Those were the days… when you went to a Chinese restaurant and asked them not to fill the dish with green capsicum, Simla mirch. Now you have to say Please, no red, green or yellow peppers. I know they’re pretty, they’re crunchy and add lovely texture to a starchy dish of chow mien, but please, their flavour takes over completely and you don’t know whether you’re eating hoisin sauce or tandoori masala. Let alone steamed fish or vegetables. But this is the way of the world. When we’re eating out or even at home, when we’re entertaining, we feel obliged to use “exotic” vegetables. I miss the days when party fare meant stuffing Simla mirch with qeema instead of homely potatoes or cooked urad dal.
Bell peppers, Capsicum annuum, come in all colours — from green, red and yellow to purple, brown and black. Apparently all green bell peppers would eventually turn red, if allowed to ripen. All red and yellow vegetables and fruit contain carotenoids, anti-oxidants and a cupful of these red and yellow sweet peppers, raw, gives us almost a hundred per cent of our daily requirement of vitamin A, and three hundred per cent of our daily requirement of vitamin C.
Health benefits apart, the reason I tolerate them is because they look so lovely — as someone said, they’re the Christmas ornaments of the vegetable kingdom. Deep, vivid colour, shiny red, yellow or orange, smooth and firm, heavy for their size, firm to the touch, they look as if their vigour will add to ours. A handful of them, chopped raw in a salad, add freshness with their crisp bite. It’s only the smell, strongest in the green, which I find hard to take. Unlike chillies, bell peppers aren’t “hot”. They contain negligible amounts of capsaicin, which imparts “hotness” to peppers. Grilling them removes the strong grassy flavour and adds sweetness. So, grilled and marinated, a bell pepper’s personality changes: it becomes gentle while remaining beautiful.
And broccoli. Party menus meant serving early bhindi, okra, in April and gobhi, cauliflower, in September. Now it’s broccoli — in salads, “Italian”, even as a desi vegetable with turmeric, cumin and garam masala, as a side dish with chicken curry and dal makhani. But somehow I don’t find broccoli offensive; apart from its heath benefits, it tastes so much like cauliflower.
The other bugbear is what we do with baby corn, a cereal grain taken from very young corn (maize). It’s delicious as it is, raw and sweet, in a salad; in this case, nothing can improve upon nature. But, like our clothes, we can’t leave well enough alone. The succulent, crunchy little thing is ornamented and embellished in curries, batter-fried as an hors d’oeuvres, basically, cloaked and masked to destroy its natural taste. It’s not a separate variety: it’s merely harvested early, while the ears are still immature and very small. Unlike mature corn, whose cob is tough and inedible, baby corn is eaten whole, cob and all. All corn produces baby corn but some seed varieties, developed specifically for baby corn, give higher yields. One of these is chosen and planted and, as soon as corn silk emerges from the ear tips — or a few days after — the ears are plucked off by hand. Corn matures very quickly, so the harvest of baby corn has to be timed carefully to avoid ending up with more mature corn ears. When a variety is planted to yield common sweet or field corn, the second ear from the top of the plant is harvested for baby corn, while the top ear is allowed to mature. In both cases, the ears are tiny — from 4 to 10 cm each.
ROASTED BELL PEPPER SOUP
(Serves 4/ Makes 6 cups)
5 red bell peppers
5 ripe red tomatoes, chopped (11/2 cups)
1 cup vegetable stock
Heat oven to 200°C (400°F). Line a baking sheet with foil, arrange bell peppers and roast them for about 45 minutes or until very tender, turning them regularly so they roast evenly. They will get charred black. Remove from oven and let cool completely. If not using oven, char peppers on an open flame, turning regularly with tongs, until blackened all around. Remove skin and seeds, and roughly cut the bell peppers. In a blender, add bell peppers, tomatoes, stock and salt to taste. Blend until smooth. Add more stock or water if you want your soup to be less thick. Serve chilled, after refrigeration, or hot, after reheating.
GRILLED RED BELL PEPPERS ON BRUSCHETTA
(Makes 6 pieces)
1 red bell pepper
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped fine
2 tbsp fresh basil leaves, chopped
Pinch of sugar
Juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Char bell pepper over a high flame, as you would a baingan for bharta. Remove charred outer skin, cut open into halves and remove ribs and any white fragments. Slice into thin strips. Add rest of ingredients. Serve on toasted, unbuttered slices of French bread.
After charring, seal bell pepper while still hot in a large food grade polythene bag, leaving enough room for the pepper to breathe. The steam loosens the charred outer skin, making it easy to remove. In five minutes, open and wipe clean with a paper towel. Conserve flavour — do not wash.
Yellow bell peppers or blanched, peeled tomatoes also make appetizing bruschetta toppings.