- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2006

One of the delights of this time of year is that the markets are filled with colorful,sweet peppers.

Besides green, red, yellow and orange, now we find purple or chocolate peppers and long yellow or light green Italian frying peppers. We can also find less familiar sweet peppers, such as flaming red lipstick peppers that look hot but are not.

Sweet peppers are a highlight of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. 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 bell peppers were marinated with garlic and olive oil.

Yet until explorers carried peppers back from South America to Spain, people in the Old World didn’t know of them. 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.

Moroccans couldn’t make their delicious dip of sweet and hot peppers simmered with tomatoes and garlic. The herb-scented French ratatouille made with eggplant, onions and garlic would have looked much different without peppers.

Where would Italian pizza be without peppers? The cuisines of the Balkans, the Caucasus and Hungary also depend on peppers for their delightful flavors. Without peppers, there would be no Hungarian goulash as we know it, made with sweet peppers and paprika, which is ground from a relative of the bell pepper.

Sweet peppers have been incorporated into many East Asian dishes, as well. Thai chefs often include pepper strips in curries or sautes, including sauteed Japanese eggplant with mint leaves, tofu and soy sauce. At my neighborhood Chinese restaurant, China Star in Woodland Hills, Calif., the chef embellishes fish fillets in black bean sauce with liberal amounts of stir-fried red and green peppers.

Throughout South and Central America, the popular arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), a dish with Spanish roots, is flavored with sweet peppers. In a famous Argentine entree, peppers enliven a 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 in creative American cooking. Evan Kleiman, chef-owner of Angeli Caffe in Los Angeles and co-author, with Viana La Place, of “Cucina Rustica” (Morrow), uses bell peppers liberally in her cooking.

To give pepper risotto an incredible color, she cooks rice with roasted red pepper puree. She also sauces spaghetti with julienned and fried green, yellow and red bell peppers mixed with garlic, capers, olives and anchovies.

Anyone who has grown peppers knows that green and red bell peppers come from the same plant. First the fruit is green, then it gradually ripens and turns red, and the flavor changes from herbaceous to sweet.

Sweet peppers are excellent sources of vitamins C and A and a good source of fiber. Red peppers also contain lycopene, a chemical that can protect us from disease.

Look for firm, unblemished peppers and store them in an open plastic bag in the refrigerator. They will keep for up to a week.

In addition to the common bell pepper, at this season you are likely to find fresh pimientos, which have a boxlike shape. Great for stuffing, they are fleshy and often even sweeter than bell peppers. Spanish piquillo peppers, darlings of many chefs these days, are a triangular-shaped type of pimiento and are imported to the United States roasted in jars.

When I visited Gaziantep in southeast Turkey last September, I was surprised to see peppers hanging on clotheslines on porches and rooftops. People were drying them, both sweet peppers and chilies, to grind into pepper paste. This thick paste resembles tomato paste in consistency and comes sweet, hot and semihot. A spoonful of pepper paste gives a flavorful finish to all sorts of stews, sauces, soups and grain dishes. Lucky for us, it is available in the United States in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean markets.

Peppers are terrific partners for any meat or fish as well as for most vegetables as diverse as eggplant, green beans, okra, mushrooms and dried beans. Some innovative chefs have even turned red peppers into sorbet. Is there anything impossible? It appears, not much.

Pepper and chicken saute with 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.

2 red bell peppers

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

½ pound boneless skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of fat and cartilage, cut in 1½-by-½-by-1/4-inch strips

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 onion, sliced

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 wide. 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 for 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 and salt and pepper to taste 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. Makes 4 servings.

Stuffed peppers with rice, pine nuts and currants

Choose peppers that can stand up easily, since these are baked upright. Serve with lemon wedges, if desired.

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

3 medium onions, finely chopped

3/4 cup long-grain white rice

1/4 cup pine nuts

2 tablespoons currants or raisins

2 plum tomatoes, chopped

2 teaspoons dried mint

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

½ teaspoon sugar

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Water

6 or 7 small red, green or yellow bell peppers (about 21/4 to 2½ pounds total)

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a saute pan, add onion and saute over medium heat for 10 minutes. Add rice and pine nuts and stir 5 minutes over low heat. Add currants or raisins, tomatoes, mint, allspice, sugar and salt and pepper to taste and cook 2 minutes. Add 11/4 cups water and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 12 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed. Taste and adjust seasoning; rice will not be cooked yet.

Cut a slice off stem end of peppers. Reserve slice, leaving stem on; remove core and seeds from inside pepper. Spoon stuffing into peppers and cover with reserved slices. Stand them in a baking dish in which they just fit. Add 1½ cups hot water to dish.

Sprinkle peppers with 2 tablespoons oil. Cover and bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 1 hour, or until peppers are tender. Serve hot or cold. Makes 6 or 7 servings.

Moroccan pepper dip

This rich and flavorful medley of hot and sweet peppers cooked with tomatoes is usually served cold as a dip with pita bread. I also like it as a sauce, either hot or cold, for fish, meat or grains.

3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 large green bell peppers, ½-inch dices

2 large red bell peppers or 1 red and 1 yellow, ½-inch dices

21/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced or 2 28-ounce cans diced tomatoes, drained

Salt

6 large garlic cloves, chopped

3 jalapeno chilies, seeds and ribs removed, chopped (see note)

1 teaspoon ground cumin, optional

½ cup small cilantro sprigs, chopped

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a large wide pan and saute bell peppers over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes or until softened, adding more oil, if necessary, to prevent sticking. Remove peppers with slotted spoon.

Add tomatoes to pan, sprinkle with salt to taste and bring to a boil. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat for 20 minutes. Add sauteed peppers, garlic, jalapeno chilies and cumin, and cook over medium heat, stirring often, about 10 minutes or until bell peppers are tender and mixture is thick.

Add cilantro and cook 2 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Stir before serving. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note: Wear rubber gloves when handling hot chilies if your skin is sensitive or if you’ve never cooked with them before. If not using gloves, always wash your hands after touching hot chilies.

Grilled sausage and pepper sandwich

Use any kind of sausages you like, such as mild or spicy Italian sausages, beef hot dogs or meatless sausages all taste good with grilled peppers and paprika sauteed onions. If you don’t have time to grill the peppers, use roasted peppers from a jar.

1 red bell pepper

1 green bell pepper

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, halved and sliced

½ to 1 teaspoon sweet paprika

Pinch of hot paprika or cayenne pepper

Salt and freshly ground pepper

4 Italian sausages, beef hot dogs or vegetarian sausages

4 good-quality hot dog rolls or long French rolls

Dijon or other mustard, optional

Put peppers on broiler rack or on grill about 4 inches from heat source.

Broil or grill peppers, turning every 4 or 5 minutes with tongs, until pepper skin is blistered and charred.

Transfer to a bowl and cover tightly, or put in a bag and close bag. Let stand 10 minutes. Peel using paring knife. Discard top, seeds and ribs. (Be careful; there may be hot liquid inside pepper.) Drain well and pat dry. Cut in strips.

Heat oil in a large skillet. Add onion, sweet and hot paprika or cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste.

Saute over medium heat, stirring often, for 7 to 10 minutes, or until onion is tender and browned. Remove from heat and add pepper strips.

Broil or grill sausages according to package instructions, or until heated through and lightly browned.

Warm rolls in oven or toast them lightly, if desired. Split in half. Spread with mustard, if desired.

Top with sausages and pepper onion mixture.

Makes 4 servings.

Faye Levy is author of “Feast From the Mideast” (HarperCollins).

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