Thursday, October 6, 2011

Late summer peppers

Peppers, cooked over an open fire
The summer just doesn’t seem to want to end here this year. It’s early October and we are still reaching temperatures of nearly 30 degrees. As such, there’s been a late glut of peppers and the market stalls are still packing large multi-coloured red, green and yellow displays.

From late summer through to early autumn Italians buy peppers like they are going out of fashion (or, to put it another way, out-of-season). There follows a nationwide bout of preserving – be it peppers left whole and pickled in vats brimming with vinegar or grilled, sliced into strips and bottled in oil, garlic and fresh herbs. It’s occurred to me that perhaps Italians believe that by preserving the last of the season’s bounty, they can somehow retain just a taste of the last summer rays, a tonic against the dark winter months that lie ahead. Or maybe it’s just because we love our peppers so much!

Sweet or bell peppers first arrived in Italy some time in the second half of the 16th century. For some time they were used exclusively for decorative purposes, being treated with suspicion as they were considered probably poisonous. It wasn’t actually until the early 19th century that they became main stream in Italian kitchens. Today they are cultivated in many parts of the country and widely used.

In fact, they’re so widely used that every Italian family has their own recipe for peperonata. In fact, it seems that today grandmother’s ‘secret’ recipe for peperonata is de rigueur for every newly published Italian cookbook. My own grandmother used to cook them over an open fire and serve them with sausage, occasionally an egg. The slightly smoked taste of the peppers was distinctive and despite the passing of many years, the taste and smell still linger in my imagination.

One of my personal favourites this time of the year are friarielli peppers. These small green peppers are sweet and the skin is so thin that they do not require peeling. In fact, they are eaten whole, seeds, skin, flesh, everything but the stalk. If you can get hold of them, they are well worth buying. Alternatively, if you have a small plot of lawn, I recommend digging it up and growing your own. The seeds are available on line. Like all peppers they are versatile and suited to any number of cooking methods. The locals here like to preserve them whole in oil or vinegar. They’re also excellent with pasta (see the recipe for friarielli peppers with quartirolo cheese and mint) or simply pan fried until soft with lots of chopped garlic, salt and freshly ground black pepper.

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