Really ripe peppers -- the kind you can smell from ten feet away at the farmers' market -- and tomatoes are gracing our New York City Greenmarkets, which may not be as exciting as the appearance of the season's first peas but is still an event of note. The other day, two favorite growers -- Eckerton Hill and Stokes -- had gorgeous examples of both. Partly because of the route Jackie and I took through the market, we bought a mixture of tiny sweet peppers (and a couple of poblanos) from one and a similar mixture of little tomatoes from the other. All the way home, we kept sticking our noses into our market bags to sniff our purchases, which were minimal because our kitchen is in the care of meticulous painters and is partly off-limits.
Those aromas got us thinking about two dishes in particular: Hungarian lecsó and South-West French piperade (also spelled pipérade, with an acute accent). The two dishes contain similar sets of ingredients and take advantage of the juiciness of ripe peppers. You could probably serve piperade to a Hungarian or lecsó to a Gascon without inviting scorn, but they are by no means identical: for one thing, lecsó contains lots and lots of paprika.
When we've got our kitchen back, we'll make a big batch of lecsó for the freezer, but at the moment it's hard to plan beyond the evening's supper. So, thinking small to match the pint-size fruits we'd bought, I focused more on piperade. Normally, I'd use duck fat or lard, prosciutto-like ham and some piment d'Espelette to give it geographical integrity, but with my compromised cooking facilities I opted for a simpler version that could be made in a two-person portion without a lot of effort.
I halved, stemmed and seeded a colorful mixture of those little peppers, tasting each one in case their market description as "sweet" was inaccurate: I've been tricked before. I cut each half into three or four wedges depending on size: nice chunks, a total of a generous double handful. While I did this, I sweated a sliced shallot and a couple of cloves of garlic in olive oil with some salt. When the shallots were soft, I mixed in the peppers and some thyme leaves and cooked the mixture over low heat until the peppers were beginning to get tender; now, I added a two-inch tomato, diced, and continued to cook until the peppers had lost their crunch but not their texture -- and certainly not their color.
These pepper mixtures have dozens of uses. One of the most typical (for both lecsó and piperade) is to eat them with eggs, so I broke five eggs into a bowl (I should have used six), added salt, pepper and chopped parsley and tarragon and beat with a fork, as for an omelette. Other herbs would be nice, too: thyme and chives come to mind.
Over medium-low heat, I added the eggs to the pepper mixture and stirred unremittingly with a rubber spatula until the eggs had only just barely scrambled. I then took the pan off the heat (the eggs continued to cook in the warmth of the pan), vigorously stirred in half a tablespoon of butter and served immediately with sautéed potatoes on the side.
The house was in such a state of disruption that there wasn't any bread around, but grilled, buttered sourdough or baguette would have enhanced a meal that was already first rate. The slowly-cooked peppers and tomatoes were in that gorgeous state of sweet, succulent ripeness, and the eggs had taken on their flavors and juices. When I finally get around to making my vat of lecsó -- soon! -- I'll certainly be using some of it in exactly this way.