The Portuguese love their meat, especially pork. Vegetables don't figure prominently in their diet - a thought that occurred to me often, in between the countless ham and cheese sandwiches I ate on a recent visit to Portugal.
When vegetables do appear, they are usually cooked instead of raw. The markets are abundant with tomatoes, cabbage, and, best of all, colorful displays of sweet peppers.
Weary of pork, I ventured to the coast in search of seafood. There I enjoyed a particularly memorable dish of braised tuna smothered in an aromatic broth of white wine, tomatoes, onions and peppers.
I found peppers again in another dish, this time in the form of piri-piri, a fiery African chile sauce, commonly used in southern Portugal as a condiment for frango, or grilled chicken.
A craving for tapas led me to Spain. In Sevilla, I feasted on pimientos del piquillo, a tapas bar staple of wood-roasted red peppers, in this case marinated in fruity Spanish olive oil and vinegar.
At a street market in Granada I bought pimenton, the deep ochre-colored Spanish paprika made from dried, pulverized red piquillo peppers. I also made harissa, an incendiary, deeply flavorful North African chile paste spiked with garlic and spices.
All this pepper eating left me inspired to experiment. I'm a dedicated ``chilehead," one of those freaks who actually enjoys the pain of eating, say, habenero salsa, and I frequently cook with hot chiles. But I'm not as familiar with their sweeter siblings, so I sought advice from local organic growers.
Like their hot counterparts, sweet - also called mild - peppers belong in the Capsicum family. MDNMEveryone is familiar with the ubiquitous bell pepper, but other popular varieties available at farmers' markets from late summer through fall are brilliant flamingo peppers, conical gypsy peppers, long, tapered cubanelles, and lemon-yellow sweet Hungarian bell peppers.
Farmer Tim Mueller of Riverdog Farm favors gypsy peppers because ``they have that sweet flavor without any heat, but there's a residual zestiness to them.
``We also sell dried gypsies," he continues. ``They'll rehydrate themselves if you dice them and throw them into whatever you're cooking, and will add a sweet richness to the final dish."
Mueller also likes to simply fry gypsies with ``lots of caramelized onion and some good olive oil." Add some sausage, to which sweet peppers are particularly well-suited, and you have a meal.
Thick, fleshy bell peppers lend themselves especially well to stuffing or roasting, although thinner varieties such as Gypsy work well, too. You can stuff them with cooked couscous or rice enhanced with onion, herbs, golden raisins and toasted pine nuts. Then roast or fry the stuffed peppers just until they soften slightly.
Roasted peppers will add an inherent smoky sweetness to omelets, sandwiches, pastas or pizzas, or serve them as a salad with preserved lemons and Moroccan olives drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice.
Whether hot or sweet, all peppers change color as they mature. For example, depending upon the hybrid variety, the crunchy, grassy-flavored green bells will turn orange, yellow, red, purple or even black when ripe.
``Green bells are a by-product of ripe bells," says Paul Underhill of Terra Firma Farm. ``We have to thin the fruit from the plants to prevent breakage on their brittle stems."
Mueller explains that ripe peppers cost more because the longer the peppers hang on the plant, the greater the potential to lose more of the crop to blossom rot, pests or sunburn.
``Sweet peppers are an invented vegetable bred from wild hot peppers. They were hybridized for commercial fruit production, so the fruit tends to get too heavy for the plant, and the leaves don't shield the fruit from the sun."
At the market or store, look for peppers with firm, shiny flesh, that feel heavy for their size. They should be stored in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator, and will freeze well if roasted.
Now go grab yourself a glass of sangria and get cooking!
ROASTED GYPSY PEPPER, RONDE DE NICE SQUASH AND TOSCANO CHEESE BREAD PUDDING
Recipe by Frances Wilson of Lalime's restaurant in Berkeley, published in ``Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area" (Eating Fresh Guides, $17.95).
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 Ronde de Nice squash, or 1 ½ pounds zucchini, washed and sliced
1 large clove garlic, finely minced
4 gypsy (or red bell) peppers, roasted, peeled, and cut into 1/2-inch slices (see note)
1 teaspoon fresh marjoram, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 cup heavy cream or whole milk
Pinch of mace
¾-pound loaf rustic white bread, crusts removed, cut into 1/4-inch slices
½ pound grated Toscano cheese (preferably Bellwether Farms brand)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large pan, heat the olive oil. Add squash and garlic, Saute until the squash is cooked but still al dente, about 4 minutes. When cool, mix with the roasted, peeled peppers and the marjoram. Season with salt and pepper.
Brush an ovenproof 8-by-8-inch dish with olive oil. In a bowl, whisk the eggs lightly. Add the cream, salt, pepper and mace. One at a time, dip the slices of bread in the egg mixture and place in the dish, forming one layer. Cover the bread with a layer of the vegetables and then with a layer of the grated cheese. Make three more layers: egg-coated bread, vegetables, and cheese (reserve some cheese to sprinkle on top of the finished pudding), and then top with another layer of bread. Pour the remaining egg mixture over this final layer.
Cover the dish first with parchment paper and then with aluminum foil. Place the dish in a larger ovenproof pan and fill the outer pan with hot water until it reaches 1/3 of the way up the inner dish. Bake for 1 hour until the custard is firm to the touch. Remove the foil and parchment, sprinkle the top with the reserved cheese, and return to the oven, baking until the cheese melts and browns. Serve hot. Serves 6.
Note: To roast peppers, place seeded, cored peppers skin-side up on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Place under broiler until skin is completely charred. Remove and seal in a plastic bag or bowl covered with plastic wrap. Let sit for 10 minutes until cool enough to handle and steam has loosened skins. Scrape skins off with small knife.
Per Serving: 443 Calories; 19g Fat; 27g Protein; 41g Carbohydrate; 5g Dietary Fiber; 129mg Cholesterol; 1102mg Sodium. Exchanges: 2 Grain (Starch); 2 1/2 Lean Meat; 1 1/2 Vegetable; 2 Fat.
E-mail Laurel Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK
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