Peter Piper might have picked a peck of pickled peppers, but Pete Aiello prefers his in their glorious pre-pickled state.
The owner and general manager of Uesugi Farms in Gilroy, Calif., likes his glossy green and red peppers stuffed, sliced into salads or basted with olive oil and tossed on a grill.
We might think of California as the land of artichokes, avocados and strawberries, but the state also leads the nation in bell pepper production, with nearly 9 million cubic tons. That's a lot of stuffed peppers — and this is peak season for farmers like Aiello, whose acreage stretches from Bakersfield to Brentwood.
Growing the "perfect pepper," Aiello says, is a lot like raising a large family. It's a matter of supplying plenty of "elbow grease and tender loving care" every day. But the work pays off when the plant reaches full size because you can harvest emerald green peppers from the same plant for months — or let them linger on the shrub until the sun turns them a sweet, rosy red.
The bell-shaped pepper adds bright color and flavor to all kinds of cuisines: savory Persian and Mediterranean dishes or fiery South American fare. It's no wonder that they pop up in virtually every cookbook, including a slew that have just been published. So we've taken a page of inspiration from three of the newest cookbooks, which give California's most mellow pepper its time in the sun.
You can hide those glorious bells in fajitas or drown them in chili, but better yet, give them a starring role at the dinner table, says Robert Irvine, who hosts Food Network's Dinner: Impossible — a reality show that sends its chef scrambling to prepare meals in such unlikely venues as an aircraft carrier and an ice hotel. In his newest cookbook, Impossible to Easy (William Morrow, $29.99), Irvine suggests tossing diced bell and serrano peppers with tequila-simmered shrimp and linguine for a "playful dish" that's as easy as it is beautiful.
Annie Bell, author of the new Gorgeous Vegetables (Kyle Books, $19.95), layers roasted red peppers with tomatoes, pesto and goat cheese for a gratin that tastes equally good hot, cold or at room temperature. Not a chevre devotee? Use mozzarella instead.
Roasted vegetables, she writes, are "one of the great basics of the kitchen," equally at home on the white tablecloth-draped dinner table, or tucked into a sandwich. And a little leftover gratin would be marvelous on ciabatta bread.
San Francisco food writer Fran Gage, author of The New American Olive Oil (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $29.95), uses red peppers in Spanish romescu sauce, Persian muhammara and that classic French picnic sandwich, pan bagnat. The latter is best eaten on a beach in Nice, she says, so you can rinse your hands in the Mediterranean Sea between bites. But then, that's probably true of most things.
Roasted pepper, goat cheese and pesto gratin
8 red peppers
3 tablespoons olive oil
7 ounces goat cheese, rind removed, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons pesto
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place peppers on oven rack and roast 20 minutes. Place them inside a plastic bag, wrap well and let cool several hours or overnight.
Skin the cooled peppers, discarding core and seeds. Cut peppers into wide strips. Bring a pan of water to a boil. Cut a cone from the top of each tomato to remove the core. Plunge them into boiling water for 20 seconds, then into cold water. Slip off the skins and slice the tomatoes.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Drizzle 1 tablespoon oil into bottom of 12-inch oval gratin dish or similar shallow, ovenproof pan. Arrange half the peppers in the bottom, and season with salt and pepper. Lay half the goat cheese over peppers, then the sliced tomatoes. Drizzle with half the pesto. Lay remaining peppers in place, season them, and scatter with remaining cheese. Drizzle with the rest of the pesto, and a couple tablespoons olive oil.
Bake 25-30 minutes. Let cool half an hour or so and serve, warm or at room temperature.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
from Gorgeous Vegetables by Annie Bell
4 round rolls or a baguette cut into 6-inch pieces
6 tablespoons medium or robust extra virgin olive oil
3 ounces tuna
8 anchovy fillets, rinsed and patted dry
1 small onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 red bell peppers, charred with skin, ribs and seeds removed
½ cup pitted Nicoise-style olives, rinsed, patted dry
Cut bread in half lengthwise. Pull out some of the inside to make more room for the filling.
Brush or drizzle olive oil evenly over all the inner surfaces.
Layer filling ingredients on bottom halves of bread and cover with the tops. Tightly wrap sandwiches in plastic for at least three hours at a cool room temperature before serving or in a refrigerator overnight. Serve at room temperature.
Makes 4 servings.
from The New American Olive Oil by Fran Gage
Linguine serrano with tequila, peppers and shrimp
2 pounds linguine
2 pounds medium shrimp, deveined
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil
1 cup seafood stock
1 shallot, minced
1 serrano pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
1 each red, yellow and green bell pepper, seeded and cut brunoise
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, minced, divided
½ teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
2 cups tequila, such as Sauza or Jose Cuervo
2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning
Salt, pepper to taste
Bring large pot of water to a boil for linguine. Peel shrimp, reserving shells and tails.
In large sauté pan, heat oil over medium heat. Add shrimp shells and tails and cook 2 minutes, or until they turn pink. Add stock. Simmer until liquid is reduced by half. Strain liquid into a bowl, discarding shells.
In the same pan, sauté shallot until it turns translucent. Add serrano and bell peppers, 1 tablespoon cilantro and crushed red pepper, and cook until peppers begin to soften, about 3 minutes.
Add tequila and reserved seafood stock, and cook until sauce is reduced by half, about 10 minutes over medium-high heat.
Meanwhile, cook linguine and drain well.
Season shrimp with the Old Bay, salt and pepper, and stir them into sauce. Cook until just pink, remove from heat and let stand until shrimp are opaque. Fold linguine into sauce, coating well. Garnish with remaining cilantro.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
From Impossible to Easy by Robert Irvine