tasting - a horrible job! (this condiment gets thicker, sweeter, better and a whole lot more expensive as its surplus water evaporates slowly through its oak barrels - use the best you can afford). You may also want to try a soupÁonof salt, but beware of mucking about with this most delicious of tastes.

The first version of this recipe I found told me to impale a whole pepper on a toasting fork (have you got a toasting fork?) and turn it in the flames of a gas ring until charred black all over, and then to pick the skin off under the tap. I tried this - once. The flames couldnít reach into the clefts of the pepper, so I only got rid of part of the skin - the rest was just tougher than it had been to start with and the charred bits were bitter and objectionable. Stuff that for a game of soldiers!

Iím pretty sure I learned the crucial trick with the polythene bag from one of the splendid Sophie Grigsonís TV programmes. Using a bowl and clingfilm is my own refinement.

Method

Strictly speaking, youíre grilling the peppers rather than roasting them - and you need a very hot grill. The number of peppers you can do depends on the size of the grill-pan or roasting tin you use and the area covered by the grill itself. Do as many as you can, first because youíll be sorry if you donít and second because it makes the washing-up easier.

Unless you have a roasting tin thatís already been used for this purpose so many times that it has a thick black crust of burnt-on oil (as mine has), youíll need to brush your utensil lightly but thoroughly with oil.

Itís all in the cutting
The next thing you need is a razor-sharp narrow-bladed knife. Until recently I used a Swedish filleting knife which I bought very cheaply years ago in the chandlerís shop at the Lochinver Fishselling Company in the far north-west of Scotland (when Wife Number Two and I were still braving the gales and midges of the the Highland August, before we were seduced by the temPations of Switzerland, France and Italy). Sadly, I must have used the knife to open a parcel and thrown it away with the brown paper and polystyrene macaroni at some point, and I couldnít find a similar weapon in land-locked Derby (when I asked my fishmonger, he said íNo chance, me duck - yeríll have ter go ter Grimsby for one of them.í). A Kitchen Devils Professional Range 4in kitchen knife, which has a blade about half an inch wide that takes a wicked edge, is the latest tool for the job, but the handle is a lot smaller than the floating one on the filleting knife so itís harder to steer.

I start at the end of the pepper opposite the stalk and cut as accurately as possible along the clefts between the bulging bits until I hit the base of the stalk. Then, very gently, I coax the segments of pepper away from the stalk and core which, with most of the seeds attached, can go straight in the bin. If you do this very carefully you waste none of the pepperís precious flesh.

Stage Two is to run the knife along the edges of each segment to cut off any whitish membrane, then bang the slices on the chopping board to dislodge any seeds - they get everywhere.

Peppers are odd things. They seem to have real clefts - the ones with membranes attached to the core - and sort of embryo ones which are seen as pale lines on the inside. Stage Three is to cut each piece along that line if it has one. This produces segments which are reasonably flat across, though they will still have considerable lengthways curvature.

Stage Four is to trim off and discard the tatty bit where the flesh broke away from the stalk. I remove as little as possible, because the real trimmings are going to be used in another recipe.

Stage Five is to hold each segment up so that itís standing on the stalk end, lay the flat of the knife across the inside of the segment and cut straight down. This ensures that the segment will lie nice and flat in the grill-pan.

Finally, if there is much curve at the non-stalk end, I trim that flat and parallel with the other end.

The peppers cut, trimmed and laid out in the grill-pan
Four peppers made a perfect fit in our grill-pan

Cooking
Assuming all this hasnít already put you off, lay the segments in your tin or pan, skin side up. Try to keep them as close together as possible (by alternating them sharp end to blunt end), especially if your grillpan is freshly oiled, because it will reduce the amount of smoke that fills your kitchen (this recipe send my smoke-alarm ballistic) and the amount of scrubbing you have to do afterwards. Avoid overlaps, though - you donít want any skin to miss the heat or youíll have trouble detaching it. It pays to anticiPate the jigsaw-puzzle phase by choosing peppers that are all about the same length and general shape.

If this all sounds absurdly complicated, itís partly because Iím a finnicky old fart who likes playing with sharp knives but mostly because you need the segments of pepper to lie as flat as possible, skin-side up, in your grill-pan. This ensures that the skins cook evenly so you can remove them whole with the minimum of effort.

Get the grill as hot as you can and get the pan as close to it as you can. If your cooker allows it, turn the pan through 90 degrees periodically - the more evenly the peppers cook, the better. Iím very lucky: my Dutch double oven came with three a stock-control error, Iím sure) roasting tins that are exactly square, so I can rotate the peppers several times during cooking. I also discovered early on that using the full grill rather than the economy one makes all the elements a lot hotter (something to do with Ohmís Law and the way theyíre wired, I guess).

If, like many, your grill isnít very hot, the peppers will cook too slowly and the flesh will go mushy before the skins are charred. Thereís not much you can do about that except buy another cooker. Frankly, this dish is sensational enough to justify the investment.

Knowing when to stop

The next trick is judging just when to stop cooking. The skins will bubble and crackle and gradually turn black. However flat your segments are, some areas will cook more rapidly than others, and you need to be sure that most of the skin is black and the rest is at least seriously wrinkled. Donít leave it too long, though, or youíll overcook the flesh.

The peppers cooked
The skins need to be almost but not quite
black all over

As soon as you think theyíre done, shovel them into a basin and stretch clingfilm over the top. They must cool in their own steam, so donít waste any time getting them sealed in.

When the peppers are quite cool, peel the skins off. If youíve got the cooking right, the flesh will still be reasonably firm but the skins will be like cardboard and will lift away easily. If theyíre underdone, the skins will still be firmly attached in places. Try to do better next time. If theyíre overdone, the flesh will be too soggy and fragile to separate easily from the skins. Try even harder next time.

If you let them cool without sealing in the steam, the skins will be brittle and your peppers will end up covered in bitter black flakes. Yuk.

Drop the peeled segments in a clean bowl as you peel them, tip in any juice left in the cooling basin and chill. I donít usually cover my peppers, so over a couple of days in the fridge the juice concentrates wonderfully by evaporation.

And then...

Eat the peppers as part of a salad or serve them just by themselves - perhaps sprinkled with flaked Parmesan (use a peeler), which goes wonderfully soggy in the rich red-brown juice. If you donít think these are among the most delicious things youíve ever tasted, you probably wonít want to bother again. If you do, youíll persevere. It gets easier and the peppers get better. Really.

Oh yes - what do you do with the trimmings? Obviously you can use them for anything youíd normally use chopped peppers for. I usually use mine in a bean salad .

A super-simple sauce

Assuming you can resist just eating these sensational vegetables, try purťeing some with their caramel juice, adding a little salt and vinegar or freshly-squeezed lemon juice (play around until the balance seems right and donít drown the flavour of the peppers) and serving the resulting sauce, hot or cold, with just about anything.

I once used this as an substitute for tomatoes in a pasta sauce for a friend whose arthritis is seriously aggravated by fruit acids. It made a sensational alternative - though a monstrously expensive one, since I was serving the meal to six hungry vegetarians.

More realistically, it makes a wonderful alternative to tomato sauce with fried fish.

Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.

This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.