Friday, September 5, 2008

A much higher purpose

Gardening is one of my favorite pastimes, at least during the warmer months. But when you garden -- especially as I do, which is to say when you grow a large amount of a few select crops -- sometimes you have to develop associated hobbies to prevent your homegrown bounty from going to waste. Hobbies like home canning. Ketchup-making. Pickling. You develop a love for the Ball jar, an appreciation for tasks not undertaken since yore. As you sanitize yet another flat metal lid and band, you feel a little like Laura Ingalls Wilder, helping Ma and Pa prepare for the upcoming blustery prairie winter.

So far this summer I've put up five jars of garden tomatoes, with many more to come as we head into September. I didn't grow any cucumbers this year, but in years past I have prepared dozens of jars of bread and butter pickles from the cucumber harvest. I'm planning on cooking up at least one batch of homemade ketchup, which is sweeter and more essentially tomato than anything you can buy in the supermarket. And yesterday I "preserved" -- at least for a short time -- the excessively large number of green and cubanelle peppers that I allowed to turn red. They were numerous and lovely and a bright shade of crimson; I looked at them weighing heavily on their plants and envisioned, yes, roasted red peppers.

Now I know that roasting peppers and packing them into jars with olive oil is not preservation, per se. I know that I cannot keep these jars in my pantry for months and months. But I also know that I can keep them in my refrigerator for a week or so and that they will last longer than the fresh peppers would have. So in that sense I am "preserving" my bumper pepper crop. Bonus: I can share the jars with family and friends. My peppers will serve a much higher purpose in this way than they certainly would have if left to languish, pathetically, in their pots on the back porch.

I can think of a million and one amazing things to do with roasted red peppers. Eat them right out of the jar, as Dad does. Spread slices of toasted baguette with goat cheese then top the crostini with bright curls of roasted pepper. Toss the peppers with warm pasta, kalamata olives and fresh basil leaves. Whiz together a romesco sauce to serve with grilled fish. Add pureed roasted red peppers to homemade tomato sauce for a unique and unexpected depth of flavor. Present roasted red peppers alongside some aged Provolone, fresh mozzarella, Sicilian olives, fresh tomatoes and giardiniera for a fantastic antipasto. All that is just for starters.

As I've written before, this recipe really isn't a recipe, but more of a method -- or an inspiration, if you will -- to use productively all the peppers that might be growing in your garden or for sale at your local farmers' market. This simple method is a reminder that simple homegrown food is good. It satisfies the belly and nurtures the soul. And finding ways to stretch the goodness of the summer garden into the fall and winter months is a wonderful way to connect with food as sustenance, with food as rustic beauty, with food as elemental.

Glass jars full of colorful garden gems -- lined up in their gleaming, primitive beauty on a kitchen shelf or in a refrigerator door -- recall summer's warm soil and long sunny days. They are happy reminders of a productive season gone by, and you welcome such stores as the evenings get chilly and, for the first time in many months, you wrap a jacket around your shoulders under a cool blue September sky.



This recipe makes enough pepper slivers to fill one 8-oz. Ball jar. Last night, I had enough peppers to fill three jars. This recipe is not scientific; if you can't fit in the entire 1/4 c. of olive oil, no worries. Just add what you can without overflowing the jar.

Regarding roasting: I char my peppers directly over the flame of the stove. If you have electric burners, you could perform this step on a grill or in a grill pan -- just make sure you run the exhaust fan if you're going the grill pan route.

6 red peppers

1/4 c. olive oil

1/8 t. kosher salt

1/8 t. freshly-cracked pepper

1 t. dried basil

First, roast the peppers. Place the peppers, two to a burner, directly over a medium flame.

Watch the peppers the entire time they're over the flame, turning frequently with a pair of tongs to char as much of the surface as possible. Do not be afraid of burning the peppers -- you want the skin to be blackened.

Though it makes a bit of a flaky black mess on the stove, this step is kind of fun. At least if you're somewhat of a pyro like me. At any rate: be careful, and I don't have to tell you that every well-outfitted kitchen has a fire extinguisher within easy reach, yes? Yes.

When the peppers are thoroughly charred, remove them from the flame, place in a large bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. The peppers will thus "steam" inside the bowl, releasing their skins. Keep the peppers covered while you continue roasting, adding peppers to the bowl as they are charred. After all the peppers are roasted and in the bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and drape with a kitchen towel. Allow the peppers to sit for about 30 minutes, until they are cool enough to handle.

When you can hold the peppers comfortably in your hand, begin peeling. I use an old dull knife that used to belong to my grandmother -- it is perfect for peeling peppers and tomatoes and hulling strawberries (and completing other tasks where I have to cut toward my hand) because the blade is sharp enough to get work done but not sharp enough to slice my fingers. Plus there is the added bonus of working with a tool that my grandmother used -- a boon for a nostalgia-phile like me. Much of the blackened skin will simply flake off but you may have to pull away any of the skin that was not thoroughly singed. As much as you think it will assist the process, do not place the roasted peppers under running water. Doing so will wash away lots of the delicious smokiness. It's OK if you have tiny pieces of blackened skin left on the peppers; this adds marvelous flavor.

One at a time, place the peeled peppers on a cutting board. Using a proper sharp knife, cut off the stem end. Cut the pepper in half length-wise, open the two halves and scrape out the seeds. Discard the seeds. Cut the seeded halves into long strips about 1/4"-1/2" wide and set aside. Continue processing all of the roasted peppers in this manner.

Fill an 8-oz. Ball jar with pepper slices. Add the olive oil, salt, pepper and dried basil. Using a fork, "mix" the contents of the jar as best you can to distribute the oil and spices throughout. Tightly close the lid on the jar. Stare admiringly at your gorgeous jar of roasted red peppers, dream about how yummy they will be and pat yourself on the back for bringing produce from seed to larder.

Makes one 8-oz. jar of peppers. Keep refrigerated! The peppers will last for about a week if refrigerated properly.

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