Seeing that we are presently in the dead of Fogust, I cringe to even mention the season - because Hello Sun? Do you miss me back?? - but this summer I've been having what Jonathan Van Ness would call a bell pepper moment. Though tbqh bender is more accurate. I’ve made this epic panzanella and its mozz-ier cousin, and am still working the deets out for a cheese down-flavor up version of these kicky stuffed peppers. And then, of course, this peperonata. This is the simplest way I’ve found yet to transform a humble bell pepper into its best self - silky and mellow, its crunchy bite melted down to a texture just this side of creaminess.
This recipe is decidedly Italian, though all my researching has yet to reveal a more specific origin or ingredient list for that matter, with eggplant showing up on about half of them. In this case I’ll defer to the words of the smart and funny home cook, Rachel Roddy, from whose kitchen (and subsequent column at the Guardian) it came. Of its origins she writes "As is so often the case, there are as many versions and opinions about this dish of red peppers, onions and tomatoes as their are cooks.” And I’ll add on here that there are about as many ways to enjoy this dish as there are excuses I can find to jet off to Italy right this very minute - mezze style with burrata and toast as shown above, alongside meat or fish, tossed into hot pasta with maybe a little too much parmesan cheese, or draped over a slice of frittata, which naturally begs the question - why am I not in Italy right now?? I have no good answer for this.
What gave me a good chuckle though, was that my favorite way by far to eat it - as a messy open-faced sandwich consisting of a piece of toast slathered with cream cheese, piled high with a drippy scoop of these stewed peppers, sprinkled with salt and red pepper flakes - has nothing to do with Italy and everything to do with my hometown in coastal Alabama. One bite sends me straight back to my mom’s house, where the go-to appetizer was a block of cream cheese drenched in pepper jelly, served with ritz crackers.
My tastebuds may seem confused, but I think they’re onto something, because cream cheese toast covered in Italian peperonata does taste unquestionably like a grown up version of that countryfied favorite. Anyway, who am I to question the transportive power of food? It’s arguably the best part. Whether you’re on the porch with a spiked punch in one hand swatting mosquitos with the other, or lounging on a shady veranda sipping a spritz, when you’re eating this peperonata you are most certainly not wearing a sweatshirt, wrapped in a blanket, in the middle of August.
2 1/4 lb (1 kg) red peppers
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp butter (optional)
1 large onion, thinly sliced into half rings
1 large clove garlic, thinly sliced
Salt, to taste
Half of a 28 oz can of whole peeled tomatoes, or a 14 oz can of diced tomatoes (or 450g of fresh when in season)
A splash (or more) of red wine vinegar, to finish
Cut the peppers into strips, about a centimeter wide. Cut away and discard all of the seeds, stalks and any pithy white bits.
In a heavy-based pan with a lid, warm the olive oil and butter (if using) over a medium-low heat, then cook the onion and garlic until soft, translucent and fragrant. Do not brown! This takes about 10-12 minutes. Add the peppers and a pinch of salt and give everything a good stir. Then cover and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring about every 5 minutes.
Add the tomatoes, crushing them up with your hands if you are using whole-peeled. Stir and cook uncovered, at a lively simmer, for 30-40 minutes. Stir occasionally, gently pressing the tomatoes against the side of the pan, so they break up.
The peperonata is ready when the peppers are soft and everything has come together into a thick stew (it should be noticeably more stewy than sloppy). Taste, season generously, and add a dash of vinegar to sharpen things up, if you like.
Store in the fridge in a container with a sealed lid. These are twice as good after a rest overnight.