Friday, September 9, 2011

Quick Peperonata

The market has been bursting with ripe bell peppers for a couple of weeks now. In the Midwest, September is bell pepper season. Yes, it's true that peppers begin to make their colorful appearance in mid-summer, but they don't really hit their stride until late summer and into fall. I was so excited to see a big pile of them last week that I purchased more than I really needed. But we have been enjoying them all week....most recently in a quick Peperonata.

In its simplest form, Italian Peperonata is a medley of sweet ripe peppers and onions. It frequently includes tomatoes, as well as garlic, vinegar, capers and/or olives. It can be a fast sauté or a soft, thick, slow-cooked stew-like preparation. It makes a wonderful side dish, tastes fabulous folded into an omelet and is an excellent topping for bruschetta or crostini.

This month there was a particularly tempting version of it (courtesy of Chef Nancy Silverton) in Bon Appétit Magazine. In Silverton's version, the onions and peppers are sautéed gently and then combined with a homemade tomato sauce. The resulting mixture is then spread in a shallow baking pan and baked in a moderately hot oven until it is thick and browned in spots. Silverton's Peperonata was mouthwateringly beautiful. She served it with a ricotta-topped crostini. I was inspired.

I wanted to try Silverton's recipe, but on the day that I made my Peperonata, I didn't have the time to cook the peppers on the stove top and make tomato sauce and finish the Peperonata with a long slow bake in the oven. Because I knew that the things that really appealed to me about Silverton's Peperonata—the soft texture and concentrated flavors—could be achieved in other ways, I came up with another (quicker) method.

I began with a hot and fast sauté of the peppers and onions. This jump starts the cooking process and adds some nice caramelization. Next I cooked the tomatoes along with all of their juices in a bit of olive oil in a very hot sauté pan (the same pan the peppers were cooked in). This rapidly reduces the tomatoes to a thick and chunky purée with a nice concentrated flavor. I then combined the sautéed peppers and onions with the cooked tomatoes (along with some olives) in a covered pan and cooked them over very low heat until everything was soft and tender and the flavors were well blended. This quick version took about 45 minutes from start to finish—instead of the hour and a half needed for the oven method.

Someday (when I have planned ahead) I will probably give Silverton's recipe a try. I imagine that the long stint in the oven produces a Peperonata with great depth and sweetness and an unctuous, jam-like consistency—something that would be well worth the time involved. In the mean time, I am very happy with the Peperonata that I was delicious. I hope you will think so too.

Quick Peperonata

2 large (6 or 7 oz. each) ripe bell peppers—red, yellow or orange
1/2 medium onion—preferably red, but yellow is fine too
1 medium tomato (about 6 oz)—it doesn't matter if the tomato is red or yellow as long as it is dead ripe
2 to 3 T. olive oil
1 T. picked thyme
generous pinch hot pepper flakes
1 clove of garlic, peeled and minced (optional)
10 Kalamata olives, halved
Balsamic vinegar, to taste

Prepare the vegetables: Cut the peppers in halve lengthwise. Remove the core, seeds and membranes. Slice thinly lengthwise. Set aside. Remove the root from the onion. Slice thinly lengthwise. You should have a generous cup. Set aside with the peppers. Peel the tomato if you like...but it is not necessary. Core the tomato and cut into a rough dice. Set aside.

Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add a tablespoon or so of oil to the pan—it should shimmer. Add the peppers and onions along with the thyme and pepper flakes to the pan. Sauté, tossing regularly, until the peppers and onions are beginning to soften—about 2 minutes.

 Add a pinch of salt and continue to sauté until the vegetables are tender but still have a bit of crunch—about 5 minutes more. Regulate the heat carefully to make sure the peppers cook rapidly, but don't burn. They will begin to brown in spots. If they threaten to burn, reduce the heat slightly. Add the garlic, toss well and transfer the peppers and onions to a plate (making sure there are no bits of garlic left in the pan). Set aside.

Return the pan to the heat and increase the heat to high. Add a scant tablespoon of olive oil. Add the chopped tomato (along with any reserved juice). The tomato will start to cook immediately and it will cook rapidly—the juices reducing and concentrating as fast as they are released. Stir and shake the pan back and forth. After a minute or two there will be a chunky, thick concentrate of tomato in the pan.

Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and add the peppers back to the pan along with the olives. Cover the pan with a tight fitting lid and continue to cook over very low heat until the peppers are completely tender, but not mushy....about 20 to 25 minutes.

Taste the peppers. Season as necessary with salt and pepper. If they taste a bit flat, drizzle with a small amount (teaspoon or so) of balsamic vinegar. Serve hot or tepid as a side dish or a topping for bruschetta along with some ricotta cheese for an appetizer or light lunch.

Makes 1 1/2 cups Peperonata, serving 3 to 4

Note: Recipe easily doubles. But make sure you use a very large pan, or the peppers will steam instead of sauté during the initial cooking. If you do not have a large enough pan, cook the peppers in two batches.

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