I am just back from my short Italian break, which has been full of relaxing days spent at the beach, nice food and the occasional Italy football match on TV. My notebook and digital camera have captured the best food moments of the past week and, day after day, the essence of those scraps and shots will appear here. To start, I picked one of the simplest dishes I made in the past week, yet one which perfectly sums up the essence of Italian summer: charred pepper salad.
While you can use any peppers you like for this dish, getting some sun-ripened peppers in season is the best you could wish for. If you cannot find those, supermarket ones will do, but absolutely avoid pre-packaged peppers stored under modified atmosphere: I find these have a peculiar stench that will not go away no matter which cooking technique or how much seasoning you use.
I had some delicious giant yellow bell peppers at hand, each shaped slightly differently from the next, which worked like a charm. It would be impossible to find peppers like these in a supermarket: too irregular for the modern city customer, which says loads on the consumer misinformation we are exposed to. Luckily, Italian markets have not succumbed to this idiotic mentality.
Our small but cosy seaside home was quite near to the town of Fondi, with its medieval city centre and its rather famous produce market, the MOF. This huge market, probably the largest in Southern Italy, is mainly for greengrocers and purveyors but it opens to the public after 11 AM. It is not a place for everyday shopping: everything is sold by the case. Still, if you're planning on spending a week or more in the area (or if you live here) and want to do some cooking, it is a great place to buy good quality ingredients at prices that range between one third and half of what you would find in stores just a few kilometres meters away. We did some shopping here at the very beginning of our holiday bringing back a few kilos of Sicilian round aubergines, zucchini, cherries and clearly some huge misshapen yellow bell peppers I used for this recipe.
You can use any colour of bell peppers you prefer – mixing different tones creates salads with a wonderfully festive look – though my experience is that green peppers will not peel as easily as ripe ones. What really is important is to chose peppers that have a thick skin and a thick flesh so that the skin chars while the flesh remains slightly al dente. The recipe I included below is for the bare-bones basic version I made, but I have added a few tips at the end to customise the recipe to your taste and give the dish some extra punch. Don't be scared by the lengthy recipe: I have just added all the important details that make the recipe work best. Once you read through it, you will see the recipe is extremely simple.
Ingredients and tools
One large or two small bell peppers, thick skinned and thick flashed, per person.
Fruity extra virgin olive oil, about 1/2-2/3 Tbs for each pepper
White wine vinegar or freshly pressed lemon juice, a dash for each pepper. (You could also use some cheap balsamico – heck the traditional and really expensive stuff from Modena or Reggio works even better! – though that is less traditional and definitely not Southern Italian.)
Salt and pepper.
Herbs and aromas to taste, see below for tips *.
An open fire, ideally made with real firewood which gives an incomparable smoky aroma to the peppers. While any kind of open fire will work, using a garden grill or hibachi is more practical for turning the peppers around while charring.
A large plastic bag.
A bowl full of water for cleaning your hands and knife while you peel and de-seed the grilled peppers.
P.S. The best time to prepare a dish like this one is while you are firing up your grill/barbecue for a grill party. So, while not necessary for the recipe, meat, fish or other vegetables to grill on the glowing coals once you're finished with the peppers are useful. After all, it would be a waste to leave all that nice wood go unused, wouldn't it?
Get the fire going. Once the first flames have settled down a bit place a griddle on top of the fire so that the tip of the flames go over it.
Place the peppers on the griddle directly over the flames. Depending on how many peppers you are preparing you might be able to char them all in one go or do a few at a time. Wait till the skin on one side is completely charred then give them a quarter turn.
Continue turning till the whole surface is nicely blackened, then put inside your plastic bag and close tightly: this way the steam released from the peppers will help to detach the charred peel from the peppers. If necessary continue charring successive batches of peppers and putting them into the bag till all are done.
After about 15-20 minutes the peppers will have cooled enough for you to handle them and the charred peel will be easier to remove. Work on one pepper at a time. First make a small slit at the bottom of the pepper and collect any juice coming out of the pepper. Set that aside: you will need it for the dressing.
Cut the pepper in half and remove the stem, seeds and any white pith from the inside of the peppers.
Using the back of a knife, rub off most of the charred skin from the pepper. Use your fingers, or a sharp knife, to remove any small pieces that remain stuck. (The water bowl comes handy here to clean both knife and fingers.) Occasionally, you might find that the skin in one or two places is extremely resistant to being peeled off. If you charred the peppers properly these places will be tiny, and you can leave them as they are.
Chop the peppers as you prefer: I like thin strips or squares. Put the chopped peppers into a bowl big enough to hold them all.
In a bowl prepare mix the "juice" from the pepper that you set aside before with the oil, vinegar (or lemon juice) and salt and pepper to taste. Whisk together and dress the peppers with this vinaigrette.
(If you plan on adding herbs, garlic or dried chilli (see below) do so right after dressing the peppers with the vinaigrette.)
Set the pepper aside for at least 1-2 hours, 3 or 4 is even better, at room temperature, or overnight (and up to 4 days) in the fridge. Just remember to remove them from the fridge at least an hour before serving.
* Spicing up your Pepper Salad. A simple dish of chargrilled peppers is delicious; with a little extra oomph it is pure vegetarian bliss. Adding herbs, garlic or a little spice, and leaving the salad to rest for a few hours or a night, adds an extra dimension to the dish.
I usually go for one medium clove of garlic, thinly sliced, and a small handful of basil leaves, roughly torn by hand, for every four-six peppers used. Other possible herbs are parsley, oregano, marjoram or mint (which adds an unusual but pleasantly refreshing note). If you do not like garlic, it is better to leave it out than to substitute it with onions, spring onions or shallots, at least if you want to keep the Southern Italian taste. If you like a little punch you might want to add a dried hot pepper of your choice while the salad rests: remember to remove it before serving.
Whatever you choose to add, don't forget the Italian principle of keeping tastes simple. Add one or two herbs at most, and never use too much: the extra ingredients should not overpower the taste of the peppers, but should nonetheless be recognisable.