Thursday, October 8, 2009

Mama Lena's Marvelously Luscious Peppers

I live on what has got to be one of the friendliest streets in Chicago's friendliest neighborhoods. The connected rowhouses have for the most part created a communal setting where people share stories, meals and, of course, adult beverages. Every so often, the close-knit, yet loosely organized street organization hosts a Progressive Dinner. Families divide into groups, and in each group, one family takes the lead as a host house. Scheduled during the summer, it's a parade of comestibles starting with appetizers and travelling to dessert, each course at a different home. Most groups organize themselves around a culinary theme: BBQ, Italian, Asian . . . you get the drift.

It was at one of these dinners that I'd first tasted Mama Lena's Marvelously Luscious Peppers. They were abundantly displayed in an enormous bowl, glistening and flecked with garlic. I took a small heaping to pair with a grilled flank steak. The steak tasted feeble in comparison. I went for another, slightly larger, heaping, topping it onto golden brown garlic crostini. The crunch was the ideal companion to the silkiness of the peppers. Prepared to beg for the recipe, I identified their maker. Turns out it was a good friend of mine, Don Tomei. Don comes from a southern Italian family with a mother who is an amazing cook. Almost everything that comes out of Mama Lena's kitchen is made from scratch - pasta, pastries and long-simmered sauces. I was sure that there was some great secret to these bewitching peppers.

Don shattered my illusions when informing me that the recipe could be described in these short lines, grill, peel, cover with extra virgin oil and mix with a ton of garlic. Then you wait. Really? It couldn't be. I've roasted and grilled peppers on numerous occasions, something more had to be at play. This couldn’t be this easy.

I went home and bought a mess of multi-colored peppers from Green City Market. And then I grilled, peeled, covered with olive oil and mixed with a ton of garlic. Not being able to help myself, I added a touch of sherry vinegar. Then I waited. The next day, I peeled back the plastic wrap from the bowl and was greeted with a deliciously sweet, garlicky aroma. Scraping them into a bowl, I oiled and toasted a few slices of baguette. Heaping them on top of the warm toasts and sprinkling a bit of goat cheese, I remembered why some of the simplest pleasures are the best.

During pepper season, which we are in the midst of, I will throw peppers onto an oiled grill any time that I have the chance. The dish is a great side dish for grilled or sautéed chicken and an easy sauce for fresh pasta with a bit of fresh goat cheese crumbled on top. This is a terrific dish for busy families: delicious, easy and made ahead of time.

Genesis Peppers
Peppers on the Farm, Photo Credit: David Thompson

Here's the more explicative recipe.

Mama Lena’s Roasted and Marinated Bell Peppers
6 Servings

6 bell peppers of various colors
6 garlic cloves
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon good sherry vinegar
½ teaspoon fine sea salt

Grill, broil or roast the peppers over an open flame. Put the peppers into bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap until cool to the touch. Remove the skins, stems and the seeds from the peppers. Slice into ¼-inch slices. Very thinly slice garlic cloves. Mix together the peppers, sliced garlic cloves, olive oil, vinegar and salt in a medium-size bowl and marinate overnight.
DO-AHEAD NOTES: The peppers should be made the day before and can be kept for two days in the refrigerator.


Kids Cooking Tips
Kids will have fun peeling these and slicing them with a dull knive.

Peppers from Genesis Growers
Garlic from Growing Home
Pasta from Pasta Puttana

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