September Is For Peppers
Three favorite recipes and some news!
It’s hard to imagine Italian food without peppers. On any given day, but especially in summer and early fall, if you’re out and about in an Italian town at lunchtime, you are guaranteed to be treated to the sweet and pungent wafting perfume of peppers—peppers being charred on a grill, stuffed peppers baking to squishy tenderness in an oven, peppers frying on someone’s stovetop. Walking beneath an open window or past an open doorway, you might even hear, amid the clatter of plates and cutlery, those peppers sizzling in a pan.
To me, the warm, assertive aroma of peppers is the aroma of Italy.
But if you page through Pellegrino Artusi’s seminal book on Italian home cooking, first published in 1891, you’ll see that there are zero recipes for peppers. Seems odd, right? How could such a groundbreaking book omit such an key ingredient? But (of course) it makes sense when you consider that peppers are a “New World” ingredient, and while the chili pepper had arrived in Europe by the 16th Century, the modern bell pepper cultivar wasn’t developed until the early 20th Century. (Here’s a good short history of the bell pepper, including the surprising detail on how it earned the description “bell”.)
Artusi’s book, by the way, barely mentions chili peppers, either. There’s one recipe for Pollo al Diavolo, in which he notes “This chicken got its name because it should be cooked with strong cayenne pepper and served with a sauce so spicy that the diner, feeling his mouth catch fire, will damn the chicken and the cook.” (His recipe substitutes black pepper for cayenne.) This is just my hunch, but Artusi’s chilly treatment of hot peppers many have more to do with the fact that they they are much more prevalent in southern Italian cooking; Artusi was from Tuscany and while the book does include dishes from Naples and other parts south, there’s a definite “northern” bias to his recipes.
In any case, by the time Ada Boni’s monumental “Il Talismano della Felicita” (2000+ recipes) came along a few decades later, in 1929, peppers had staked their claim on Italian cuisine. My mother’s copy of Boni, a second edition that was her mother’s, contains more than a dozen recipes featuring peppers, and one for pickled peperoncini (hot peppers). Among the recipes: fried yellow peppers; cold stuffed peppers; and peperonata, peppers cooked in oil with tomatoes and onions and seasoned with vinegar.
September is the best month for peppers because that’s when peppers are at their best.
Piled in bins at the farmers’ market, they glow in a kaleidoscope of colors, from pale moon yellow to deep purple, though the deep red ones are my favorites. They’re at peak ripeness, sweet, heavy, and alluring. Even the green ones are good.
Peppers are a great “bridge” ingredient, by which I mean they are equally at home on the grill or in a stew and, of course, pickled and packed into a jar. I’m sharing three recipes below (following the next section): September Soup; Peperoni in Padella con Pangrattato (Pan-Fried Peppers with Breadcrumbs); and Sweet and Sour Peppers Preserved in Oil, from Presering Italy. There are plenty more in my books (if you happen to own any) including:
Veal and Pepper Stew, p. 135 of The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy
Three-Cheese-Stuffed Red and Yellow Peppers, p. 141 of Big Night In
Penne Rigate with Sweet Peppers and Anchovies, p. 211 of The Glorious Pasta of Italy
Readers: What are your favorite ways to showcase September’s peppers?
And Now For Some News…
I realized during my month-long hiatus from this newsletter how much I missed writing it, especially sharing weekly recipes and interactions with all of you. I’m glad to be back and I’m grateful to everyone who has clicked that “Subscribe” button and/or shared this newsletter with other lovers of Italian food and culture. More than 5,300 of you have joined me here since I started this newsletter back in February, so grazie di cuore—my heartfelt thanks!
For the past eight months, Buona Domenica has been a free weekly publication; for the most part that won’t change. I’ll continue to send out a newsletter with recipes every Sunday. But next week I’ll also be launching a paid subscription option. This will allow me not only to keep publishing every week (after all, it takes time, effort, and $$ to keep this newsletter going!), but also to provide you with more good stuff: more recipes, interviews, stories and perks. Members will have access to:
New (previously unpublished) recipes. If you know my books, you know that my recipes work because I test them rigorously. It’s no different with the recipes I publish here.
Monthly “Cucina Aperta” open threads in which we’ll talk about Italian cooking and you can ask me anything related to Italian food, culture and travel.
Discounts to online cooking classes.
Occasional giveaways: the first is coming up next week!
My hope is to continue to build a vibrant community of readers and lovers of Italian cooking here on Substack.
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On to this week’s recipes: You can now print the recipes in this newsletter! Just click on the “printable recipe” box at the end of each recipe. Over time I’ll be going back and adding the same function to recipes published in previous newsletters, so remember to check the archives from time to time if there’s a recipe you’d like to print out and save.
