The Chef Apprentice

Join a self-taught cook as he trains at a top restaurant

peppers cut.jpgIf you've visited the farmers markets lately, you've probably noticed a dazzling array of gypsy peppers, red bell peppers and Italian frying peppers.

Most of the year, sweet peppers cost $4 a pound or more and come from Mexico or elsewhere. By comparison, the current local crop costs one fourth of that price. The flavors are incomparable.

In other words, now is the time to have a pepper party.

Before interning at Oliveto, I had never fried any sweet peppers. My usual technique was to char them on the grill, remove their skins and then add them to a dish - a labor intensive process.

But at Oliveto, the chefs have shown me a time-honored method for frying these summer gems. In recent weeks, I became the pepper prep cook. Day after day, my job was to cut up boxes of peppers, blister them in hot pans and then finish them with a dramatic deglazing of balsamic vinegar and fresh basil.

peppers in pan.jpgThe end result was sweet and tangy -- a dish that goes well with lamb, grilled fowl or fish. The high heat caramelizes the sugars in the peppers, and the balsamic vinegar and basil give the dish a final flavor punch.

Warning: If you prepare this dish at home, there's a high likelihood you will make a mess of your stove top or splatter yourself with hot oil. So be careful. But be bold. These peppers fit that description.

Keep reading for the recipe.


Fried peppers with balsamico
Eight side dish servings
Prep time: 30 minutes. Cooking time 30 minutes.

Ingredients
12 sweet peppers of various colors
Olive oil
Salt
1 bunch basil, leaves removed from stems
Medium quality balsamic vinegar

Equipment
One large steel skillet (avoid non-stick if possible)
One slightly smaller skillet, wrapped in foil
Tongs

Preparation
Cut peppers in half, remove seeds and membranes, and then cut again to produce quarters. Remove basil leaves from stems and place in a bowl.

Heat skillet on a high flame. When hot, add olive oil to cover bottom of pan. Just before oil starts to smoke, add peppers skin down in a single layer. Don't crowd the pan. Sprinkle with salt. Place foil-covered skillet (or some other weight) on top of peppers.

After 30 seconds, remove weighted pan and check peppers with tongs. Move peppers around so the skin evenly blisters, and turn down heat slightly if they are sticking or burning.

Once peppers are well blistered on one side, give the pan a flip or use your tongs so the skin side is face up. Added weighted pan and cook for another 30 seconds to a minute.

peppers with green beans.jpgWhen peppers are cooked but not too limp, add about eight basil leaves and a splash of balsamic (no more than two tablespoons.) Flip the pan a few times, pretending you are a celebrity chef. (Don't scorch yourself.) Empty contents of pan into a bowl.

Carefully wipe pan with a towel and start the next batch.

(Note: You will probably need to clean your skillet after two batches. Alternately, have a second skillet ready.)

These deglazed peppers keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, but you will surely eat them before then.
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About The Chef Apprentice

Stuart Leavenworth, an editorial writer for The Bee, will spend the next several months in the kitchen at Oliveto, a highly rated Italian restaurant in the Bay Area. As an apprentice, Stuart will start as a prep chef, preparing vegetables, soups, sauces and pasta fillings. Then he'll move on to more challenging assignments. He welcomes your questions. Read his first installment here. Email him at sleavenworth@sacbee.com.

March 2010

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