Good Things to Know About Selecting and Using Seasonal Vegetables (and some science stuff)

It’s the time of year when the produce sections of grocery stores and farmers’ markets and farm stands are starting to look bright and fresh.  Beautiful red peppers, tomatoes that look and smell amazing, colorful zucchini and summer squashes are everywhere.  But do you know the best way to select and use them?

Let’s start with bell peppers.  Make sure to read the word of caution near the end of this post, please.  That’s where the science-ish stuff is.

Green bell peppers are not fully ripened.  They’re less expensive than red or yellow or orange bell peppers because they require a shorter growing time and can be harvested quickly without regard for proper ripening.  They can be bitter and are best used in recipes with lots of strong flavors like sausage and onions, or in a spicy chili dish.  Most people prefer not to eat them raw. The beautiful red, yellow and orange peppers have been allowed to ripen naturally and slowly, and they have a sweeter, milder taste as a result.  They can be eaten raw in salads or with dips, or cooked in a variety of ways.  The pepper variety will determine the color  and shape and size.  A green pepper may ripen to become any one of a number of colors, depending on its variety, but it won’t really properly ripen at home after buying it at the store.  There’s no truth to the myth about “male” and “female” peppers (determined by the number of lobes or sections on the bottom of the pepper – some people have been told that the number of lobes can tell you if the pepper is “male” or “female” and that one is sweeter than the other.  But that’s neither a botanical possibility nor a culinary fact).  The number of lobes depends on the botanical variety of the pepper and growing conditions and other factors.  However, it does seem that a pepper with more lobes or sections on the bottom might have more edible pepper flesh inside and less room for the seeds that we throw away.  Look for firm, unblemished, smooth, shiny skin and uniform color when selecting a pepper.

Red, yellow and orange peppers are fun because they’re one of the few foods that you can purposely burn!  It’s easy to make your own roasted red peppers.  Use an outdoor charcoal or gas grill, or a gas stove burner or the broiler in your oven.  Keep the pepper whole, and hold the pepper with tongs over the grill or burner, or lay the pepper directly on the grill, or set the pepper right in the flame of the gas stove (this last method is the fastest and requires paying close attention to the pepper).  If you’re broiling the pepper, put it on a broiler rack and place it close to the broiler, or lay it directly on the top oven rack with a piece of foil on the lower rack to catch any drippings that might escape.  Turn the pepper from time to time as the skin blackens so that all sides char evenly.  It won’t take long.  When the skin is completely blackened all around, use tongs to place the peppers in a plastic bag or paper bag and seal it up until the pepper is cool.  The steam from the roasted pepper in the sealed bag helps to further loosen the skin.  When the pepper is cool, you can just brush the charred skin off or rinse it under cool running water or peel it off.  Run your fingers over the pepper flesh once the skin has been removed to check for any leftover shards of charred skin.  What will be left is a beautiful tender skinless pepper.  Slice it and use it in salads, serve it on a steak or on top of a baguette slice with some salty feta or queso fresco cheese, or in other recipes.  The tenderness and the flavor can’t be matched!

An important word of caution:  You may have noticed that roasted red peppers in the grocery store are in pretty jars of olive oil.  However, when you roast peppers, use them right away or store them, covered with olive oil, for just one day in the refrigerator, or wrap them securely and freeze them.  Never store them for a long period of time (more than a day) in olive oil either in the fridge or at room temperature because of the real possibility of botulism poisoning.  Roasted red peppers (and other vegetables like garlic or sun-dried tomatoes) sold in grocery stores in jars of oil have been specially treated so that the botulism toxin will not form, and it’s impossible for the home cook to be sure that roasted red peppers covered in olive oil will not develop the deadly toxic bacteria if stored for more than a day or two at the most.  So if you make your own roasted red peppers use them right away or the next day at the latest, or freeze them.  If you freeze them, lay them individually on a tray covered with parchment paper until they’re frozen, then transfer them to a freezer bag.  This keeps them from freezing in a clump.

The botulism poison develops when the bacteria is deprived of oxygen (I know, that sounds backwards, but the botulism spores don’t grow in oxygen.  Once they’re starved of oxygen they can flourish.  It’s a whole bunch of science gobbledygook but it’s real and it’s important.  If you want to read words like “anaerobic”, “clostridium botulinum” and “gram-positive” you need to find a much more intelligent blog).  I’ll summarize:  Oil has no oxygen.  The botulism bacteria cannot survive in an oxygenated environment, like the air in our houses and the air we breathe.  When you immerse a vegetable such as garlic or peppers into oil (even if the vegetable has been cooked), you create an environment with no oxygen and any botulism spores that were present are now free to grow.  Refrigerating the infused oils is not enough to kill the bacteria.  That’s why you should never slice your own garlic and keep it in the fridge in oil so it’s convenient to use, or roast a whole bunch of peppers and keep them in oil in the fridge for the future.  The same holds true for herbs.  Botulism doesn’t taste bad or have a bad smell which makes it impossible to detect, but it’s a dangerous, even potentially fatal, result of improper food storage or canning.

So burn some beautiful peppers and enjoy them right away.  Chop them up or slice them into strips.  Mix them into a homemade hummus or crab cakes.  Add them to deviled eggs or scrambled eggs or a frittata.  Stir some into tuna or chicken salad.  Purée them with a little cream and pour them over pasta, or stir them into some sour cream for a dip.  Or just enjoy fresh red, orange and yellow peppers, washed and sliced or diced, with salads, with tuna and olives and hardboiled eggs, or briefly sautéed with other spring vegetables like snap peas and stirred into cooked pasta.  Peppers are full of nutrients and flavor!

These pictures show the progression from charred whole pepper, to steaming in a bag, to skins and seeds being removed, to the final product.  The last photo is a baguette slice topped with queso fresco (a mild, salty cheese – you could use goat cheese or feta instead) and roasted red peppers.  It’s a delicious light lunch.

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