There are many ways to enjoy a bell pepper
Photographed by Eugenia Bone
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.
Green bell peppers are simply red or orange bell peppers that haven’t ripened yet. They are great raw, or cooked with fish and shellfish. Red and orange bell 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 half a cup of chopped pepper. They grow in 11 out of 13 hardiness zones, and from what I can tell, that means everywhere in the continental United States. Bells are resistant to most pests, which may be why you see a gazillion of them in farmers’ markets in the summer, usually at pretty great prices. Yeah, it’s hard to buy just 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-cooked veal chops with peppers, onions, and white wine; puréed peppers and onions thinned with a bit of chicken stock and poured over penne; a summer fish stew composed of skate, squid, 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, and 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.
HOW TO BROIL PEPPERS
Some recipes 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 and then place the tray under the broiler. Turn the peppers as they blister. It takes about five minutes for a tray of peppers to roast. 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. Blanch or blister them first, then pack in jars and cover with boiled water, leaving 1 inch of headroom. Process pints for 35 minutes at 10 or 11 psi at sea level, depending on the type of pressure canner you have. Be sure to make altitude adjustments when canning (check the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s website for altitude adjustments). The USDA has developed a recipe for marinated peppers, a kind of mildly pickled pepper 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 dried tomatoes, 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° for 8 to 12 hours until the peppers are tough. Store in a jar in the pantry or fridge.