A Portal to Warmer, Sunnier Days
I make a lot of jokes about the fact that my mother doesn’t like to cook. For most of my life, it was a chore for her and one that bored and annoyed her. (And she’s the first one to poke fun at herself about it.) But the truth is that, even when she wasn’t enjoying it, she still did a very good job of making delicious food. These days, she has even come to find some pleasure in cooking. Decoupling it from the ever-present list of tasks in a young working mother’s life helps immensely, not to state the obvious. Now that she is retired and mostly cooking for herself (or to lighten my load) allows her to find enjoyment in the task.
I’m telling you this because I wanted to share one of my mother’s evergreen recipes with you today, gratinéed peppers. When we visit her in Italy, we eat them weekly. Gratinéed peppers. Such a fancy name, such a French name, for something that is neither nor! In Marche, this is the standard preparation for any vegetable that isn’t a dark, leafy green (which is served boiled and sautéed). We associate them so much with summer in Italy that when I made them last week, here in gray old Berlin, Max kept asking me to make them again and again. They’re a little portal to warmer, sunnier days.
Imagine a damp rubble of seasoned breadcrumbs atop halved peppers which are then baked until the flesh is tender and yielding and the top crisped and golden. You can eat the baked peppers warm or make them ahead of time and eat them at room temperature; both ways are delicious. They are perfect for people who don’t love to cook or are intimidated by it, because there’s hardly anything to them besides some light prep work. The oven does the rest. They’re also a great way to use up sub-par produce. The seasoning of the breadcrumbs does some of the work in perking up the flavors of the veg, but the oven-roasting does most of the heavy lifting by concentrating and sweetening what’s already there.
The same preparation can be done with zucchini, halved lengthwise, a bit of the pulp scooped out, or with slices of globe eggplant or tomatoes, the squat, flattish ones with the tops that look like purses that have been cinched shut. These. (For more on what to do with those gratinéed tomatoes, I must direct your attention to this post of mine from a while ago. Our beloved Giancarlo, master of the gratinéed tomato, sadly passed away a few years ago and we miss him very, very much. Those tomatoes will never taste the same without him, but I think about him every time I think of them, and the countless happy times we had together over the course of my life and I hold that warm, loving feeling very close to my heart.)
Gratinéed vegetables are wonderful also because they’re so easy and flexible. You can serve them as part of a larger spread of summery things (tomatoes and mozzarella, cured meats and melon, focaccia and bread) or you can serve them in wintertime alongside a piece of roasted fish or meat. You can make a big batch for a party, or just a couple of pieces for yourself. Once you get a hang of the breadcrumb mixture, it’s just a matter of scaling up or down depending on how much produce you want to prepare.
In the recipe below, I gave you a pretty standard quantity, but as you make these again and again and start to feel comfortable with them, you’ll come to see if you prefer a thick coating of breadcrumbs, like the one below, or a thinner one, distributed on more pieces of peppers or zucchini. You might like the mixture below with just two tablespoons of oil, leaving the breadcrumbs airier and crunchier, though also more likely to fly away on the fork, or with three tablespoons of oil, which will make a richer, slightly more cakey topping that will hold together better when you eat.
It’s a matter of personal taste, nothing more, nothing less.
Note: You can use regular breadcrumbs or gluten-free breadcrumbs, as long as they are unseasoned. Do not use panko. You can substitute the peppers below with halved, scooped-out zucchini, slices of eggplant or small tomatoes with the tops cut off and the pulp scooped out. Or do a mix. The recipe can be scaled up or down. Any leftover breadcrumb mixture can be refrigerated and used later or, toasted in a pan, as a topping for spaghetti dressed with olive oil and hot red pepper flakes.
1 cup/130 grams unseasoned breadcrumbs
1 large clove garlic, finely minced or grated
1/2 cup/20 grams loosely packed flat-leaf parsley (stemmed), finely chopped
1/4 cup/20 grams grated Parmigiano
A few grinds of black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
4 to 5 sweet long peppers or regular bell peppers (only yellow or red)
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Place the breadcrumbs in a small bowl and add the garlic, parsley, cheese, and salt and pepper. Stir with a fork to combine well. Drizzle in the olive oil, stirring with the fork. Continue mixing and stirring until the olive oil has been well-distributed and the mixture is like damp sand. Each breadcrumb should be slightly moistened. Set aside.
Wash and cut off the top of the peppers. Halve the peppers lengthwise and remove the seeds and ribs. Arrange on the baking sheet. Divide the breadcrumb mixture between the peppers. Don’t pack it too tightly.
Drizzle the peppers with a little more olive oil. Place the pan in the oven and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the topping is browned and the peppers are completely tender. Let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes before serving. The peppers will keep at room temperature, covered with plastic wrap, for a day or two.
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