Ring those bells

Peppers' mellow flavors reverberate in a variety of dishes in four new cookbooks



Peter Piper may have picked a peck of pickled peppers, but Pete Aiello prefers his in their glorious prepickled state.

The owner and general manager of Uesugi Farms in Gilroy, Calif., said he likes his glossy green and red peppers stuffed, sliced into salads or basted with olive oil and tossed on a grill.

We might think of California as the land of artichokes, avocados and strawberries, but the state also leads the nation in bell pepper production, with nearly 9 million cubic tons. That’s a lot of stuffed peppers. And this is peak season for Aiello and his fellow farmers.

Growing the perfect pepper, Aiello said, is a lot like raising a large family. It’s a matter of supplying plenty of elbow grease and tender loving care everyday, he said. But the work starts paying off when the plant reaches full size because emerald green peppers can be harvested from the same plant for the next five months or they can be allowed to linger on the shrub until the sun turns them sweet and rosy red.

The bell pepper adds bright color and flavor to all kinds of cuisines, from savory Persian and Mediterranean dishes to fiery South American fare. It’s no wonder that they pop up in virtually every cookbook, including a slew of just-published tomes. Taking a page of inspiration from four of the newest cookbooks, we’re give California’s most mellow pepper its time in the sun.

You can hide those glorious bells in fajitas or drown them in chili, but why not give them a starring role at the dinner table, said Robert Irvine, host of Food Network’s “Dinner: Impossible,” a reality show that sends its chef scrambling to prepare meals in such unlikely venues as an aircraft carrier and an ice hotel. In his newest cookbook, “Impossible to Easy” (William Morrow, $29.99, 294 pages), Irvine suggests tossing diced bell and serrano peppers with tequila-simmered shrimp and linguine for a playful dish that’s as easy as it is beautiful.

Annie Bell, author of the new “Gorgeous Vegetables” (Kyle Books, $19.95, 192 pages), layers roasted red peppers with tomatoes, pesto and goat cheese for a gratin that tastes equally good hot, cold or at room temperature. Not a chèvre devotee? Use mozzarella instead.

Roasted vegetables, she said, are “one of the great basics of the kitchen,” equally at home on the white tablecloth-draped dinner table as they are tucked into a sandwich. And a little leftover roasted pepper gratin would be marvelous on ciabatta bread.

Italian cooking guru Lidia Bastianich goes old school in “Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy” (Alfred A. Knopf, $35, 414 pages). She stuffs peppers with dried porcini, breadcrumbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Bastinich uses the same mixture to stuff medium zucchini, small tomatoes and sweet Vidalia onions, then serves them on a large platter, family-style. Best of all, she said, they can be served piping hot or at room temperature, as an hors d’oeuvre, a side dish or the main event. They make a great breakfast treat. too, topped with a poached or fried egg.

And San Francisco food writer Fran Gage, author of “The New American Olive Oil” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $29.95, 224 pages), uses red peppers in Spanish romescu sauce, Persian muhammara and that classic French picnic sandwich, Pan Bagnat. The latter is best eaten on a beach in Nice, she said, but then, that’s probably true of most things.

Roasted Pepper, Goat Cheese and Pesto Gratin

Serves 4-6

From Annie Bell’s “Gorgeous Vegetables” (192 pages, $19.95)

8 red peppers

4 tomatoes

3 tablespoons olive oil

Sea salt, black pepper

7 ounces goat cheese, rind removed, thinly sliced

4 tablespoons pesto

Preheat oven to 400 F. Place peppers on an oven rack and roast 20 minutes. Place them inside a plastic bag, wrap well and let cool several hours or overnight.

Skin peppers, and discard core and seeds. Cut peppers into wide strips.

Bring pan of water to a boil. Cut cone from the top of each tomato to remove core. Plunge them into the boiling water for 20 seconds, then into ice-cold water. Slip off skins. Slice tomatoes.

Preheat oven to 425 F. Drizzle 1 tablespoon oil into the bottom of a 12-inch oval gratin dish or similar shallow, ovenproof pan. Arrange half the peppers in the bottom, and season with salt and pepper. Lay half the goat cheese over the peppers, then all of the tomatoes. Drizzle with half the pesto. Lay remaining peppers in place, season with salt and pepper, and scatter with remaining cheese. Drizzle with rest of the pesto, and a couple of tablespoons olive oil. Bake 25-30 minutes. Let cool 30 minutes and serve.

Linguine Serrano with Tequila, Peppers and Shrimp

Serves 6-8

From Robert Irvine’s “Impossible to Easy” (294 pages, $29.99)

2 pounds linguine

2 pounds medium shrimp, deveined

1 tablespoon

grapeseed oil

1 cup seafood stock

1 shallot, minced

1 serrano pepper, seeded and thinly sliced

1 each red, yellow and green bell pepper, seeded and finely diced

2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, minced, divided

1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes

2 cups tequila, such as Sauza or Jose Cuervo

2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning

Salt, pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

Peel shrimp, reserving shells and tails.

In a large saute pan, heat oil over medium. Add shrimp shells and tails, and cook 2 minutes or until they turn pink. Add stock. Simmer until liquid is reduced by half. Strain liquid into a bowl, discarding shells.

In the same pan, saute the shallot until it turns translucent. Add serrano and bell peppers, 1 tablespoon cilantro and the crushed red pepper. Cook until peppers begin to soften, about 3 minutes.

Add tequila and reserved seafood stock, and cook until sauce is reduced by half, about 10 minutes over medium-high.

Meanwhile, cook linguine and drain well.

Season shrimp with the Old Bay seasoning, salt and pepper, and stir them into sauce. Cool until just pink, remove from heat and let stand until the shrimp are opaque. Fold the linguine into the sauce, coating well. Garnish with remaining cilantro.

Pan Bagnat

Serves 4

From Fran Gage’s “The New American Olive Oil” (224 pages, $29.95)

4 round rolls or a baguette cut into 6-inch pieces

6 tablespoons medium or robust extra-virgin olive oil

3 ounces tuna

8 anchovy fillets, rinsed and patted dry

1 small onion, peeled and thinly sliced

2 red bell peppers, charred with skin, ribs and seeds removed

1/2 cup pitted nicoise olives, rinsed, patted dry

Cut bread in half lengthwise. Pull out some of the inside to make more room for the filling.

Brush or drizzle the olive oil evenly over all the inner surfaces. Layer filling ingredients on bottom halves and cover with the tops. Tightly wrap sandwiches in plastic wrap for at least three hours at a cool room temperature before serving or in a refrigerator overnight.

Serve at room temperature.