There was a point when I spent most of my time in the kitchen in a state of inspired panic, lurching from one almost-disaster to another. I wondered sometimes about the nonchalant calm that seemed to reign in other people’s kitchens, but I was enjoying myself, for the most part, and it seemed clear that such total zen kitchen mastery was out of the question without a lifetime of practice behind me.
Recently, though, I discovered a brilliant way to short-circuit the process. Here is the secret: learn to do one thing well. Make it a dish or a Skill, as flashy or as humdrum as you like. Bake a mean soufflé! Poach an egg to perfection! The only requirement in this regimen is that, as soon as possible, you do it again. And again. And again. Knead it into your muscle memory until your mastery of the poached egg is out of all proportion to what it by rights should be.
There is something intensely gratifying about making a little study of a process like this. It is not, or at least not mostly, about the poached egg, or about basking in the afterglow of the praise it may inspire, although those can be collateral benefits. It is in the psychic payoff of being able to spend a peaceful hour in a familiar space feeling like you know exactly what you are doing.
In the last few weeks I have turned my attentions to roasting peppers. I am still a few cycles shy of zen mastery, but I thought I’d share my observations on the process and two tasty dishes that resulted along the way.
Two obvious challenges presented themselves early on. The first was the phenomenon of the oozing/exploding pepper, often leaving hardened volcanic debris on the pan for me to scrape at for days afterward. I should say up-front that I did not really solve this problem. I experimented briefly with slitting the peppers in places, which allowed the air to escape and seemed to prevent explosions, but also promoted oozing and produced much the same result. After a lot of trial and error, I gave up and I now resort to the tried-and-true method of the week-long soak in my sink.
The second challenge was the problem of removing the skins, which become plasticky and inedible after a while at roasting temperature. This was more easily addressed. Some sources insisted that the solution was to leave the peppers to cool in an airtight container, others that the key was in strategically agitating the peppers to dislodge the flesh from the skins. I combined these strategies by placing the peppers in a pot covered by a dishtowel and a tight-fitting lid, and shaking the whole apparatus periodically as they cooled. Possibly overkill, but foolproof.
My process is now as follows: Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Roast whole peppers in a baking pan for about thirty minutes, until peppers have shriveled and begun to blister, turning them once half-way through. Remove peppers from oven and place in a pot covered with a dishtowel and a tight-fitting lid. Let cool for about 15 minutes, shaking the pot vigorously when you think of it. Discard the stems and the seeds and peel the skin off the peppers. Slice into vertical strips.
And now, two delicious things to do with them, both loosely adapted from Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food (one of my favorite cookbooks, and, as it happens, well-laden with inspired red pepper recipes):
Eggplant and Pepper Salad
2 medium eggplants
2 red bell peppers
5 tbsp olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
Pinch of cayenne
Juice of 1 lemon or 2 limes
small bunch parsley or cilantro, chopped
1 small log of goat cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup of toasted pine nuts
1. Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Cut eggplants into 1 inch cubes and toss thoroughly with 3 tablespoons olive oil and salt. Roast eggplant cubes in one pan for about 25 minutes, turning them over periodically to prevent burning. Roast peppers in another pan following directions above.
2. Heat remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a pan. Add garlic, cumin, paprika, and cayenne and stir over low heat for a few minutes. Remove from heat and add lemon or lime juice and salt.
3. Toss eggplants and peppers together with dressing and chopped parsley or cilantro. Sprinkle pine nuts and crumble goat cheese generously over top.
4 red bell peppers
2 cups walnuts
1 garlic clove, crushed
3 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 cup olive oil
Roast peppers following directions above. Put all ingredients in a food processor and blend. Serve with toasted pita triangles, or spread on a turkey and avocado sandwich.