Hello, hello!! It feels like a dog’s age since our last post, but things have been busy around the Choosy Beggars household with lots of food, drinks, more food, too many drinks, OH GOD, PLEASE NO MORE FOOD AND DRINKS. After all the turkey, tourtière, braised short ribs and shrimp plates, yesterday we sat down to an absolutely delightful low key antipasto dinner with some of my experimental smoked meats (the best gift I have ever received was that digital four rack smoker), cheese, olives, fiery hot pepperonata and a few buckets of wine. It was heaven…..a quiet, private kind of heaven that sometimes you really need after all the hustle and noise of the holidays.
It’s not that I don’t like to spend as much time as possible with family and friends, because I really do. However, I think that if you strip off all my layers and onion skins, at the very heart of who I am there is a cranky little anti-social troll soul who needs to be left alone once in a while. You can bring me to the party and I’ll heartily enjoy myself, but after more than two hours of flashing lights, loud noises and revolving conversations I go vaguely catatonic. You’ll find me slumped on the couch, staring off into space and murmuring monosyllabic responses to questions that I didn’t really hear. It’s at about this point that Mike, also known as Mr.Congeniality or The Party Man, starts to casually pack up our stuff and guides my shuffling feet out to the car. So there you have it. I’m a perfectly pleasant guest for the first few hours of merriment, but the shelf life of my ability to interact with people drops of dramatically after that.
I’ve said it before, but I know how truly blessed I am to have a broad network of loving and considerate family and friends around us at all times. There is no greater joy than being with the ones you love, particularly around the holidays, and I never suffer from loneliness. However, it’s about this point in the season when the gifts are unwrapped and the leftovers are in the fridge when sometimes I do suffer from a lack of aloneness.
When I’m craving solitude I like to be in my kitchen. Quietly stirring pots, contemplatively seasoning sauce and methodically chopping vegetables turns into a zen-like trance. The constant quacking of my mind slows down, the shoulders begin to drop, and by the time that dinner is served I’m completely relaxed and at peace. One of the perfect dishes for kitchen aloneness, for me at least, is to make a huge batch of pepperonata for freezing, canning, or giving to people as gifts to apologize for any deviant behavior fueled by a bit too much of the sugar plum rum.
Pepperonata is a condiment made from stewed peppers, tomatoes and a few aromatics. There are versions of pepperonata in the cuisines of Spain, Italy, Greece and the Caribbean. If they have peppers, they probably make some kind of pepperonata. Bearing this in mind, I’ve eaten pepperonata that was so thick I was afraid that it would stand up and walk away, as well as pepperonata that was so thin and runny people were sopping it up with bread like a soup. It can be sweet and mild or salty and piquant, because like any traditional peasant dish it’s all a matter of taste and preference.
My favorite pepperonata is the kind that I’m often given by a dear Macedonian colleague of mine. It is hotter than Hell’s flannel pajamas, thick enough to be slathered and spread, but loose enough to sop up all those wonderful juices with fresh crusty bread. It will kick you in the arse and then cradle you in it’s arms until you’re ready for another bite, and that’s the type of pepperonata that I make at home. This is the not at all kid friendly spread that makes you cry, “Owowow, it hurts! But it hurts so goooood…..*munch nosh munch*……” The pleasure and pain receptors are side by side in our brains for a reason, after all.
For what amounts, essentially, to stewed peppers, pepperonata is deliciously simple and easy to make. Sure, there’s a bit of chopping involved, but after that the dish practically makes itself. Don’t be daunted by the massive quantities of onions, peppers and tomato that you’ll see in the pictures, because I had doubled the batch. My intention was to put some of the pepperonata into serilized jars and can it, but instead a fair bit was given away, a hefty lot was eaten one night as dinner, leftovers were served on the appetizer buffet, and next thing you know we’ve actually gone through the whole darn batch.
When I first asked my work friend what kind of peppers she used, she told me that they were “just banana peppers”. Huh. You see, the banana peppers that are common in the grocery store here are sweet banana peppers, which have about as much heat as a bell pepper. Cubanelle peppers also frequently make their way into the supermarkets, and these can vary enormously in heat from being mild, sweet and watery to being spicy and hot. The peppers that she was directing me towards were hot banana chili peppers, which are also known as yellow wax chili and tend to be about as hot as serrano chili peppers. The heat of the chilis will be tempered somewhat from the long and slow braise, but the more extreme heat of yellow wax chili peppers is something to bear in mind if you try this dish. Feel free to substitute different peppers into the mix according to your tolerance for spicy food.
Makes appx 1 pint or 2.5 cups
- 1.5 lb banana chili peppers (~15) *
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 yellow cooking onion
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 lb ripe tomatoes (~3-4)
- 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- salt to taste
* Hot banana chili peppers (aka yellow wax chili) are quite spicy. If you wanted to temper this heat you could substitute with mostly the mild cubanelle pepper and a handful of banana peppers. Alternatively, you could use sweet banana peppers if you wanted to avoid the heat altogether, although frankly the thought of that just makes me sad. Little pepperoncini are a good bet as well, and there are many options available as long as you focus your search on thin fleshed peppers as opposed to the more robust bells.
Cut the onions into a large dice and mince the garlic. Heat 2 tbsp of the olive oil over a medium low heat and start to sweat out the onions for 5-6 minutes or until they’re fragrant and translucent.
Remove the seeds from the peppers and also cut out the ribs if you want to further control the heat. Chop the peppers into fairly large chunks, about 1/2″ wide.
Finally, dice the tomatoes into small chunks that are no more than 1/4″. The small size will encourage them to break down faster.
Add the peppers to the onions and sautee them briefly for a minute or two before scraping in the tomatoes and all of their accompanying juices. Add the dried oregano and season lightly with salt.
When the mixture has heated through enough that it starts to bubble you can turn the heat down to low to slowly let the mixture stew away at a gentle simmer. The tomatoes will break down and form the sauce for this spread, so the only real vigilance that you need is to make sure that there is enough liquid in the pot. If it looks like the mixture is starting to get thick and dry out you can simply add 1-2 tablespoons of water and put a lid on the pot so that no more moisture will evaporate. Otherwise, leave the pot uncovered as it simmers away and stir occasionally to make sure the bottom does not burn or stick.
After 60-75 minutes the peppers should be soft and well stewed. Stir in the red wine vinegar, remaining 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, and give a final check to the seasoning.
Serve your pepperonata warm or at room temperature, slathered on crostini or scooped up with plenty of fresh crusty bread.
I like to serve the pepperonata with a few slabs of salty feta cheese…..
….or a crumbled unripened cheese that cuts through the heat with creaminess.
It’s truly engaging to watch Mike devour a bowl of pepperonata. He’ll spoon it generously onto the bread, making sure that it’s piled vertically as tall as it is broad, and engulf the whole thing like a snake (I swear that man can dislodge his jaw when he wants to). Every time there will be exactly three chews and a big gulping swallow, followed by watery eyes bugging out and his mouth gaping open to make the, “Hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhaaaaa” sound that usually either means Mike has eaten spicy food or my cats have detected a bird on the deck. “So hot! It hurts! It hurts so good!!” he says, before going in to take another kick at the can. I can’t get enough of watching him go for it with gusto, and it’s just another reason that I adore my funny fiancé.
We hope that everyone who celebrated around this time of the year had an excellent holiday full of family, friends and fun! And for everyone who didn’t? Go make some pepperonata. It helps.