Fire-Roasted Red Peppers

Over the years we’ve enjoyed a number of meals which have called for bottled red peppers.  They taste terrific, but it has always seemed a bit crazy to pay the sort of prices they ask at the grocery store for those tiny little bottles.  We decided we should learn how to roast them ourselves, just to save a little cash.  Unknowingly, we also introduced ourselves to a world of heightened flavor, and with very little effort.Most recipes for roasted red peppers call for the use of the broiler flame in the oven, and that’s a wonderful, easy way to go.  I’ve found that I love bigger flavors, and the best way I’ve found to take the level of flavor through roof is by roasting my peppers on the grill instead.  It infuses the flesh of the pepper with a smoky nuance which is difficult to surpass.

Many cooks will leave the pepper whole while roasting, but in the interest of simplicity I like to prepare it a bit first.  I core and seed the pepper, and then flatten it with my hand.  In that way I can expose the maximum amount of skin to the open flame, and roast the pepper most efficiently.

I do appreciate recipes and techniques which are simplified to reduce manual effort, but where my grill is involved I’m generally a babysitter.  I’ve been on the receiving end of far too many overcooked meals from distracted grillers who don’t pay attention to what’s happening out there on the fire.  As a result, I’m sensitive to the thought of “treating” someone else to the same.  I turn up the flame on these peppers, but then I stand guard, ready to turn them every five minutes or so to ensure they’re done evenly, and perfectly.

Now, with respect to the amount of attention I pay to these peppers on the grill, I cannot escape the irony of the fact that they need to be completely charred before they are done.  I turn them again and again, always leaving the skin side to the flame.  They really shouldn’t be hurried, and it usually takes about fifteen minutes to render them completely black.  I’ve learned from experience that this is the single most important aspect of roasting peppers successfully; let them char until you look at them and wonder why you just wasted such a beautiful thing.  If you stop short of that point, the skin isn’t going to loosen and you’ll end up fighting the darned thing.  Roast it until it’s black.

As I stand and wait, it strikes me how the smoky haze rising from the grill during this process is rich with the deep, slightly musky scent of juices as they splatter and steam on the flames.  Standing over the grill in the heart of winter, as I did today, is difficult, but that heavenly scent is often reward enough.

When  the skins are completely charred the peppers are ready to be taken from the fire.  I carefully remove them with grilling tongs, and place them in a heatproof container with a sealable top.  If no such container is available, aluminum foil will definitely work, as long as you pinch and seal the edges.  Simply close the container, and perform the second most important step in the process: walk away!  Leave the sealed container alone for at least twenty minutes, as this is when the internal heat of the pepper will turn its juices into steam, loosening the skin so that it can be removed.  As a side benefit, the sugars of the raw pepper will be caramelized.  The sharp tanginess of the raw pepper will be converted into the rich, sweet flavors of the finished product.

After twenty minutes have passed, remove the peppers and lay them flat on your cutting board with the charred skin facing upward.  The flesh will likely still be hot, so be careful not to burn your fingers.  Remove the skin by rubbing it along and off the flesh.  If you’re gentle and careful, you should have a large square of warm, velvety soft pepper with some amount of charred bits clinging to the edges.  Some cooks rinse the flesh at this point, but I can’t bring myself to do it.  The aroma and the texture are intoxicating to my senses, and I don’t care to lose any of that for the sake of some perceived cleanliness.

My final step is to cut the peppers into thin strips for serving.  I drizzle a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil over them, and when they’ve cooled I store them in the refrigerator in a glass jar.  In the end I’ve saved a little cash over the purchase price of bottled peppers, but the real benefit is the incredible infusion of smoky flavor and the tactile pleasure of creating a gourmet treat for the senses. 

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