With apologies to my friend Ammie, let’s talk about peppers today. Ammie hates peppers, and I feel like I’m leaving her out. Maybe next week we should talk about pie? Ammie loves pie.
On the subject of bell peppers, Nigel Slater writes,
“Without heat—from a grill, an oven, a cast-iron pan blackened with age—there is little point to the pepper. Raw, green, and unripe, its waxy, plastic skin and lack of obvious juice offer little but crisp nothingness. Refreshing, yes, but somehow an imposter in a green salad; an annoying intruder in a Bloody Mary; an unimaginative addition to a rice dish. Wherever it appears, the raw green pepper seems uncomfortable.” (from Tender)
Hmm. It’s an interesting take on bell peppers, but I think I’ll beg to disagree. I think a side of crunchy bell pepper slices can be rather nice next to a gooey, cheesy main course, such as a grilled cheese sandwich, a creamy bowl of soup, or an indulgent pasta. Their “crisp nothingness” can be a lovely palate cleanser, a little vegetal mouth freshener between bites of something rich. And perhaps I’m just fond of raw vegetables because they’re so easy: a little knifework and they are ready to eat.
But Nigel does have a point about the alchemy of bell peppers and heat. When the two come together, something wonderful happens: crispy becomes silky, and something both brighter and deeper emerges out of the bell pepper. The flavor is pulled in two different directions, which I think is why roasted red bell peppers are so beloved by foodies. I’m actually not the biggest fan of them myself, but I was intrigued by a recipe in Tender in which Nigel calls for baking red bell peppers with tiny tomatoes, with both vegetables lightly dressed in salt, pepper, and olive oil. After a blast the oven, the roasted vegetables are dressed with basil oil, which is so simple and so sublime that I demand you make it before the end of summer: fresh basil and olive oil, buzzed to a cheerful green puree in the food processor. This stuff is amazing…AMAZING! Nigel’s recipe will make more basil oil that you probably want or need to dress your peppers, and I’ve been using the remaining oil in all sorts of delicious things: dribbled on fresh mozzarella(!), mixed into fat pearls of Israeli couscous, as a dip for crusty bread.
As you can tell, I’m rather fond of the basil oil. The peppers were good too. Ammie, it turns out there is something in this post for you after all!
Nigel Slater’s Roasted Red Peppers and Tomatoes with Basil Oil
From Tender by Nigel Slater
Serve 4, with appropriate accompaniments, such as a nice cheese offering and some good bread
4 large red bell peppers
16 tiny tomatoes, such as grape or cherry tomatoes
Olive oil for drizzling
Salt and pepper
For the basil oil:
1/3 cup olive oil
Fresh basil to taste (I used one of those little 2/3-ounce packages from the grocery store and liked the looseness of the resulting basil oil, but you could certainly use more basil if you like)
1) Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Spray a large roasting sheet with nonstick spray. Slice the peppers in half lengthwise and remove the seeds and white membranes. I sliced off the stems too. Lay the peppers, cut-side up, on the roasting pan.
2) Halve the tomatoes, then divide them among the peppers, placing them inside. Sprinkle some salt and pepper over everything, then drizzle a little olive oil over each pepper half.
3) Roast the peppers for about 45-50 minutes, until the peppers have softened and the tomatoes are collapsing.
4) Make the basil oil: place the olive oil and fresh basil in a food processor, then buzz to make a puree.
5) Serve the peppers with the basil oil, either drizzling some oil over each serving or letting each person add basil oil to taste. Save the leftover oil and use it anywhere and everywhere. Or just call me up and I’ll come over with a loaf of bread to take care of that leftover basil oil.