Friday, October 10, 2008

Salata de ardei copti - Roast pepper salad

Roast pepper salad is my second desert island dish. It is, quite simply, one of the most delicious dishes I have ever met, and not surprisingly, it pairs well with salata de vinete. Its tanginess makes it a particularly good accompaniment to meat dishes, especially if the meat is fried -- I like to have something sour to cut the greasiness of a meaty main course.

Like the roasted eggplant, this is something that involved much heat and sweat to prepare back in the ol' country. In fact, I tried this in my summer in Bucharest in 2000. These days, Bucharest in August has temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius, and while it wasn't that hot back then, with the fire burning and the peppers smoking, the whole process was pretty lethal. Luckily, here in "the West" we have shortcuts. One way of roasting the peppers is on a barbecue, and, in fact, this is what my parents still do in Canada -- as does the Canadian-Greek blogger at Kalofagas.

The way to do it if you live in a studio in NYC is to fire up the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, wash the peppers, set them on a pan lined with aluminium foil, and keep them in there for thirty-five minutes, turning them now and then so that the skin is nicely burned. Pleasant side effect #1 is that your studio will be filled with a divine aroma. Pleasant side effect #2 is that you'll also have pimientos to cook with, should you wish to make Spanish food. (In fact, I got the instructions for temperature and time from Penelope Casas' The Foods and Wines of Spain.)

What does this look like? Here are the peppers going in:

And here they are when they're done, nicely charred and flaccid:

Isn't it great when flaccid is a positive adjective? Anyway, at this point, the peppers should be quite easy to peel. If you want to make it even easier, put them in a pot, throw some salt over them, cover the pot and let them sit for a while. Now you must think very hard, because some major decisions approach.

The first choice is whether to wash the peppers as you peel off the skin, or to keep water from touching them at all. The two Romanian cookbooks I consulted were adamant in their support of the different methods: one advocated washing, the other argued that the roasty flavour of the pepper would be lost if washed. I washed when I made these, but I was being lazy -- I think, ideally, they should be unwashed, but it goes without saying that all skin and charred bits should be taken off.

At this point, American cookbooks will tell you to take out the core and the seeds as well and the Romanian cookbooks I consulted did too. This makes sense if you're using the peppers for pimientos or for some kind of dip. But -- and this is a big but -- those in the know about Romanian roast pepper salad argue that it's better to leave the core and seeds in, as it results in more flavour. It also keeps the pepper whole, which I think looks nicer. And you can always cut the core away when you actually eat it.

The final step is a breeze -- put the peppers in a bowl, add a bit of oil, ridiculous amounts of vinegar (white is fine, but I used white wine vinegar because it was handy), and add a few chopped cloves of garlic. Like the salata de vinete, on the first day, it will taste like nothing. The key is to leave it in the fridge overnight, and let the vinegar and garlic work their way into the pepper. The longer, the better.