A Good Use for Thick-Skinned Little Peppers

For me, November’s vegetable of the month isn’t sweet potato or even winter squash; it’s capsicum pepper. I pick my peppers when the first frost hits, usually in early October, and then let I them ripen in baskets and boxes in an unheated bedroom until those that will ripen have done so. Most take a few weeks to turn red, yellow, orange, or brown. As the fruits ripen, I freeze them, dry them, pickle them, and make them into various kinds of hot sauces and relishes. And I spend a lot of time roasting them.

Sometimes I do this outdoors, over a wood or charcoal fire, to infuse the peppers with smoke. Other times I use the oven broiler, or I char the peppers over a stovetop flame. In each case, I let the blackened peppers steam in a plastic bag or cloth for a while, and then I rub off the skins. These techniques all remove unpleasantly tough skins and make the flesh pliable, so the peppers fold nicely into a pickle jar or freezer bag.

But high-temperature roasting doesn’t work well with small peppers; their flesh tends to burn away along with the skin. So this year I wondered what to do with my boxful of corno di toro peppers—sweet, fleshy, thick-skinned red peppers which are supposed to grow at least 8 inches long but after several years of seed saving were now, for some reason, no longer than 5 inches. They were too big to look pretty in a pickle jar. I could dry them, if I halved them first, but I had plenty of dried peppers of other varieties. So I decided to roast the corni di toro, but slowly. I spread some peppers in a single layer on a roasting pan and set them in an oven heated to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. I turned them occasionally as they cooked, but much less often than I would if I were charring them over a stove flame or under a broiler flame. As the peppers softened, I let them blacken in spots, but not overmuch.

puréeing peppersAs usual, I steamed the roasted peppers in a plastic bag. This loosened the skins, but peeling more than five pounds of little peppers still seemed too much work. So I pulled off the tops of the peppers and put the rest through the medium screen of a food mill. What a smooth and delicious bowl of pepper purée this produced!

What should I do with it? I could make puréed pepper soup, a ketchup with or without tomatoes, or a rich-flavored sauce for pasta or meat. Instead I decided to turn the whole bowl of purée into a kind of harissa, the North African condiment that’s usually made with dried peppers.

Here is my recipe for—

Harissa from Fresh Puréed Peppers

1 tablespoon caraway seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
8 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon salt
1 quart fresh pepper purée, from roasted whole sweet or hot peppers pressed through a food mill
½ cup olive oil
½ cup diced brined lemon (1 small or ½ large)

Toast the caraway, cumin, and coriander seeds in a small skillet until they release their aromas, and then grind the seeds and garlic in a mortar. Stir the ground mixture into the pepper purée. Stir in the salt, olive oil, and brined lemon. (If you prefer a smoother sauce, you might leave out the lemon or use a little grated lemon peel instead.)

Divide the harissa among small containers, top each with a little olive oil and a tight-fitting lid, and freeze all but one container. Refrigerate the last container to use over the next few days.

Harissa adds a delicious richness to soups, stews, and pasta sauces. I also like it as a sandwich spread, with or without a little vinegar added. My favorite way to use harissa, though, is to toss it with home-cured green Lucques olives and more bits of brined lemon. That was my favorite among this year’s Thanksgiving hors d’oeuvres.

5 thoughts on “A Good Use for Thick-Skinned Little Peppers”

  1. Thank you for the article, very helpful. I make relish with the red cayenne variety we get in the UK, it’s sold as red chilli, probably Turkish, in the Middle Eastern shops. Only problem is they have a thick skin and it starts to float when chopped small and does not feel so good in the mouth. I liked your idea of the puree but I like little to see chopped chilli in my dish but without the skin separating and floating around so wondered if you might have some suggestions.
    Look forward to your response.

    1. I’m glad you clarified that you’d already tried roasting them, because that was the only thing I could think to suggest. Now all I can say is that someone has a marketing opportunity. Certainly it should be possible to grow other chile varieties for the U.K. market, even within the U.K. (in tunnels, perhaps?). How can all the South Asians and West Indians in your country live without chiles?

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