Bell peppers are one of the unsung heroes of the vegetable world. Quietly, they go about their business, adding flavor and texture to a whole host of dishes, but often we don't give them much thought. Unlike their cousins, the chili peppers, who often take center stage, bell peppers often linger in the background, adding their qualities to the whole, yet often happy just to be part of the back up band, only occasionally rising to the front to star on their own.
I find that strange considering that chili peppers and bell peppers are closely related. They both belong to the species Capsicum annuum but unlike their close relations, bell peppers are the only member of the species that does not produce capsaicin, the chemical responsible for the fiery heat in chili peppers, instead producing a slightly sweet tasting fruit.
I have to admit, I am not a huge fan of bell peppers, preferring, instead, the heat and flavor of chilies. That's not to say that I don't like them. They are just not my favorite things to eat, although I do love the taste they provide to various dishes. I love them on pizza, if they are cut so small I don't notice the texture or so big that I can pick them off. And, as for Stuffed Peppers, I love the flavor they impart on the filling, but prefer to leave the pepper behind. All that goes out the door when it comes to roasted red peppers though. Something in the way the fire transforms the flesh resonates with me that raw, or sautéed peppers, just can't do. Maybe it's due to the depth of flavor that roasting imparts to a pepper or the way it both heightens yet mellows its sweetness, or because roasting removes the skin, leaving behind just the tender flesh. I'm not sure exactly why, but, for me, roasting turns a bell pepper from something I can either take or leave into something that I often find myself craving.
While there are many great ways to enjoy roasted peppers, one of my favorite ways is to turn them into Romesco sauce. Romesco sauce is of Spanish origin and is often served in Catalan cuisine. it was supposedly first created by fisherman and thus is often served with fish although it also goes well with chicken, lamb, or vegetables (both cooked and raw, as a dip). In a non-traditional use I also like to toss it with pasta as an alternative to the standard red tomato sauce. Romesco also contains nuts, traditionally almonds although it is also often made with hazelnuts, pine nuts, or any combination of those. I prefer to make it with almonds, especially if serving it with fish as I find that the hazelnuts can be a little too assertive, although with lamb I prefer it with hazelnuts.
Of course, as with any "traditional" food there are as many ways to make it as there are cooks out there, and everyone will tell you that theirs is the authentic version. I don't claim that this recipe is fully authentic. First of all I don't have access to nyora peppers, a small, round bell pepper native to Spain. I also don't include fennel frond and/or mint leaves, which are often added if it is served with fish. But I think you will like this version and find a number of uses for it.
makes 2 - 2 1/2 cups
1 pound Red Bell Peppers (2-3 each)
3/4 cups Almonds, blanched
2 each Roma Tomatoes
1-2 cloves Garlic
2 tsp. Paprika (either sweet or hot)
2 tsp. Sherry Vinegar (or red wine vinegar if you don't have sherry vinegar)
3 slices French Bread, 1/2" thick, toasted
1/2 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Preheat your grill to high and turn your oven on to 325°F. Once your grill is hot place your peppers on the grill.
Grill your peppers until the skin chars and stars to wrinkle. This will take about 15 minutes to get all sides done. Don't forget to char the tops and bottoms also.
Place into a bowl and immediately cover tightly with plastic wrap or aluminum foil, allowing the peppers to steam for 15 minutes. This will allow the skin to loosen further making cleaning the peppers easier. This step can also be done under a broiler by cutting the peppers in half, placing skin side up and broiling until the skin starts to blister. Then transfer to your bowl.
While the peppers are steaming. Spread your almonds out on a tray, along with the bread and toast for 7-9 minutes or until just lightly browned.
Slice the garlic. Remove the cores from your tomatoes, cut into quarters, and remove all the seeds.
Place tomatoes, garlic, and almonds in a food processor. Remove the peppers from the bowl and cut in half. Take out the core and remove all the seeds. Place on a cutting board, skin side up and peel all the skin away from the pepper's flesh. You can, gently, use your knife to scrape off any stubborn bits. The one thing you do not want to do is rinse your peppers under water. This washes a good bit of flavor away, and don't worry about getting every bit of charred flesh off. That char will help add a bit of smoky flavor and just a hint of bitterness, but be careful not to add to much.
Place the peppers in the food processor, with the tomatoes, garlic and almonds, and add the paprika.
Add the vinegar and blend until almost smooth.
Add the slices of bread, pulse to incorporate, then turn the machine back on, and with it running, drizzle in the olive oil. This would also be the time to add the fennel or mint that I mentioned earlier, if using. Season with salt. While the sauce is ready immediately, I like to allow it to sit, at room temperature, for about 1 hour to let the flavors meld a little before serving.