Almost all you need to know about choosing peppers in shop or restaurant is how to distinguish between sweet and hot. The only reliable rule is that sweet peppers are generally bigger (their name derives, some say, from the Latin for 'box', capsa, and they belong to the genus Capsicum), and come in a wide variety of colours; the hot ones are generally smaller and universally red.
Sweet peppers, sometimes called bell peppers, are equally good hot or cold, as a main dish (often stuffed) or as an appetiser. Though seldom used straight, as a vegetable they are a leading player in a wide variety of sauces, not to speak of composite vegetable stews such as the wonderful Romanian ghivetch.
On the vegetable stage, let it be said, they make memorable statements and should be treated with respect. They can also, because of their woody nature, be somewhat indigestible. They are among the select group of table flavours - such as onions and garlic - that linger into the next day.
We most often use them at home as an appetiser. Picking peppers red, green and yellow (the colour contrasts are important), they are first roasted in the oven (or, if it is summer, on charcoal), then peeled, seeded, sliced, and sprinkled heavily with good olive oil and a small amount of chopped garlic. They may be served within an hour or so, once they have absorbed the oil and garlic.
Italians generally, and Sicilians especially, will eat them raw, simply dipping them into olive oil. A pinzimonio is a pepper salad in which the peppers, raw but seeded and sliced, are covered in oil and flavoured with salt and pepper (and sometimes with the addition of a small number of chopped peperoncini, the long, knobbly hot peppers). Sweet peppers are also a main ingredient in the delicious Sicilian caponata, in which they are joined by aubergines, olives and large, green, fresh unsalted capers.
Peperoni e melanzane
(peppers and aubergine)
This dish is used as a hearty accompaniment for a powerful main course: a true autumn dish because aubergine and pepper remain fresh on the market all through October.
Ingredients: 4 sweet peppers of mixed colours
1 medium red onion
2 medium aubergines
1lb fresh tomatoes (blanched and seeded) or tinned Italian whole tomatoes
4tbs olive oil
Preparation: Soak the peppers in cold water for at least half an hour. Into a casserole put the olive oil and the onion chopped into eight. Gut the peppers and cut them into rings, then place them as a layer over the onions. Cube the aubergines and place them on top of the peppers. Add the tomatoes and sprinkle with salt (gently) and pepper, then cover the casserole and simmer for 20 minutes at a gentle heat without stirring. Mix, and check the flavour, then simmer for another 10 minutes, uncovered, mixing gently once or twice.
When it comes to stuffing peppers, no holds are barred. As with stuffed tomatoes, aubergine, acorn squash, cabbage and so on, the limit is that of your imagination and your larder. The traditional way of stuffing peppers, with left-over rice, does indeed make a hearty, if somewhat bland dish. I favour the more robust stuffings, and especially remember a dish of stuffed peppers served on one of the remote Aeolian islands off Sicily. To my surprise, it differs not greatly from a Neapolitan stuffing described in Anna del Conte's excellent Secrets from an Italian Kitchen.
The products of that island, however, varied from the Neapolitan. Filicudi had the sea (hence anchovies and sardines); it grew tomatoes, olives and, above all, the world's finest capers. It also grew (and hand-threshed) its own wheat, from which it made a rock- like unleavened bread such as was made in the Mediterranean 3,000 years ago.
The breadcrumbs from this bread are what gives this Filicudi stuffing its rich consistency. (As a substitute, I suggest using only the crust of an Italian farm loaf that has gone stale.)
The ingredients being ad libitum, I will not specify the quantities. Use common sense in mixing them: no one taste should overwhelm the rest. The stuffing is made as follows: first fry the breadcrumbs in oil with a little garlic. Place in a bowl and add chopped fresh sardines and anchovies. Mix carefully with a little fresh oil. Add a handful of fresh capers (if you cannot find fresh, use capers from a jar that have been soaked in water overnight to get rid of the brine), a few sultanas and a dozen stoned black olives. Chop the mixture until it is well blended, and add a single bayleaf, chopped, and a tiny amount of fresh rosemary.
Fill the peppers, skinned and de-seeded, cover with their caps and cook in a medium oven for . . . (despite what all the cookbooks say, I find ovens vary too greatly to state an exact amount of time: 40 minutes is about right). You will know, by the texture of the pepper, when the dish is done. If it is utterly yielding, it is ready; if it is stubborn, cook some more; if it has fallen apart, that is only an aesthetic disaster.