Monday, October 16, 2023

Cream of Yellow Peppers

Two decades ago, Dr. V and I visited Florence for a couple of days. It was late spring and the city was crowded. Think a never-ending flow of tourists and never-ending lines at museums, churches, galleries, moving slowly, intersecting, like a million ant colonies gone nuts. It was early afternoon, and Dr. V was parched and hungry. I suspect that you can picture the scene -- the lunch had to happen “right there”, “right now”, “like immediately, and not a minute later”. We were just off the Piazza del Duomo, surrounded by what seemed tourist-trap-type of places, with huge panels on the street and waiters who were practically dragging people into their restaurants, showing them in mercilessly, and alas, the chance of getting to any of the off-the-beaten-track small trattorias from the list I so meticulously compiled,  other than by means of teleportation, was none. And of course, no amount of bitching on my end could change V’s mind. So we took a table at one of 'those' places, and Dr. V ordered a bowl of pasta. Naturally, in the act of protest, I ordered nothing. (Wouldn’t you?) But of course, when Dr. V’s plate arrived, ravioli in yellow pepper sauce, I could not help myself and I took a discrete spoonful. (Wouldn't you? I mean, when presented with a plate of interesting food, a girl has to give it a try.)

That pasta dish was the best thing we ate (and did) on our trip. The sauce was like a dream. A delicate, mellow, and gently sweet fantasy -- in a sweet-pepper kind of way – creamy and decadent, and golden, like a burst of sunshine. The sweetness and the flavor were reminiscent of ajvar, the iconic pepper spread from the Balkans, you know the thing they call “the pepper caviar” for a reason; the sweetness that comes from roasting and sautéing peppers slowly, for a long time. That was really it, that was the key ingredient. No other complications.

I’ve been making the sauce ever since. At first, it was only for pasta, but soon it became obvious that it’s a beautiful match for so many other things: fish and shellfish, roasted veggies, a soup, a dip, chilled as a base for a ball of burrata. This sauce is one of my favorite things to cook, and I wonder why it took me such a long time to write it down. So finally, here it is -- the recipe for the sauce and a sketch of my favorite things to make with it. In its simplest and purest form it’s just shallot, butter, yellow pepper, broth, and cream. That’s what I do for pasta. When I make a soup, or seared scallops, I add a complication or two -- a pinch of curry, a drop of white wine, or a thread of saffron. Sometimes, I add all of them. You do not want to add much, just a hint of each. They are not supposed to be detectable, think of them as enhancers, when done right, they’ll make the beautiful pepper flavor even more prominent. That’s about it. I hope that you’ll give it a try and enjoy it as much as I do.

Cream of Yellow Peppers

1 large shallot (2 oz), minced
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 small garlic clove, minced
2 medium yellow bell peppers, cut into thin ribs
1 cup vegetable broth (or more, depending on desired thickness)
1/2 cup heavy cream (or up to taste)

complications (optional):

1/4 teaspoon Madras curry powder (or any similar mild variety)
1 tablespoon white wine
1 teaspoon saffron water
a pinch of grounded Sarawak white pepper

Heat the butter over medium heat. Add the shallot and sauté for a minute or two until softened. Add the garlic and sauté for one more minute until garlic becomes fragrant. Add the peppers. Simmer for about 8 minutes. Add about three tablespoons water, cover, and simmer until peppers are very soft and close to falling apart. It will take about 30 to 45 minutes. Check the peppers from time to time; if they get dry, add another tablespoon or so water.

Add the broth (and any or all optional ingredients, if using). Simmer for another 5 minutes. Add the heavy cream. Simmer for another minute or two. Remove from the stove and let cool. Season with salt.

When the cream has cooled somewhat, puree in a blender. Add more broth or cream to get the consistency you need. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Pass through a sieve (you can skip this part if you have a powerful blender, but it does add a velvety quality to the cream.) Reheat gently before serving.

Note: Now that you have the recipe, here are a some wonderful things to make with it:

- Spinach ravioli with cream of yellow pepper sauce.
- Ricotta gnocchi with blistered tomatoes, cream of yellow pepper sauce and tomato oil.
- Burrata with yellow pepper sauce and olive tapenade.
- Burrata with yellow pepper sauce and marinated mushrooms.
- Seared scallops with yellow pepper sauce, roasted mushrooms and sherry pan sauce.
- Yellow pepper soup.
- Poached halibut with yellow pepper sauce.
- Roasted butternut squash, cauliflower, and red peppers, with yellow pepper sauce.
- Blackened shrimp with curried yellow pepper sauce. 
- ... and I'm sure you will think of many more.