The “nightshades” are out in abundance. Members of the Solanaceae family, among them peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and mushrooms are being harvested and brought to markets all over the east. Many nightshades are rich in alkaloids, chemical compounds that act as the plant’s defenses and can be toxic to us. The effects of their toxins can range from irritant (chilies) to stimulant (cocaine) to death (mushrooms such as the death cap). So lets just say the nightshade family has given us some of the best and worst of edibles.
On my recent trip to the market I couldn’t resist the brightly colored bell peppers (Capsicum Annuum), the only capsicum with a recessive gene for capsaicin, the heat-producing alkaloid that irritates the pain and heat receptors in the mouth and nose, and basically causes us to sweat and reach for the milk when we eat good salsa.
Capsicums originated in South and Central America some five thousand years ago, before they were taken home by explorers from Spain and Portugal and exploded across Europe in the 13th century. All peppers are an excellent source of vitamin C (hot peppers contain 357% more than an orange), but red bell peppers pack the most punch. They also are a good source of beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A.
As a kid, peppers kind of grossed me out. They had that squeaky skin and I was constantly finding the green ones on top of salads or hidden in my omelette when I sooo didn’t ask for them. But I guess I didn’t get the chance to eat many ripe peppers. Because, red, orange, and yellow peppers are tremendous. The yellow ones are great on salads; their sweetness and crunch adds a lot of depth.
I love cooking with all three, especially roasting them directly on my stove top, and watching the flame completely char the skin. But the best part is peeling off that blackened exterior to find the brightness of the pepper’s true color beneath. It’s a satisfying moment over my sink. To char peppers you really have to be willing to go for it, and not give in until the entire pepper seems like it will disintegrate. But when you finally remove the skin, core it, slice it up, and slip a piece in your mouth, that bright sweetness and smoky flavor is just what good autumn feels like.
I have been making this ratatouille-like dish forever. I generally just eat it directly out of the pan on toast, but could speculate that it’s probably also excellent under a fillet of white fish, or topped with cheese, or as a sauce for penne, or paired with roasted chicken. You tell me.
Tip: For storage, peppers are best kept washed, dried, and stored at room temperature (50F) out of the sun. The green ones, being tougher and unripe, will keep longer. A cut pepper should be placed in a plastic bag lined with a paper towel and put in the fridge. This will keep them from drying out.
When cooking, to keep the red and yellow of peppers strong, it’s best to cook them in acidic conditions. In this recipe, I use tomatoes.
Some people have problems digesting members of the nightshade, but if you remove the skins, they go down much more smoothly.
Roasted Bell Peppers, Tomatoes, Kalamata Olives, and Sweet Onion Ratatouille
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 sweet onion, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
2 bell pepper, red or yellow, washed and dried completely
3 medium-sized tomatoes or 1 cup cherry tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 spanish onion, 1/2 inch dice
1 cup kalamata olives, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon thyme, chopped
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Roast the peppers directly over a high flame, using tongs to turn them. Allow each side to char completely before turning. Once roasted, place in a bowl and cover with saran wrap. Once cool enough to handle, remove the charred skin with a parring knife. Don’t wash. Core and seed. Slice and then coarsely chop.
In a sauce pan, saute the onions and garlic in half the olive oil on medium heat until slightly browned, about 8 minutes. Add the peppers, tomatoes, olives, and thyme, and saute until softened, about 5 minutes. Bring it to a boil, and add in the balsamic, stewing for 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot or at room temperature.