Grilling peppers: a pleasure making 'em tremble, sweat

September 07, 2005|By ROB KASPER

AND THE PEPPERS trembled before me. Not only did I love the sound of that phrase, I was also wild about the aromas that accompanied the experience.

It happened recently when I was grilling peppers, charring their skins until they turned black and their walls collapsed in a submissive heap. For reasons I don't fully understand, I found that both the sweet perfume of the roasting peppers and their collapse pleased me.

Peppers are a fickle crop. Sometimes they are plentiful, sometimes not. This year the ones in my garden turned out to be thicker than thieves.

My peppers are sweet, not hot. If your peppers are hot, you have a hard time handling them and often end up wearing surgical gloves to prevent getting burned by capsicum, the ingredient in peppers that makes them fiery.

You also have a difficult time palming the extras off on unsuspecting friends. One traditional ruse has been to make hot sauce, then drop off bottles of the stuff disguised as hostess gifts at the homes of friends who have invited you to dinner.

Sweet peppers present their own expediting problems, at least in years like this one, when they choose to arrive in abundance. If your sweet peppers are bell-shaped, you can get rid of them by cutting the tops off and stuffing their cavities with everything from succotash to tuna salad to ground beef.

If your sweet peppers are shaped like small bananas, as mine are, you roast them until you run out of charcoal, or peppers.

After you roast them, you skin them. There are, I have learned, several ways to skin a pepper. All begin with cooking it over high heat until the skin is black.

Most cooks blacken peppers on a barbecue grill, but romantics, like the main character in John Irving's novel The World According to Garp, use the gas burners of the kitchen stove. Daredevils, and a few wannabe welders, use skewers and a blowtorch.

Next comes the sweating session, where the steam from the cooked peppers loosens the charred skin, just like the detectives on the old Homicide television series used to peel the alibis off suspects sitting in the sweat box, or police-station interrogation room.

There are two pepper-sweating vessels, a bowl with a tight-fitting lid and a paper bag. The other night, as I made a sweet pepper sauce, I used both.

I put 12 peppers on the grill. I enjoy charring peppers. Maybe it is because it is one of the few times that it is OK to burn something. I also enjoy rotating the peppers until all sides are blackened and they start to shrink from the heat. Perhaps I should see a shrink about why this gives me joy.

Six of the charred peppers went in a metal bowl that I covered with a sheet of aluminum foil. The remaining six went into a large brown paper bag with a rolled-up top.

Both sweated for about 20 minutes (the session could have lasted longer, but I was getting hungry). The skins of both the brown-bag peppers and the bowl-sweated peppers came off with relative ease.

It wasn't zippity-do-da-easy. There were some clinging bits of the bitter skin that had to removed with a knife. But the job got done. The main difference was that the bowl-sweated peppers were still hot, a little too warm to handle bare-handed.

Once the skin was gone, it was a simple process to slice the peppers open, remove the seeds and drop the peppers in a food processor (or blender). They joined mint leaves, salt and garlic cloves. I pulsed a few times until these ingredients were pulverized. Then I poured in a stream of olive oil.

In minutes, I had a tangy pepper sauce. It had a little too much garlic because I had used two mammoth cloves. But it livened up some Monday-night grilled chicken breasts.

Soon more peppers will ripen and they too will be on the grill, trembling before me.

Creamy Grilled Pepper Sauce, Makes 1 to 1 1/2 cups

6 red bell peppers (or 10 finger-size mild red peppers)

2 garlic cloves, peeled

1/2 cup tightly packed mint leaves

12 drops Tabasco sauce (optional)

1 1/4 teaspoons salt, plus more if needed

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more if needed

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon if needed

Heat grill to hot fire. Place the whole peppers on the grill and grill until the skin is blackened and the flesh is soft, 15 to 30 minutes, turning every few minutes. The peppers should almost be collapsing when done.

Remove to a bowl and cover tightly with foil (or place in large paper grocery bag and close top). The steam will help loosen the skin. After about 20 minutes, uncover the bowl (or open the bag) and loosen the skin with your fingers or paring knife.

Cut the peppers, scoop out the seeds, stem and any membrane and chop coarsely. Place in a blender with garlic, mint, Tabasco (if using), salt and pepper. Process until smooth.

Slowly add 1/2 cup olive oil in a thin, steady stream and process until sauce emulsifies. (You can use food processor, but a blender makes a creamier sauce).

Adjust seasoning and serve at room temperature with grilled shrimp or chicken, or as dip for fennel or celery. If sauce thickens too much as it sits, stir in 1 tablespoon olive oil.

- From "The Italian Grill," by Micol Negrin (Clarkson Potter, 2005, $25)

Per 1-tablespoon serving: 48 calories; 0 grams protein; 5 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 2 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 122 milligrams sodium

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