RECIPE: ZUPPA PER SETTEMBRE
Sweet red bell peppers are the star of this soup, but the tomatoes are an important component, too, as they, along with a splash of cream, help to temper the peppers’ sharpness. Use ripe, in-season plum tomatoes if you can find them or substitute good canned whole tomatoes. This is a slight adaptation of the version first published in my book “The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy.”
Makes 4 generous servings
1 1/2 pounds (680 g) plum tomatoes, cored, quartered lengthwise, and seeded; or 1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes and their juice
1 1/2 pounds (680 g) ripe red bell peppers, trimmed, quartered lengthwise, and seeded
1 large yellow onion, trimmed and cut into wedges
2 cloves garlic, quartered lengthwise, green heart removed
1 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A small handful of thyme sprigs
6 large basil leaves, torn, plus more for garnish
1/3 cup (85 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups (470 ml) vegetable or chicken broth
1/4 cup (60 ml) heavy cream
Crusty bread or croutons for serving
1. Heat the oven to 450° F (230° C). Place the tomatoes, peppers, onions, and garlic in a single layer in a roasting pan. Toss with the salt, pepper, thyme, basil, and olive oil to coat evenly. Roast, turning the vegetables every 15 minutes or so, for 45 minutes, or until they are completely tender and browned in spots. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove and discard the thyme sprigs.
2. Pass the vegetables through a food mill fitted with the disk with the smallest holes, catching the purée in a bowl. Or purée the vegetables in a blender or food processor, adding some of the broth if necessary, and pass the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve or food mill to remove the bits of peel and seeds.
3. Transfer the purée to a saucepan and stir in as much broth as needed to give the soup a creamy consistency. Heat on medium-low until it just begins to simmer. Stir in the cream and let it cook just until heated through. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with basil.
Cook’s Note: Other good garnishes for this soup are croutons, crumbled blue cheese (Gorgonzola or Stilton), crumbled goat cheese, or a dollop of sour cream or crème fraiche and a scattering of diced peperoni sott’olio.
The soup is really good served cold, too.
RECIPE: PEPERONI IN PADELLA con pangrattato
Pan-Sautéed Peppers with Breadcrumbs
As good as this recipe is as written, you should feel free to embellish the peppers with a spoonful of capers or chopped olives or a couple of mashed anchovies. This is a good side for roast chicken or grilled fish. The peppers also make a tasty bed for fried eggs.
Makes 4 servings
4 ripe but firm red bell peppers (1 1/2 pounds / 680 g), or a mix of red and yellow
1 lightly packed cup (60 g) fresh breadcrumbs
6 tablespoons (90 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, lightly crushed
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
Fine sea salt
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar (see Cook’s Note) or good white wine vinegar and a pinch of sugar
2 teaspoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup (20 g) freshly grated pecorino Romano, more to taste
1. Trim the peppers and cut them into quarters, removing the seeds and any pith. Cut the quarters into pieces about 3/4-inch square.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and stir in the breadcrumbs. Sauté, stirring often, until the breadcrumbs are crispy and golden, about 5 minutes (lower the heat if necessary to prevent the bread from burning). Scrape the breadcrumbs into a bowl.
2. Place the remaining olive oil and the garlic in the skillet and set it over medium-low heat. Sprinkle in the thyme and cook for about 2 minutes, pressing down on the garlic once or twice to release its flavor. Add the peppers to the skillet and season with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir and raise the heat to medium. Cook, stirring from time to time, until the peppers are nicely softened and lightly browned in places but still retain some texture, 10 to 15 minutes.
3. Sprinkle in the vinegar and cook for another minute or two, until the vinegar has been absorbed. Stir in the parsley and reserved breadcrumbs. Spoon the peppers into a serving bowl and sprinkle the pecorino on top. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.
Cook’s Note: White balsamic vinegar is not always easy to find. I buy Acetaia Cattani brand online from Olio2Go. It’s made from the must of Trebbiano grapes and has a bright, fruity flavor.
RECIPE: PEPERONI AGRODOLCI SOTT’OLIO
Sweet and Sour Peppers Preserved in Oil
Submerging vegetables in oil is a classic Italian way of preserving seasonal produce. Here, peppers are first grilled (or broiled), then marinated in a sweet and sour vinegar brine before being packed in jars and topped off with extra-virgin olive oil. Because this is an oil-preserved recipe rather than a vinegar pickle, I don’t recommend processing the jars to seal them; the olive oil makes the seal unreliable. Just store the jars in the refrigerator, where the peppers will keep for at least three months. To serve, remove the amount you need from the jar and let come to room temperature to allow any congealed oil to liquify.
This recipe is posted on my website. You can find it here or click on the printable version below.
PICTURE ITALY: Portofino, Liguria 2021
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