The Pepper Predicament
Then why did the sight of three of them in my Cider Hill CSA box, all unblemished and glossy green, fill me with – dare I say it – anxiety?
Because green peppers are a hard sell among the group of people under this roof, even though we all profess to love our green foods. We love the bell’s sweet red relatives. Love spearing them on a large fork and roasting them until blistering over the range top’s open gas flame. We also love cutting up strips of sweet red pepper and adding them to a pan of roasting potatoes. A red pepper’s roasted, smoky natural sugars add depth to the humble, starchy potato.
We also love all kinds of chilis, green and red, for their varying levels of heat and sweet; these flavors can add such complexity to meat marinades and curries and stir fried dishes, even in the smallest amount.
And a pale yellow-green banana pepper begs to be slow cooked until tender in a little olive oil and a sprinkling of salt. These peppers become silky with the slow bake, their flavors concentrating to honey and spice.
But the green bell pepper is a different matter altogether.
There’s a crisp, clean, and green initial taste to the bell pepper when bitten into raw, say sliced in a salad. But clean soon turns to sharp, acidic, even bitter in my mouth. When fried or roasted in olive oil, or even when skewered over an open flame like their red counterparts, a bell pepper’s characteristics don’t seem to mellow; in fact they may become more pronounced.
What’s a girl to do when given three of them, three beauties to boot, each one a smooth-skinned, shiny-patinaed example of a bell pepper? I’m loath to give them away when farmers have worked so hard to present them to me. So the challenge becomes: How do I make these into a dish we will eat…and love?
When bell peppers aren’t being added to salads or served with dips, they are most often stuffed and baked. For good reason: their rigid cellulose structure and tight skin will withstand an hour’s worth of punishing heat without collapsing. Nature’s gratin dish, so to speak. I was willing to consider a stuffed pepper, if I could dream up one with a filling that appealed.
A quick scan of my cookbook collection revealed dozens of variations on the ground beef-tomato-rice filling. All probably very delicious but I’ve always thought that if one craves meat loaf, why put it in a pepper shell? Ground beef was not what I wanted in my peppers at all.
But the combination of those flavors in that particular classic stuffed pepper dish comes close to addressing what needs to be done with the bell pepper when it is to become one of the stars of a meal. With green peppers, a complete dish requires balance such as the tomato provides, adding a different but complementary acidity and a layer of sweetness where sweetness is needed.
For a baked stuffed bell pepper dish to be successful in my kitchen, I felt it needed to go even further than only tomatoes toning down the peppers; I wanted a finished meal to include a play of acidities, of sweet and salt, of hot and cool too. I found the exact dynamic I longed for in a classic dish, only not the classic ground beef dish you may have been expecting.
My Riff on Shrimp and Grits
Yes, shrimp and grits, baked in a green pepper.
I felt comfortable experimenting with shrimp and grits because there are more variations on and customizations of this southern classic than you can imagine. Soupy, cheesy grits in a puddle like polenta, baked cheese grits, souffleed grits; any of those topped with shrimp prepared with some combination of tomatoes, peppers, onions, and garlic or with none of the above. On and on it goes. Out of the hundreds of recipes I have seen over the years, there seem to be only a few constants: grits, cheese, shrimp, and hot sauce. Beyond these, restaurant and home cooks take their liberties. I have taken mine.
Sharp and salty cheddar cheese, briny yet sweet shrimp, tart lemon juice, jalapeno pepper hot sauce boosting and improving the bitterness of the vegetal green peppers, the cooling effect of the grits themselves – everything works together.
And before some careful reader busts me, I’ll bust myself. A couple of weeks ago I claimed that I never eat seafood with cheese. It’s true, I don’t usually like the two together. But shrimp and grits is the exception that proves the rule. If you give me some, I will eat them. With pleasure.
- 4 green bell peppers
- 6 cups water
- 2 tsp. water
- 2 cups grits (not quick or instant)
- ½ cup unsalted butter at room temperature
- black pepper to taste
- ½ tsp. salt
- 8 scallions, chopped, and divided
- 8 ounces good-quality sharp white cheddar cheese, grated, and divided
- 3 large eggs
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 2 tsp. jalapeno pepper hot sauce
- juice of one lemon
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Prepare the peppers by cutting them in half lengthwise.
Remove the stem and core, and clean out the inner ribs of extra flesh. Set the 8 cleaned halves, hollowed side up, in a large baking dish that has been sprayed with non-stick spray. Set aside.
Prepare the butter, scallions, and cheese and set aside.
Bring the water with 2 tsp. of salt to a boil in a large, heavy bottomed saucepan. When the water is boiling, add the grits to it in a slow stream, stirring as you add them. Continue stirring and reduce the heat to maintain a low simmer. Cook, stirring often, until the grits are very thick, about 15 – 20 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the butter, the salt, the pepper to taste, and three-fourths of the scallions.
Add two-thirds of the cheese and stir to blend.
Beat the eggs together with the milk in a small bowl and stir this into the grits until well blended.
Carefully ladle enough grits into each pepper half to fill it completely. Grits are pretty accommodating when it comes to staying together in one place, so you shouldn’t experience any messy overflow when filling the peppers to their brims.
[If you have extra grits (and you probably will), pour these into a small, ungreased baking dish and bake alongside the peppers. Extra grits make a wonderful breakfast the next day, cut into slices and fried, then served with poached or fried eggs.]
Sprinkle the reserved one-third of the cheese over the tops of the peppers and bake (along with the extra grits) in the middle of the preheated oven for about 45 minutes, or until golden brown and set.
Just before the grits come out of the oven, take five minutes to prepare the shrimp.
Preheat a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat, and add a little olive oil to the bottom of it. Quickly sauté the reserved scallions. When soft, add the shrimp (in two batches if necessary, to keep the pan from being overcrowded) and cook for about a minute or 2 on each side, or until lightly browned. Remove each batch as it is finished to a dish.
When all of the shrimp have cooked, combine the hot sauce and lemon juice in a small bowl or cup and add it to the hot pan. Allow this to reduce for 30 to 60 seconds, then return the shrimp to the pan. Turn off the heat and stir to combine shrimp and sauce.
Remove peppers from the oven and serve one half on a plate topped with the shrimp and sauce.
Let me know what you think.
©2010 Jane A. Ward