Gardening Articles: Health :: Cooking

Growing and Grilling Peppers

by Renee Shepherd

'Corno di Toro', or bull's horn peppers, are excellent for grilling or broiling.

Every summer, a large section of my kitchen garden is devoted to a bevy of colorful and delicious peppers, which I love to harvest in big baskets and roast to sweet and savory perfection. The brilliant hues and full-bodied flavors of these New World natives have assumed a central role in many of the world's cuisines, and can transform an everyday meal into a flavorful feast.

Growing peppers for roasting is a relatively recent practice for Americans. Not so long ago, many of us knew only traditional bell peppers harvested at their green (unripe) stage. But within the last decade, many more varieties of sweet and spicy peppers in a multitude of shapes and colors have become available, adding robust flavors and succulent textures to an unending array of easy-to-prepare dishes. At the same time, our cooking styles have concentrated on using a wider range of fresh ingredients and bringing vegetables to the center of the plate.

The dry heat of roasting -- by grilling or broiling -- brings out the flavor of all peppers, and while bell peppers harvested when fully colored are undeniably good, I prefer several other varieties for roasting. In Italy, 'Corno di Toro' (bull's or ram's horn) peppers are the top choice for grilling and sauteing. These peppers grow 8 to 10 inches long, with a tapered, slightly curved shape and thin walls with very sweet flesh. They ripen to a rich red or deep yellow.

Before grilling peppers, I simply slice them lengthwise into 1- to 2-inch-wide strips, then marinate them by tossing them in fruity olive oil with minced garlic and chopped fresh herbs one hour before cooking. Grill peppers 6 to 10 inches above medium coals covered with white ash. Grill as slowly as possible, turning several times, until the peppers are tender when pierced (a little charring won't hurt them and actually adds flavor). They'll develop an irresistibly sweet succulence. Serve warm, sprinkled with a little sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to accompany chicken, steaks, lamb, or burgers. Be sure to offer crusty bread to sop up the tasty juices. During basil season, sprinkle a handful of freshly chopped leaves over the peppers just before you bring them to the table for a perfect marriage of Mediterranean flavors.

If there are any leftover grilled peppers, eat them for lunch at room temperature with bread and a good hard cheese such as Asiago or Parmesan. The peppers' smoky-sweet flavor makes a satisfying feast out of any meal. Other Italian varieties commonly available include 'Italia', 'Italian Gourmet', 'Marconi', and 'Super Shepherd'.

Lamuyo is another type of European roasting and baking pepper now widely available in the United States. These elongated bell peppers are about twice as long as they are wide. I like to grow them because they get bigger and sweeter than traditional blocky bells, but take no longer to reach harvest. Common varieties include gold 'Yellow Fame', orange 'Mandarin', and early red 'Vidi'. Each has thick, crunchy, and juicy flesh. Grill them and top with a savory sauce (see the Grilled Peppers with Anchovies, Garlic, and Basil recipe, below), or slowly roast them after rubbing with olive oil mixed with chopped garlic and oregano. Top with crumbled feta or freshly grated Asiago or Parmesan cheese and serve as a side dish. For a hearty main course, stuff and bake them with your favorite homemade ravioli filling.

Mild chilie peppers also lend themselves perfectly to roasting. 'Anaheim' or 'California' chilies are actually mild New Mexico types, which also include 'New Mexico #6', 'New Mexico R Naky', 'New Mex Joe Parker', and 'NuMex Big Jim'. The heart-shaped 'Poblano' ripens from shiny deep green to rich reddish brown, usable at either stage.

For more exotic mild chilies, try flattened, blunt-ended, thick-fleshed 'Mulato' or the elongated dark green pods of 'Pasilla' chilies. These are wonderful roasted, then peeled and seeded (see "Roasting Peppers," below). For chiles rellenos, stuff the chilies with cheese, seafood, or chicken; for fajitas, toss them with grilled meats or chicken and grilled onions, tomatoes, salsa, and fresh cilantro.

To summer vegetables like corn, squash, or green beans, I like to add a bold accent of chopped grilled, seeded, and peeled mild chilies. They also add a tantalizing taste to egg or cheese dishes and a kick to casseroles like cooked dried beans or macaroni and cheese. For a spicy twist on chicken soup, add a few roasted and chopped mild chilies and tomatoes and several mashed roasted garlic cloves to the broth. Squeeze in the juice of a fresh lime and sprinkle generously with fresh cilantro. Serve this Mexican-style soup with tortilla chips and diced avocado as a sure cure for whatever may ail you!

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