Oven-charred peppers with tomatoes

What happens between inspiration and implementation is always interesting. I headed to the farmers market thinking “Provence-style stuffed tomatoes” and ended up turning the idea inside out. Bell peppers, colorful and capacious, became the stuffees, and cherry tomatoes (which looked better than the bigger ones) became the stuffers. And in between, because Provence remained in my head, I added a cushion of bread crumbs flavored with anchovies (anchovy haters, don’t leave!) and herbs, garlic and lemon, too. When I pulled the charred peppers out of the oven, the fragrance was Proustian: For that instant, I was back in the South of France, outdoors, on a sunny terrace, eating the kind of lunch that extends into evening. Where was my glass of rosé?

Nice is the stuffed-vegetable capital of France. There, the specialty is called “petits farcis,” the vegetables might be tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini or peppers, and the stuffing might be anything from a mix of those vegetables (think ratatouille, or jump across the border and contemplate caponata) to minced meat or flavored bread crumbs. The constants are herbs, garlic and olive oil.

My personal challenge with this dish — actually, with everything I cook and bake — was to see how much flavor I could pack into it; it’s a little game I play with myself in the kitchen. This time I wanted there to be enough flavor to make the dish tasty whether it was served hot, warm, room temperature or cold. The flavor-building opportunities were many, starting with the vegetables themselves, of course, but going right down to the roasting dish.

Before I even set to work, I “seasoned” the pan, coating it with oil, strewing it with garlic and fresh herbs and sprinkling it with salt and freshly ground pepper. Laying down that kind of flavor foundation — and you can do it anytime you roast — means that the cooking juices are tastier, as are the bottoms of the peppers.

In traditional petits farcis, the eggplant and zucchini are sliced the long way and hollowed out, while the peppers and tomatoes get their tops chopped off and their innards removed. For my dish, I cut the peppers in half from top to bottom — I left the base and some of the stem — making a good solid bowl to stuff. First in is the bread crumb mixture flavored with freshly grated lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil and anchovies. Choose anchovies packed in oil, and don’t bother to drain off the oil before you mince or even mash them. I’m tempted to tell the anchovyphobes among you that you won’t even know they’re there (really, you won’t — at least, a couple of my friends didn’t), but you probably won’t believe me. Instead, I’ll tell you that you can skip them if you must; add more salt to the mix and a spoonful more oil. When you’ve divided the crumbs among the peppers, top with basil or any other herb you’d like.

As for the tomatoes, ripeness is everything here. Oh, and color. If you’re using red peppers, you might want to use yellow tomatoes, and if your peppers are yellow, think red tomatoes. The key word here is “crowd.” You need to crowd the tomatoes into the peppers — they should be packed in like snuggle-bunnies — and then you need to crowd the peppers into the pan. Drizzle them with oil, scatter with herbs and slide the pan into the oven to roast at high heat; yes, 450 degrees is correct.

The peppers need to roast for 45 minutes, just enough time for you to ice down the rosé.

Photograph by T.J. Kirkpatrick. This story originally appeared in my Everyday Dorie column for the Washington Post.

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Oven-Charred Peppers and Cherry Tomatoes

Makes 6 servings

Here’s a dish with the heady flavors and fragrance of the South of France, where baked, stuffed vegetables — “petits farcis” — are a specialty. Select nicely ripe tomatoes, and keep color in mind: If your bell peppers are red, use yellow tomatoes, and vice versa.

Don’t let the anchovy content scare you: You won’t even know they are in there. But if you must skip them, substitute an extra spoonful of oil and a little more salt.

The garlic in the bottom of the pan will get very dark. If you’d like, you can tuck the slices under the stuffed peppers at the start.1 teaspoon peeled, minced ginger 1 teaspoon cornstarch (or more, if needed; see above)

  • 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for optional garnish
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and very thinly sliced
  • About 8 sprigs thyme, rosemary and/or flat-leaf parsley
  • 6 leaves fresh basil, torn
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 5 tablespoons plain dried bread crumbs
  • 8 oil-packed anchovies, minced
  • 3 large, boxy bell peppers, preferably red and/or yellow
  • 1 small lemon
  • Pinch piment d’Espelette or ground cayenne pepper
  • About 21/3 cups (1 pint) cherry tomatoes, cut in half
  • Ricotta cheese, for serving (optional)
  • Snipped chives, for serving (optional)

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Place a 9- or 10-inch deep-dish pie pan (or similar-size baking dish) on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil, parchment paper or a silicone liner. Spread a tablespoon of the oil over the bottom and sides of the pan, scatter over the slices of garlic, half the sprigs of herbs and half the torn basil, then season lightly with salt and pepper.

Stir together the bread crumbs and minced anchovies in a medium bowl. Grate the zest of the lemon over the bowl. Cut the lemon in half; squeeze about 1 tablespoon of the juice (from one half of the fruit) into the mixture. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil and the piment d’espelette or cayenne pepper; stir to mix well. Taste the mixture, and add salt and/or pepper as needed.

Cut the remaining lemon half into 6 thin slices.

Trim a bit off the end of each pepper’s stem, leaving the rest of the stem, the cap and the pepper intact. Cut the peppers in half from top to bottom; discard the ribs and seeds. Spoon an equal amount of the bread crumb mixture into each pepper half and top with the remaining torn basil. Divide the tomato halves among the peppers, placing them cut side down and as close together as you can. Arrange the peppers in the pie pan, crowding them together so they all fit. One or two might pop up or their bottoms might not fully touch the base of the pan, but in the end each pepper will be fine. Tuck the lemon slices in and among the peppers or just underneath them. Drizzle over the remaining 4 tablespoons of oil and strew the remaining herb sprigs over the dish.

Roast the stuffed peppers (middle rack) for 45 minutes – you can baste them with pan juices if you’d like, but they’ll be moist even if you don’t – or until you can pierce the tomatoes and peppers easily with the tip of a knife. The juices and oil will be bubbling and the peppers will be charred. Remove and discard the herbs from the tops of the peppers.

You can serve the peppers straight from the oven, warm or at room temperature. Drizzle them with the pan juices or more oil, if you’d like, top them with an optional spoonful of ricotta (this is particularly nice if you’re serving the dish warm, as a starter) and optional sprinkle of chives.
Nutrition | Per serving: 190 calories, 4 g protein, 12 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 290 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar