Gorgeous, delicious and versatile, red and yellow (as well as purple, orange and white) bell peppers are a star addition to locally available produce. A member of the capsicum family that includes most kinds of mild, sweet and hot peppers, sweet peppers became popular at the beginning of the 20th century and have since spread to farms all over the world. Capsicum annuum originated in Mexico and spawned all types of hot and sweet peppers, according to Alan Davidson’s book, The Oxford Companion to Food.
We have had dark green bell peppers for nearly a century and these are less mature than the colored peppers and have a distinct raw flavor. The colored hybrid peppers are a hybrid that start out green but as they ripen turn into spectacular shades of red, yellow, purple, etc. In the mid-1990s, a few adventurous farmers in Tagaytay started planting new hybrids of these sweet peppers and their fruit started appearing in organic vegetable markets in fits and starts. I was thrilled to find the locally grown peppers, and would buy up several kilos a week to do my part to help ensure that the farmers continued to plant the peppers. Supply was seasonal in nature, and the peppers would disappear during the rainy season. Prices were a steep P300+ per kilo, and cost nearly as much as those sent from Australia air freight. In the last few years, however, several growers have started commercial production of the yellow and red capsicum, often in green houses and sometimes using hydroponic methods. Hundreds of kilos per week are now being regularly harvested and the retail prices have dropped to roughly P100-140 per kilo (about 4-5 large peppers). The quality of locally grown red and yellow peppers is excellent — plump and meaty, they have a very sweet taste and a distinct but mild flavor.
When purchasing, choose peppers with smooth, shiny, firm and unblemished skins. A tinge of green is fine as the peppers should color completely (i.e., ripen) in a day or two. Store peppers outside the refrigerator at room temperature if you intend to use them within two days of purchase, otherwise refrigerate. The peppers are readily available at Warehouse/ Hypermart style food stores, large supermarket chains, specialty food stores and weekend produce markets.
The red and yellow peppers are extremely versatile and appear in Asian and European dishes. They can be stir fried, sautÃ©ed, pureed, roasted, baked or grilled. Sliced into thin strips they make a colorful and tasty addition to a stir fry of beef sirloin with either a hoisin or oyster based sauce. Roasted yellow peppers can be pureed and added to a risotto, resulting in stunningly yellow foil to grilled lamb, veal or pork chops. Sliced yellow peppers can be slowly sauteed in sweet butter and added to spaghetti with generous amounts of grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Strips of pepper can be grilled along with other vegetables such as zucchini, eggplant, onions and tomatoes and served as a vegetable antipasto platter. But my favorite and perhaps the most versatile use of the peppers is roasted and marinated in a superb olive oil.
Few things are simpler to make and as delicious to eat. Take several red and yellow peppers, wash and pat dry. Cook over a charcoal fire and blacken the skin, watching carefully to turn and evenly roast the peppers. The skin will burn and sometimes blister but that is normal. Alternatively, you can roast them over a gas flame on your stovetop, holding the peppers with tongs and ensuring an even blackening of the skin. As soon as they are done, put them in a glass or stainless steel bowl and cover with plastic wrap for at least 15 minutes. The heat and steam that is created will finish the cooking process and make it easier to peel the cooled peppers. Remove the plastic wrap and rub off and peel the blackened skin of the peppers. Remove the stem and the white pith and seeds inside the peppers. Cut the skins of each pepper into 4 or 5 pieces, placing all of the pieces in a clean container. Drizzle the pepper slices with a generous amount of the best extra virgin olive oil you can afford and cover and refrigerate. Peppers will keep in the refrigerator 4-5 days.
Roasted peppers prepared in this manner can be used in several ways. Serve a few slices of peppers with sliced buffalo mozzarella and some fresh basil and drizzle with balsamic vinegar for a quick and tasty appetizer. Or serve roasted peppers as part of a quick antipasto plate with artichokes, prosciutto, salami, tomatoes, olives, mushrooms and mozzarella. The roasted peppers are also excellent as part of a grilled vegetable panini (sandwich). Place grilled sliced vegetables such as eggplant, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, onions, etc. in a toasted focaccia. Peppers can also be used to top bruschetta, added to mixed green salads, or even blended with homemade mayonnaise to serve with broiled fish or chicken.