A generation ago, when an American home cook saw a recipe calling for "one pepper, diced," it needed no elaboration.
Since then, a proliferation of peppers has sprouted in American fields and gardens, stores and marketplaces. Green bell peppers and their mature red siblings have been joined by botanically tweaked cousins in every color of the rainbow. They sweeten with age, but they will never set your tongue tingling.
For that, we have the deeply flavored poblanos, spicy little jalapenos and serranos from Mexican and Asian cuisines. And the spread of Mediterranean flavors, reflected in long, slender, mild Anaheims and yellow Hungarians, which can surprise with heat.
Relatively quick to slice and dice, raw peppers add flavor, color and crispness to salads, vegetable platters, dips and so on.
Introduce it to fire, and the pepper is transformed.
Roasting the pepper brings out its sophisticated side: gone is the cellophane-like membrane that can leave you reaching for dental floss. The crunchy ranch dressing sidekick grows up, transformed into a richer, sweeter, velvety version of its former self. Especially if roasted over a grill, it develops complex, smoky flavors that give peppers the heft to center a dish.
Here are three good reasons to broaden your pepper repertoire.
Chicken thighs and lots of verdant cilantro and scallions help tame the bitterness that can develop in roasted green bell peppers. Aromatic with garlic and toasted cumin seed, the final dish can be enriched with a few tablespoons of cream, for even more smoothness.
The recipe calls for bell peppers and a poblano for a small zing, but it's quite adaptable to your pepper ?situation. You can use whatever variety of fresh peppers you like, adding spicier poblanos, yellow Hungarians and jalapenos to your palate's content. Throw in a Scotch Bonnet or ghost pepper if you're feeling daring (but warn guests).
Roasting sweet bell peppers of whatever hue is easiest on a grill, though you can use a broiler or stove burner. You want to blacken and soften the peppers all over from stem to stern, until they start to sag. Then let them steam in their own heat a bit, in a covered bowl or bag, to make it easier to slide off the skin.
It can be messy until you get the hang of it. Resist the temptation to use water as a peeling aid. It will rinse off half the flavor.
Russ Parsons' simple salad of roasted red peppers, olives and ricotta salata cheese will show you what the fuss is about. Use feta or a sharp cheddar if the salata is too posh for you.
The salsa verde recipe will produce a versatile Mexican-style sauce that would perk up eggs, enchiladas or burritos. Using Anaheim chilies, it's about as mild as you'll find, so add jalapenos or serranos to put a tingle in your taco.
> Chicken Thighs with Peppers and Cilantro
4 to 5 pounds bone-in ? chicken thighs
1 1/2 cups chopped cilantro ? (leaves and stems), ? or more to taste
1 bunch scallions, cleaned ? and chopped
3 green bell peppers, ? seeded and sliced
10-12 cloves garlic, ? peeled and sliced
1 tablespoon cumin seed
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, ? lard or bacon fat
1 to 2 limes, halved ? (optional)
2 tablespoons heavy cream ? (optional)
Salt and fresh ground ? black pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Skin chicken thighs and salt liberally.
Heat fat in large pan over high heat. Brown chicken thighs, in batches.
In another small pan, toast cumin seed over medium heat, shaking frequently, until golden brown and fragrant, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat. (If you're in a hurry you can skip browning the chicken and toasting the cumin, but it's better if you take the time.)
Put half the peppers, cilantro, garlic, scallions and cumin in the bottom of a baking dish, like a 9-by-13 pan. Arrange the browned thighs in a single layer. Shower with remaining peppers, cilantro, garlic and cumin seed.
Add water up to four-fifths the height of the chicken pieces. Cover pan with foil and place in oven. Braise until quite tender, 2 to 3 hours. Taste and apply salt as needed. If using, squeeze limes over pan. A few tablespoons of cream stirred into the pan juices wouldn't hurt, either.
Serve over rice, pasta or potatoes with pan juices.
> Salad of Roasted Peppers and Ricotta Salata
4 red bell peppers, ? roasted and peeled
6 green olives, pitted ? and slivered
2 salted anchovy fillet, ? minced (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons sherry vinegar ? or red wine vinegar
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil, ? preferably extra virgin
1 1/2 -2 ounces ricotta salata
Tear the peppers into generous bite-sized pieces. (Cutting is too uniform and spoils the experience.) Toss peppers and olives together in a medium bowl.
In a small bowl, combine vinegar, garlic, salt and anchovies (if using) and whisk to combine. Drizzle in the olive oil as you continue to whisk the mixture.
Pour the dressing over the peppers and toss to coat well. Turn the salad out onto a serving platter. Using a vegetable peeler, shave long shards of the ricotta salata over the top. Don't be stingy with the cheese. Serve.
(From "How to Pick a Peach" by Russ Parsons)
> Anaheim Chile Salsa Verde
6 fresh green Anaheim ? chilies (about 3/4 pound)
3/4 pound fresh tomatillos or ? 1 1/4 cups drained canned ? tomatillos (about half of a ? 28-ounce can)
1 cup chicken broth, ? or water
2 garlic cloves
1 cup packed fresh ? cilantro sprigs
Arrange chilies on rack of a broiler pan and broil about 2 inches from heat, turning them frequently, until skins are blistered and charred, 8 to 12 minutes. (Alternatively, if using a gas stove, lay chilies on their sides on racks of burners and turn flames on high. Char chilies, turning them with tongs, until skins are blackened, 3 to 6 minutes.)
Transfer chilies to a bowl and let stand, covered, until cool enough to handle. Wearing rubber gloves, peel chilies. Cut off tops and discard seeds and ribs.
Remove husks from fresh tomatillos and rinse tomatillos under warm water to remove stickiness. In a saucepan simmer tomatillos, broth and garlic until tomatillos are tender, about 10 minutes if using fresh tomatillos and about 5 minutes if using canned. Add chilies to tomatillo mixture.
Cool salsa slightly, and in a blender pulse until coarsely chopped (use caution when blending hot liquids). Salsa may be made up to this point 2 days ahead and cooled, uncovered, before being chilled, covered. Bring salsa to room temperature or reheat before proceeding.
Just before serving, in blender pulse salsa with cilantro until cilantro is finely chopped (use caution when blending if salsa is heated) and season with salt. (From Gourmet.)