We all love doing it. When told to roast and peel a pepper, we go all caveman on the poor thing and char it directly on a gas burner on the stovetop. Because it's fast and vaguely dangerous, and when else in our modern lives do we get to stick food directly in fire and watch it burn? (Unless you happen to be in that uncivilized camp of s'mores-makers.)
But while it may be the more thrilling method, it is not the most delicious. The pepper lingers in the flames just long enough for the skin to burn and flake off, but stays close to raw inside. So it holds its shape well for recipes that call for it to be stuffed or cut into tidy slivers or cubes -- but it also hangs on to most of its water content, literally drowning out its own flavor.
A longer roast (or even broil) cooks the pepper until it collapses into a soft heap and the skin turns to paper. The flesh is intense and sweet -- much like what aged balsamic is to regular old vinegar. Don't believe me? Then listen to Amanda & Merrill.
An especially exciting riff on the slow-roasted pepper came to me by way of creamtea, of the beautiful dilled corn salad. She tipped me off to a recipe (and transcribed it!) from cookbook author Jean Anderson, who, after traveling to Portugal 54 times in 25 years, rightly considered herself equipped to write the definitive book The Food of Portugal -- and apply a bit of modern ingenuity to the traditional massa de pimentão.
In Portugal, this sweet pepper paste -- a pared down sauce in the family of romescos and harissas -- is usually made by dry-brining strips of pepper in salt for several days, then mashing them up with garlic and sometimes other spices. But Anderson came up with a shortcut, letting a low oven do its magic.
First you carve peppers into chubby strips, then layer them with salt and leave them out overnight. When you wake up, you'll come back to find them lying in a pool of salty water, looking dewy and relaxed. Through the wonders of osmosis, the salt has slowly but surely pulled a healthy amount of water out of the peppers, like a little veggie spa treatment.
Just pour off the salty water and let the peppers sit again, this time in a 250°F oven for a couple hours. You barely even need to set a timer. Then, once they're soft and slippery, all that's left is to peel and puree them with garlic and olive oil. Creamtea summed it up perfectly: "4 ingredients plus a little time = bliss."
The color is just outrageous, as you can see: "Vermillion" in the words of Jean Anderson; "orange red" in the words of Crayola (or is it red orange?).
And the texture: it's silken red pepper whipped up with olive oil until creamy. Like ketchup, only sexier.
Just don't get impatient and haul them out of the oven too soon like I did on photo shoot day (there were other exciting things to crank the heat up for -- just you wait!). Cook them through and through, or you'll have teeny but perceptible shreds of pepper marring your puree. The bits don't really cause any trouble, but this sauce is best when it's milkshake-smooth.
Anderson tells us that in Portugal, the sauce is strictly used as a marinade -- so bathe chicken or a pork shoulder in it overnight, then grill or roast it up. But she, creamtea, and I have other ideas too. Use it as a dip for crudités or steamed baby potatoes, a spread for crackers, a sauce for grilled fish, a topping for pizza and sandwiches of all kinds, or even as the base for another sauce.
But my favorite is inspired by City Bakery's so-called salad bar, where I eat lunch more often than I should. They set out a basket of crostini painted with olive oil and a plate of sliced buffalo mozzarella, along with a little bowl of red sauce much like this.
I am a lover of salad, but no salad in this world could compete with a crisp piece of bread, topped with cheese, topped with sexy ketchup.
Jean Anderson's Sweet Red Pepper Paste (Massa de Pimentão)
Makes about 1 1/4 cups. 8 medium sweet red peppers, washed, cored, seeded and cut lengthwise into strips about 1" wide 2 tablespoons coarse or kosher salt 2 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced 1/3 cup olive oil (about)
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
Photos by Nicole Franzen
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