The perpetually underappreciated bell pepper is so often a bit player and so rarely the star. It's the afterthought of the vegetable world: a few shiny strips on a crudité platter, a crunchy tidbit in a stir-fry, a colorful add-on to a pizza, an add-in to hummus, pasta sauces, and sandwiches. It's almost always an addition to something else, never a centerpiece.
Even roasted red peppers -- so mainstream that you can buy them jarred at every grocery store -- are rarely treated as a main ingredient rather than a peripheral one.
It's a shame, though, that bell peppers don't get more respect and attention. They have some commendable characteristics, and they can hold their own as the focal point of a dish, or even a meal.
Technically a fruit, and closely related to both hot and mild chiles, bell peppers have a refreshing, almost sweet flavor, sometimes with just a suspicion of heat. (The exception is green peppers, which are picked before they're fully mature and can taste bitter-they have their place, but red-or orange, or yellow-peppers are definitely sweeter.) They're crunchy and juicy when raw but become soft and velvety-but still pleasantly firm-when cooked.
They also require virtually no special preparation: just coring and seeding. If you want to keep the pepper mostly intact, cut around the core, pull it out, and rinse the inside of the pepper out to get rid of the seeds. If you're planning to slice or chop the pepper, cut it in half lengthwise, pull the core out with your fingers, and brush or tap out the seeds.
Bell peppers have relatively thick, unyielding walls that make them a great vessel for other things (which is one of the reasons they're frequently served alongside dips and spreads). Stuffed bell peppers may be retro, but they're also good-especially if the filling consists of good fresh sausage, zucchini, and thyme. The peppers become very soft, sweet, and moist-the perfect counterpart to a meaty filling.
Ways to Cook Peppers
I also like pan-cooking bell peppers over relatively high heat so that they scorch slightly and soften a little but not too much. These are the main attraction in one of my favorite recipes for fried rice, which can be seasoned many ways, but which is particularly good (and surprising) flavored with spicy Thai curry paste.
A real pleasure, though, is to make roasted red (or orange or yellow) peppers at home and eat them virtually unadorned. Turn the oven to 450° or turn on the broiler, and roast or broil whole peppers until their skin blackens and they cave in. Wrap them in foil, let them cool, and remove their skins, seeds, and stems (rinsing them with running tap water helps). Eat right away, with just salt, pepper, and a little olive oil. (Capers and/or anchovies are traditional and fabulous additions.) They're a category apart from jarred roasted peppers -- in fact, they're so good that they command respect.