- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2003

Tomatoes and peppers are plentiful and piled high in the markets of any country around the Mediterranean this time of year. As your eyes feast on the colorful scene, you might imagine that these beautiful displays of Mediterranean produce have looked the same since the beginning of time. But this is not so.

The ancient Mesoamericans of Mexico and Central America began growing these staples during the period 8000-2000 B.C., long before they reached today’s Mediterranean markets.

Explorers found the fruit and brought it from the other side of the world. At that point, peppers and tomatoes were adopted by the peoples of the Mediterranean, who made them their own by developing different varieties of these vegetables and cooking new dishes with them.

The distinction is most noticeable in peppers. Mexican cooks focus mainly on countless varieties of chilies, often stuffing them and using them in sauces. In Mediterranean homes, sweet peppers are preferred for stuffing and frequently appear in sauces and stews. Chilies are used mostly for accent, although hot pepper oil and chili paste are set out on many tables as condiments.

One of the easiest and most versatile sauces combining peppers and tomatoes comes from Turkey. This sauce is easier to prepare than most because it does not require sauteing of aromatic vegetables before the tomatoes are added. You just simmer the tomatoes, sweet peppers and garlic together. A little tomato paste, salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar to enhance the sweetness are all that is needed.

You can make the sauce fat free or add a little extra-virgin olive oil. In Turkish kitchens, this sauce is popular for poaching meatballs, but I find it has many other uses. I love it spooned over vegetable patties and with broiled fish, too. I also like it as a partner for pasta or for serving with rice or omelets.

Tomato-pepper sauces abound around the Mediterranean. My sister-in-law, Hedva, who lives in Israel, makes a similar sauce using roasted peppers. She flavors it with paprika and sauteed garlic, leaves it chunky and generally serves it at room temperature as an appetizer dip or salad.

My friend Kitty Morse, co-author of “The Scent of Orange Blossoms: Sephardic Cuisine From Morocco” (Ten Speed Press), calls this salad a frita and recommends serving it as a bed for poached eggs. Other cooks in North Africa, where people are fond of hot peppers, spice up this medley with grilled chilies and, perhaps, cilantro and cumin. The result recalls Mexican tomato-chili sauces.

Instead of garlic and heat, some prefer the sweetness of sauteed onions in their tomato-pepper sauces.

According to Diane Kochilas, author of “The Glorious Foods of Greece” (Morrow), Greeks like this type of sauce for baking or poaching fish.

People in the Basque region of southern France and northern Spain like both onions and garlic in their version, which they call piperade or piperrada. So do Italians in their classic peperonata, writes David Downie in “Cooking the Roman Way” (HarperCollins). Mr. Downie recommends this roasted pepper and tomato medley as a frittata filling. Some of my Mediterranean friends also add fresh dill and cumin. They use the sauce to stew zucchini, green beans, cauliflower and other vegetables.

The relaxed Mediterranean cooking means casual serving. Distinctions among salads, sauces and dips often blur. These healthful chunky tomato-pepper sauces might be served cold as salads or left on the table to be sampled as a sauce for rice or grilled meat or as a dip for pita.

Turkish tomato pepper sauce

Serve this savory, easy-to-make sauce with meatballs or as an accompaniment for grilled or broiled chicken. For a meatless meal, I also like it with broiled eggplant slices, veggie burgers or tofu, accompanied by orzo, brown Basmati rice or whole-wheat couscous.

1½ pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped or 1 28-ounce can tomatoes, drained and chopped

2 large garlic cloves, chopped

1 green or yellow bell pepper, diced

Salt, freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, optional

2 to 3 teaspoons tomato paste, optional

½ teaspoon sugar, optional

Combine tomatoes, garlic, green or yellow pepper and 1 cup water in a saucepan and bring to a boil.

Add salt and pepper to taste and simmer uncovered over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes or until thickened.

Add oil, tomato paste and sugar, if desired, for richer flavor. Continue simmering over low heat until sauce reduces to desired thickness. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve hot or warm. Makes 4 or 5 servings.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES INTERNATIONAL

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