Sometimes I feel I have an undeserved reputation for being a brilliant chef. Let there be no mistake, I most certainly am not. A true chef has years of training and a magic ability to turn the good into the sublime. I am proud to know several amazing San Francisco chefs, and I am the first to admit there is not a single thing I could teach any of them about taste or the culinary arts.
So how have I fooled people?
I will acknowledge I have a well-developed gustatory sense. I can tell delicious from ordinary even with a stuffy nose. In fact it was precisely my taste for exquisite food that forced me to learn a few tricks in the kitchen, since financial concerns make it impossible for me to eat at my favorite restaurants every night. To spare myself from accepting the mediocre (which is never okay), I had to learn to prepare my own great food.
In this quest I have discovered a few cardinal rules of food preparation. First, fresh, seasonal, high-quality ingredients are the cornerstone of any excellent dish. Logic dictates that your meal can only be as good as the ingredients from which it was made. They may cost a little extra (though not prohibitively so), but exceptional ingredients are more than worth the price, especially when compared to a night at the Slanted Door.
Second, meat is not needed in a meal if plants are utilized correctly. Ten years ago I would not have believed this, but today I live by it. Don’t get me wrong, I love high-quality meat, poultry and seafood with a passion. But I have learned that they are not necessary on most days to create delicious, satisfying dishes.
Third, most bad food is either overcooked or poorly (i.e., insufficiently) seasoned, or both. Great ingredients do not need much cooking and fresh herbs are a requirement if you want your food to have flavor.
Finally, over the past few years I have picked up several tips and tricks in the kitchen that invariably cause people (myself included) to marvel at my creations. These tricks, which I will feature in a new series called Simple Gourmet, are not extravagant recipes and sauces that baffle with their complexity. Rather, they are little hints to make a good meal great, and turn simple things like salad into something extraordinary. Unleash these tricks on your friends and family and they will literally be eating out of your hand.
Today’s lesson: Fire-Roasted Peppers
We are currently at the height of pepper season and this should make you very excited. Peppers are one of the most naturally rich and complexly flavored vegetable families on the planet. And nothing brings out the deep flavor of both sweet and spicy peppers like roasting them on an open flame.
For those of you with an electric stove, I apologize in advance. You do not have access to fire so you must roast your peppers in the oven, which requires significantly more time. I am afraid my method will be far less useful to you.
If you have a gas stove, turn it on low and simply lay your pepper on the burner (see pic). When the skin of the pepper becomes blackened, use tongs to turn it to another side. Continue to roast and turn the pepper until is blackened on all sides, about ten minutes. Be careful not to let the pepper catch fire or allow the skin to turn ashen white. You will find that words cannot describe the deep, sultry smell of a fire-roasted pepper as its flesh softens and its sugars caramelize.
When the pepper is finished roasting use tongs to move it to a plate or cutting board and allow it to cool, about five minutes. When the pepper is cool enough to handle, grab it by the stem and use the sharp side of a knife to gently scrape off the blackened skin. Do not worry if some small burnt pieces stick to the pepper. Resist the urge to rinse the pepper with water; doing so will remove many of the aromatic oils that give it its flavor.
Once the skin is removed slice open the pepper and cut out the seeds and stem. If you used a spicy pepper be especially careful to avoid touching the capsaicin-filled seeds. The oil can stick to your skin for hours and is easily transferred to other body parts such as your eyes. Use gloves if necessary.
You can then cut your roasted pepper into strips or squares. Try sprinkling them in salads or use as an accompaniment to vegetable and egg dishes for a rich, late-summer flavor. They also pair exceptionally well with goat cheese. Honestly though, the smell alone will keep you coming back for more.