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Sweet peppers in a variety of hues are one of the cook's best friends. At the markets, the sun-ripened perfume of red, orange and yellow peppers greets you as you approach the pepper stands, where there is an aura of excitement. Shoppers eagerly scoop these natural, healthful treats into their bags.
Sweet peppers are a highlight of the cuisines of the Mediterranean and the Mideast, where cooks use these treasures with exuberance. When I first stepped into a tapas bar in Madrid years ago, the small, whole fried sweet peppers immediately caught my attention. The same thing happened at an antipasto table in Rome, where I was drawn to the yellow peppers stuffed with rice and mozzarella, and at a mezze spread in Istanbul, where the grilled red and green peppers were marinated with garlic and olive oil.
Yet until the Spanish explorers brought peppers from their native South America to Spain, people in the Old World had to do without them. Where would Italian cuisine be without its peppers, which make such a tasty pizza topping and are essential for flavoring the sauce for chicken cacciatore? The Basques in France and Spain could not make their popular piperade, or piperrada, of peppers cooked with onions, garlic and tomatoes, which is wonderful with fish, meat and scrambled eggs; and the Moroccans couldn't make their delicious sweet and hot pepper dip.
Without peppers, there would be no Hungarian goulash as we know it, made with sweet peppers and paprika, the spice ground from a relative of the pepper we use as a vegetable. Balkan cuisine would be completely different too. Cooks in Croatia, for example, use peppers often, according to Liliana Pavicic and Gordana Pirker-Mosher, authors of The Best of Croatian Cooking (Hippocrene, 2000), in such dishes as barley soup with smoked meat and in a classic casserole of chicken, rice and green beans.
Sweet peppers appear in East Asian dishes as well. Thai chefs often include pepper strips in curries or sautes, like the tasty sauteed eggplant with mint leaves, tofu and soy sauce that I like to eat at Krua Thai in Los Angeles. At my neighborhood Chinese restaurant, China Star in Woodland Hills, California, the chef embellishes his savory fish fillet in black bean sauce with liberal amounts of stir-fried red and green pepper dice.
In Latin America cooks use their native peppers with enthusiasm. Throughout South and Central America, the popular arroz con pollo, or rice with chicken, a dish with Spanish roots, is flavored with sweet peppers. In a famous Argentine entree, peppers enliven a substantial stew of meat, potatoes, corn and dried beans seasoned with garlic and cumin.
Due to the influence of Mediterranean cooking, sweet peppers have become a signature ingredient of creative American cooking. Evan Kleiman, chef-owner of Angeli Caffe in Los Angeles and coauthor (with Viana La Place) of Cucina Rustica, gives her pepper risotto an incredible color by cooking the rice with roasted red pepper puree.
She finds that "frying peppers brings out their lush sweetness" and likes to sauce spaghetti with fried green, yellow and red pepper julienne mixed with garlic, capers, olives and anchovies.
Anyone who has grown peppers knows that green and red peppers come from the same plant. First the fruit is green, then it gradually ripens and turns red, and its flavor changes from herbaceous to sweet. In addition to the common pointy peppers, at this season you are likely to find fresh pimientos (Hebrew "gambas"), which have a box-like shape. Great for stuffing, they are fleshy and often even sweeter than other peppers.
Sweet peppers are rich in vitamins C and A and are very good sources of fiber. Red peppers also contain lycopene, a valuable substance that can protect the body against disease. Store peppers in an open plastic bag in the refrigerator; they will keep up to one week.
Some innovative chefs have developed a new way to take advantage of the sweetness of ripe peppers. They turn red peppers into sorbet and serve it with chocolate desserts!
Pepper Saute with Chicken and Avocado
One of the easiest ways to enjoy peppers is to saute them briefly in olive oil and add a sprinkling of aromatic fresh basil, thyme or mint. Use red peppers alone or combine them with yellow and green peppers. The sauteed peppers are good on their own or cooked with chicken and avocado, as in this recipe. Serve the saute over white or brown rice or pasta. You can substitute boneless turkey for the chicken, or use cubes of firm tofu and saute them over medium heat for about two minutes.
2 sweet red bell peppers
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
450 grams boneless chicken, preferably dark meat, trimmed of fat and cartilage, cut in 4-cm x 1.25-cm x 6 mm strips
1 onion, sliced
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 or 2 avocados
1 tablespoon balsamic or red wine vinegar (optional)
2 to 4 tablespoons slivered fresh basil,
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint or 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
Halve peppers lengthwise, core, and remove ribs. Cut in strips 1/4 inch thick. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet. Add chicken, sprinkle with salt and pepper and saute over medium-high heat, stirring and turning often, about 4 minutes or until tender.
Transfer to a plate with a slotted spoon.
Add 2 tablespoons oil to skillet. Add onion and saute for 5 minutes over medium-low heat. Add peppers, salt and pepper and cook, stirring often, until tender but not brown, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, peel and dice avocados.
Return chicken to pan and heat through. Add vinegar, if using. Add avocados and basil, mint or thyme. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
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