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.