Monday, April 28, 2008

Mediterranean Medley

Firstly though a little bit of info about the peppers, sometimes called sweet peppers, bell peppers, or even sweet bell peppers. The true name for them is pimentos. Do not confuse these with the hot chilli peppers. In recipes a pepper usually means the pimento, a hot pepper is almost always called a 'chilli'. Apart from being high in vitamin C, the peppers (of all types) have little food value, their main role being to add flavour and colour. Although the sweet peppers can come in different shapes, and different flavours, cooks just love the boxy-shaped 'bells' with their flat bottoms, and conveniently hollow innards, as they stand up so well like birds with gaping beaks, waiting for their mouths to be filled.
Peppers grow best in hot countries, but can also be grown here given some protection. Myself, over past years, have grown many bell peppers on sunny windowsills (they need to be pollinated with a small paintbrush), and have to admit the best ones were grown from seeds taken from a ripening red pepper bought from a supermarket then sown into small pots of compost, later to be transplanted to much larger pots.

Basic Pepper Salad: serves 4
4 large bell peppers, mixed: red, green, yellow etc
2 - 3 tblsp olive oil
salt and pepper
Lay the peppers on a baking sheet and roast them in a hot oven 230C, 450F, gas 8 for about half an hour, turning them around from time to time so the skins turn really brown. Remove from oven and put them immediately into a plastic bag, closing the end and leave to stand for 15 minutes to loosen their skins.
After that time, remove from the bag, retaining any of the juices that may be in there, peel off the skins, slice the peppers, remove the seeds and 'septa' (the white bits), and cut into strips. Place the flesh in a bowl, pour over the saved juices together with some olive oil, seasoning to taste. Eat at room temperature. Instead of serving this as a side salad, add a drained can of tuna and it becomes a dish in its own right.

tunisian variation:
add a few black olives, a couple of teaspoons of capers, and a couple of hardboiled eggs that have been cut into quarters. Spike up the oil dressing with good pinch each of paprika and cayenne pepper, and a crushed clove of garlic. Can also be served with tuna.

egyptian variation:
to the prepared peppers, add an equal quantity of sliced (pref. peeled) ripe tomatoes. Add a bunch of thinly sliced spring onions, and add two tblsp finely chopped fresh parsley to the dressing.

moroccan variation:
for this use 3 green bell peppers, prepared as above, but after peeling chop into small dice. Add 2 peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes, a small pinch of salt, a good pinch each of cumin and cayenne, the juice of half a small lemon, 3 tblsp olive oil, and 2 tblsp chopped parsley. Miz together and serve cold.

spanish variation:
to feed four you need 8oz (225g) each of green peppers, red peppers, onions and aubergine. This time baking all the vegetables in the oven at 180c, 350F, gas 4 for about one hour until softened and their skins are brown. Again bag them up, tightly closing the bag, and leave for 10-15 minutes to loosen their skins. Then follow directions for the basic salad.

This next is a more substantial dish that originated in Tunisia, but can is eaten throughout the Arab world. Sometimes caraway seeds are used instead of the cumin, but either are optional. Sometimes a little sliced onion is fried with the peppers. This makes a good lunch or light supper dish, always served hot.
Chakchouka: serves 4
2 green peppers, thinly sliced
2 - 3 tblsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp paprika
half tsp cayenne
1 tsp cumin
3 large tomatoes, peeled and sliced
4 eggs
Put the oil in a frying pan and fry the peppers until softened. Add the garlic, and when this is just turning golden, stir in the paprika, cayenne and cumin. Add a pinch of salt. Stir together well. Add the prepared tomatoes. Make four shallow indentations in the pan and break an egg into each. Cook over low heat until the eggs have just set, then serve immediately.

All countries around the Med like to eat a dish of stuffed peppers, and this recipe makes good use of green peppers, although the more colourful ones could be used instead. Myself I prefer to cook the green peppers and eat the brighter colours raw with salads. There is no real substitute for tamarind, but some recipes suggest using the grated zest and juice of a lemon as a substitute although the resulting flavour is never quite the same.
Stuffed Green Peppers: serves 4
4 large green peppers
6 oz (175g) long-grain rice
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 tblsp olive oil
1 rounded tblsp pine-nuts
1 tblsp raisins, roughly chopped
salt and pepper
1 tblsp tamarind paste (see above)
1 pint ( 600ml) boiling water
2 tsp sugar
2 tblsp finely chopped mixed herbs: parsley, mint, dill
2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
Slice the top off each pepper (to later form a lid). Remove seeds from the peppers and any thick white parts (septa). Rinse the rice under running water, draining well. Using a large saucepan, fry the onion in the oil, and when softened and just turning golden, add the pine-nuts. When they too are turning gold, stir in the rice. Add the raisins and season to taste. Mix together well.
Dissolve the tamarind in the boiling water, stir in the sugar and pour this over the mixture in the saucepan. Mix in the herbs and tomatoes, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. The rice should be al dente at this stage and fairly sloppy.
Stand the peppers in an ovenproof casserole, and spoon in the filling but do not pack it down too tightly. Place over the reserved pepper lids. Pour a quarter of a pint (5fl.oz/15mil) cold water into the dish to surround the peppers, then cover with a lid or foil and bake at 190C, 375F, gas 5 for 40 minutes, then remove lid/foil and cook on for a further 15 - 20 minutes or until the peppers are softened.