Making the Most of a Red Pepper Sale

Kristen Frederickson

Kristen Frederickson › What part of liv­ing bliss­fully in New York and own­ing an art gallery ...

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I’d like to say I shop for ingredients in that way famous chefs always say they do: go to the market with an open mind, look for what’s freshest, and take inspiration from the moment. All too often, of course, I know exactly what I want before I leave the house, usually having spent some wide-awake time in the middle of the night thinking about the following evening’s supper. I’m not a very spontaneous cook.

This weekend, however, was another matter. Strolling through the produce department of my local grocery, I came upon a giant display of red bell peppers. “Special offer! Usually £4.89 per kilo, now 19p per kilo!” I pulled one of those theatrical double takes. Just to put this astonishing sale into perspective for my American readers, £4.89 is about $7, and 19p is about 30 cents! I sidled up to one of the employees and hissed, “Is this offer for real? What’s wrong with them?” He smiled and said, “It’s for real. We bought too many and tomorrow is their best-by date.”

Never one to be overly troubled by best-by dates in vegetables (I have been known to let potatoes hang around until they have more eyes than a roomful of people), I went a bit mad. We bought 14 of the deeply coloured, crunchy gems and carried them reverently home, to be cooked over the next four days.

Having heard in the news today that over 30% of the fruit and vegetables grown in my home country of England is thrown away, the most important thing about buying in bulk is having a plan to use and enjoy all of your purchase. Especially with some food traveling long distances to satisfy out-of-season desires, it’s crucial to make every bit of food we buy COUNT. So make sure, when you come upon an amazing bargain, that you have an intelligent plan to use everything to its most delicious advantage. It also helps to have a bit of space in your freezer!

Red peppers are definitely a passion of mine now. However, when I first encountered a dish with red peppers, I marvelled, “Wow, think how many olives it took to make this dish! That’s a lot of pimientos!” to a horrified silence in my fellow diners. “Kristen, you mean you think these peppers came from olives?” “Well, where else would you get them?” Yes, I was a very sheltered Midwestern child.

You can hardly beat the red bell pepper for nutrition. I often find myself craving a bag of them. They are incredibly high in Vitamins A, C and K, as well as B-complex vitamins like niacin. As the late, great food writer Laurie Colwin once wrote, “As a doctor friend of mine once said, it is silly to do anything for reasons of health. My body may have been crying out for vitamins, but my spirit wanted red peppers.”

The color of a pepper gives rise to a hard-to-resolve question. The internet is simply FULL of opinions as to how a pepper gets its color, but after extensive reading, I have come to the conclusion that while all green peppers would eventually turn red if left on the vine long enough, peppers which are yellow or orange or naturally red are actually different varieties of peppers. I have always felt an irrational hostility to green peppers and now I know why: they carry a fraction of the nutrients of their more brightly colored brethren, a result of their immaturity. Go for the red!

I can’t think of another vegetable quite so versatile, so delicious whether cooked or raw, so incredibly sweet but also useful in almost any savoury dish you can imagine. It was not difficult to think of ways to use up all 14 peppers in just a few days. I could have cooked 14 more quite easily. Red peppers are just that wonderful and you can eat them in so many, many different ways. And this week, that’s exactly what John, Avery and I did.

The Pepper Plan

Kick things off with a batch of red pepper pesto. In this lovely condiment, you merely substitute red peppers for the traditional basil, adding olive oil, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, garlic and lemon juice and blitzing it all up in the food processor. This condiment can be used as a dip (for red peppers!), as a pasta sauce, or as a coating for chicken breasts before baking. And a little jar of it makes a fine gift for your next-door neighbour!

For dinner, roast a duck, shred its meat, and pile it up on Chinese pancakes or in lettuce leaves, top with a handful of thin-sliced red peppers and a dollop of plum sauce. The crisp clarity of the peppers are the perfect foil for the rich saltiness of the duck. Ooh, I wish I had some now.

Now pop your duck carcass in a pot of cold water and let it simmer for several hours (or overnight in your oven on low). Skim off the fat and you’re armed with a wonderful stock to make what is probably my favourite preparation of red peppers: a creamy soup. It is unbelievably red, velvety, and deeply flavoured. The intense flavors of the peppers, thyme and Marsala wine can easily compensate for a rather dull stock, so don’t feel like you must use duck stock, chicken or vegetable work just as well. A vat of this soup in the freezer is a wonderful amulet against illness.

… it’s crucial to make every bit of food we buy COUNT. So make sure, when you come upon an amazing bargain, that you have an intelligent plan to use everything to its most delicious advantage.

Once the soup is devoured or safely stored in the freezer, move on to possibly the most nutritious pasta dish you can cook: Farfalle with Spinach and Roasted Red Peppers. Don’t skimp on the Italian seasoning, and have plenty of Parmesan on hand! This is a beautifully colourful dish and as such, perfect for company.

For a richly comforting side dish, cut your red peppers in half, seed them and stuff them with anything you like: sautéed mushrooms and garlic if you’re vegan, with Boursin cheese and breadcrumbs if you’re vegetarian, and with all of the above PLUS sautéed sausages if you’re like me and just plain greedy. Red peppers are the perfect container for just about any bits and pieces you have hanging around in your fridge. Stuff those babies, sprinkle some aged Gruyere on top and simply bake.

Another lovely way to use red peppers and any stray vegetables you have on hand – you don’t need a lot of any one of them – is to fry them up with some nutty Basmati rice and scrambled eggs. This is a filling and popular dish in our house, and one of the first things my daughter would like to learn to make before she leaves the nest. It’s wonderful (and cheap!) on its own, or the perfect accompaniment to a rich stir-fry.

If it’s grilling season, why not try cutting your peppers in half from the stem, scooping out the seeds and pithy bits, then popping in a knob of goat cheese and crack an egg on top? Grill over medium heat until the white sets. Heaven!

Finally, when all you left is one sweet little pepper, dice it up and toss it with black beans, cannellini beans, a handful of sweet corn kernels and a sprinkling of minced chives. Add a glug of olive oil, a spoonful of your red-pepper pesto and the juice of a lemon and you’ll have the best crunchy salad ever, bursting with nutrition and color, perfect with a slice of baguette and a round of Camembert or ripe Brie.

This is just the beginning! I have heard tell of people who air- or oven-dry their red peppers and make their own paprika. While this might be going a bit far for most of us, it’s nice to know that my love of this beautiful vegetable is shared by many enthusiasts. Why not become one of them today?

How do you make the most out of a big sale on fresh ingredients?

Photo Credit: Avery Curran