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Preserving Peppers, Preserving the Last Light of Summer

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Monday, Sep 16, 2013
Fresh pepper season is maddeningly short in Northern California. We get but a few colorful weeks in late August and early September. The clock is ticking.

Fresh pepper season is maddeningly short in Northern California. We get but a few colorful weeks in late August and early September. I’m not speaking of hot peppers, which contain the heat-causing chemical, capsaicin. They’re a whole other peck, botanically speaking. I write of sweet peppers, beautiful bells, red, orange, and yellow.

Hurry.The clock is ticking.

The world divides between pepper fanatics and normal people, who stand by, bemused, while the preservers amongst us amass gallons of lemon juice, olive oil, and white wine vinegar to can, marinate, and pickle, frenzied, before the squash shoulders in and takes over.
In Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin devotes an entire essay to red peppers. She was especially enamored of “red pepper sludge”, red peppers fried in olive oil and tipped into a glass jar with the olive oil they were fried in, along with garlic and lemon juice. This is a delicious thing to make if you don’t can (or even if you do), as the peppers will keep at least three months under oil. Just be careful to use a clean fork when lifting them out of the jar, to ‘preserve’ their freshness.

Molly O’Neill followed up on Colwin’s essay in A Well-Seasoned Appetite, writing:

We (O’Neill and Colwin) shopped for peppers together once and both instinctively reached for the same: red, orange, and yellow ones; delicate, long, and skinny, everything, in other words, that we were not.

O’Neill’s pepper recipes include a tapenade, a bisque, and a stuffed red-pepper recipe. People love stuffing peppers, and they are indeed wonderful this way.  But given the California sweet pepper’s brief appearance—I think Madonna’s last performance here probably lasted longer—my focus is on preservation, with a few fleeting seasonal treats tossed in. 

* * *

Nearly all pepper preparations begin with blistering the pepper’s skin. This makes them more digestible while giving a marvelous smoky taste. All of my cookbooks tell me this is best done over an open flame, preferably outdoors. Lacking outdoor flame, my gas stovetop does a fab job. For eight years I lived in an apartment with a substandard electric stove; the stovetop was worthless, but I managed to coax the broiler along.  Do not be deterred by photographs of Alice Waters’s kitchen, with its built in fireplace, or quotes like this: “Lulu scorns the barbaric habit of turning the peppers over a gas flame to blister the skins and holding them beneath running water the rub the skins off.”

This comes from Lulu’s Provencal Table, written by Richard Olney. Lulu is Lulu Peyraud, of Domaine Tempier Vineyards. She had at her disposal a capacious indoor fireplace, an outdoor grill, and an outdoor firepit. She could afford to be snobby about her peppers, though anyone familiar with Richard Olney’s temperament and writing style might wonder who really thought charring peppers over a gas flame “barbaric”.

As for rinsing peppers under water, Lulu is correct. Your peppers will be cleaner, but the smoky taste will wash away with the skins. Many cookbooks get around this by suggesting you cool freshly blistered peppers in plastic bags to help loosen the skins, which makes no sense to me: why would you want plastic adhering to your peppers? Just wait for them to cool and peel them over a trash bin or bowl. They need not be perfect. A few stray bits of seed and skin are okay. So is an imperfect kitchen. 

* * *

I rely on Eugenia Bone’s marinated bell pepper recipe from her excellent Well-Preserved to get me through a winter’s worth of office lunches, endless variations on a theme of sandwiches scarfed at my desk: cheese, roasted tomatoes (until the terrible January day I run out), sometimes avocado, and always, always those marinated peppers, which I put up over two crazed, hot September weekends. There’s never enough time to can, but never enough peppers. 

It must also be admitted that preparing marinated bell peppers is something of a production: the peppers must be blistered and peeled, which takes time when done in volume, the marinade prepared precisely, for this is canning, and one does not flirt with Botulism. The marinade entails combining lemon juice, white wine vinegar, olive oil, and garlic in a pot and allowing it to come to a boil, putting your peeled peppers into jars and pouring the marinade over it, then putting this in a hot water bath for 15 minutes. 

Your kitchen will be awash in black pepper flakes, and somehow you will either have too much marinade or need to make more. That’s cooking for you. If you’re a pepper freak, your suffering will be forgotten come November, as you bite into a goat cheese and marinated red pepper sandwich at your desk.  It will be your lunch hour, which you are spending answering email. As you type with one hand, the other clutches a small piece of heaven. Illegitmi non carborundum.

* * *

If you’d like to preserve peppers but don’t or won’t can, check out Judy Rodgers’s Rosemary-Pickled Gypsy Peppers Recipe, from the justly lauded Zuni Café Cookbook. Calling for vinegar, rosemary, olive oil, sugar, salt, and minimal time, the resulting jars of peppers last indefinitely. I turn to this recipe when I have a few peppers rolling around after canning. These slightly sweet peppers offer consolation after the marinated ones are but a memory. 

* * *

If you are a ‘normal’ person who thinks peppers are ‘nice’, here are two ways to eat them right now. 

1. Roast your peppers in whatever way you can. Slice them into strips, and slide them under olive oil to which you’ve added some sliced garlic and a little salt. At this time of year, roasted peppers are wonderful with tomatoes, avocado, and fresh mozzarella.  I’d tell you how long the peppers keep if I could refrain from eating them all up within a few days.

2. Slice as many peppers as there are eaters into strips and fry them (the peppers, not the eaters) gently in your best olive oil. Many cooks feel their best olive oil should only be used to finish dishes, but I feel it’s appropriate here. Besides, life is too short for crummy olive oil. Buy the best you can afford and enjoy it.

If you are so inclined, you can add sliced onions and garlic to your gently frying peppers. You might also add a glug of white wine, vermouth, or broth. This can be added to a sandwich, eggs, or eaten as a side dish. You can also pile the cheese of your choice on a tortilla, place your peppers atop, slide this under the broiler a few minutes, and call it tortilla pizza. 

* * *

Yesterday the air changed in my little patch of the world. Although still warm, there’s an ‘edge’. The quality of light during the day has changed, and night falls earlier. In our human-warped climate, Fall has arrived early this year. So enjoy the last of this season’s tomatoes, corn and peppers. And don’t stint on the olive oil.

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