21 March 2011

So far

I noticed as a child that when the trees would still be clad in leaves in mid November, there would always be days when the ferocious wind would rise and ramble on and on, until the trees are denuded and the rugged leaves lie, defeated, on the ground. Nature does shake itself up to cleanse, rejuvenate and re-build itself. I tried to make sense of nature forces, minor or grand, like that.
But as a grown-up, accepting that nature can be so hurting requires more mental and emotional work on my part.

I’ve been pondering hard what I should say. Or what I should not. It has been acknowledged by many that it seems weird to write about food in the wake of the monstrosity that’s holding a grip over Japan these weeks.

Yet, I think one of the main reasons many of us choose to write about food is that we want to share. To share of something good, of something memorable, of something uniting, of something positive. All that is food to me. And I can’t think of any reason why one should stop writing about all that, especially now.

Peperonata, a thick delicious stew of sweet peppers and tomatoes. It is not going to save the world from its tragedies. No, don’t count on that. It will not help a human to stop the Earth plates from moving and colliding, or turn the beastly tsunami waves into harmless ripples, or stop the nuclear reactions at a moment’s notice. Those things are out of peperonata’s reach.

But it can do something for mankind nonetheless. It will cook itself into a sweet and sour bell- peppery-tomato-ey tasty sludge to make one’s mind get away from the misery and sadness and unanswerable questions, be that only for a short moment, and marvel at the priceless simplest things and be grateful for being able to continue to experience them alone and with the loved ones.

Take five sweet peppers: two red, as many yellow, and one green, for color. Deseed and dice them roughly. Chop up one onion, do the same with a few garlic cloves. Sauté the two in a large pot until fragrant, and then send the peppers together with some canned chopped tomatoes to join the gathering. Show the way to the pot to fresh parsley and basil. It goes without saying, salt and pepper should participate too. A few drops of Tabasco would make the whole gathering even more lively. Let the heat do its mingling job for about two hours.

I learned the recipe from Anthony. Upon request and by phone, Anthony’s mother provides him with the recipes he remembers to have enjoyed in the years passed. So far there are three of them, including the one for peperonata, all kept in a thin salad-green fabric-bound notebook. Regardless of the fact that Anthony’s mother hails from the Veneto region in Italy, there is not enough evidence to claim that peperonata is Veneto’s native. I guess it’s safe to say there are as many versions of it in Italy as there are those to cook it. So I’m going to skip any speculations about the original way to make the stuff and will only draw on one Italian mother’s knowledge, of which I am an indirect receiver.

Adapted from Anthony’s mother, Eugenia

The key to a deep flavor here is to let all the ingredients, including fresh herbs, simmer together for up to two hours. This peperonata should be thick, so you don’t want to add any more liquid: there will already be enough of it from the vegetables. Although technically it’s a stew, in this unrepentant household we dubbed it a (pasta) sauce. (Nigel Slater did the same, among much else.)

About serving: Anthony says that in her childhood his mother was used to have it with polenta or sausage (!), the Northern Italian style. We like it with penne or rigatoni. But independent, non-opinionated eaters can devour it with rice, potatoes, or, yes, pretty much on its own with a chunk, or two, of bread.

A few more bits: as stews go, peperonata tastes even better the next day, after all the flavors schmoozed and mingled. I know, I know, sweet peppers are not in season yet. Patch solution: organic “green-housed” ones, perhaps?

3 Tbsp olive oil
1 large white onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
5 sweet ripe peppers, halved, seeded and diced
2*400 g (15 oz) canned peeled tomatoes, including juices
1/2 -2/3 cup fresh chopped parsley, finely chopped
6 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
a few generous drops of Tabasco, or to taste

1. In a large heavy saucepan, warm up the olive oil over medium heat. Dump in the onion and sauté until lightly brown, 5-7 mins. Here it may be argued that the onion should only take on a touch of golden, no browning. But doesn’t the browned onion mean more flavor? So no worries, brown the stuff.

2. Add the garlic and cook for another minute.

3. Throw in the peppers, follow with the tomatoes and the fresh herbs.

4. Bring to a simmer and bring the heat down to very low. Add salt, freshly ground pepper and Tabasco to taste. Cover halfway with a lid and cook for the next two hours. Make sure to stir every now and then to avoid scorching. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed. Remember that salt extracts the vegetables’ aromas, so don’t be stingy with it (but don’t go rampant either).

Note: the quantity is enough for about 300 gr (10 oz) dried penne, which amounts to 4 moderate servings.