It was the wrong way round. I’d begin with a recipe. Then clinging onto my list and intent, I’d go to the shops. Other things might be bought – an irresistible this, an eye-catching if unnecessary that – but the focus was the list. Setbacks would merely reinforce my resolve and the lines on my forehead. ‘No spinach!’ ‘ No lamb chops!’ ‘No organic lemongrass!’ ‘No prepared pomegranate seeds for my meze’ I’d gasp before tearing around the shops as if my life (or lunch) depended on it, until I found the vital ingredient.
These days I begin at the market. There will probably be an idea or recipe drifting around, but nothing too specific and certainly no list. Well apart from the basic supplies, usually written on the torn lip of a bank statement envelope: washing powder, pan scrub, tea bags, plain flour, even plainer biscuits. A shabby list I retrieve from the bottom of my bag a few days later – along with half a lollypop, four stones, a topless lip salve, a car and an ounce of cracker crumbs – still with nothing to cross off.
‘I haven’t got time to wander aimlessly around the market like you’ said an acquaintance. ‘I’m so busy that I have to make lists! I have to shop once a week.’ I’m so aimless I didn’t bother to answer. We are all busy, but we make time for things that matter. The market matters to me. So I go most days, before or after work, in-between naps. I make detours and excuses in order to spend time – some days just minutes, other days just ages – looking and then buying what looks good. In the words of brilliant Simon Hopkinson ‘See good things, buy them. Buy wine to go with food. Come home. Have glass of wine. Cook the food and eat with more of the wine.’
At this time of year, the two Testaccio markets (as I’ve noted before we are not talking about two quaint Mediterranean idylls here, but ordinary, straightforward and good places to buy food) are the best source of inspiration The splatters have spread like ink on blotting paper and now both markets are awash with red! Half a dozen types of tomato, cherries and berries, mottled red and white borlotti and pimento peppers so big, bold and red-blooded they make the apricots blush. On Monday I bought five peppers and a kilo of small tomatoes, each plum ending in a point which made it seem as if it was wearing an elfin hat. I came home. I pulled Jane Grigson from the bookshelf. I had a glass of wine. I made peperonata.
Peperonata is red peppers, onion and tomatoes stewed in olive oil and butter until they soften, collapse and thicken into a rich, vivid stew. It is one of the simplest and most delicious vegetable dishes I know.
There is a moment of stove top alchemy when you make peperonata. It’s when – having softened the sliced onion in butter and oil – you add the sliced red peppers and cover the pan. In just a matter of minutes the crisp, taut slices of pepper surrender their abundant juices and then proceed swim and soften in their own juices: a deep pool of cardinal red stock. After about 15 minutes you uncover the pan and add the peeled and roughly chopped tomatoes which also relinquish their juices. You let the peperonata cook uncovered for 30 minutes or so, simmering and reducing until almost all the liquid has evaporated and you are left with thick, vivid and vital stew. To finish, you season the stew vigorously with salt, pepper and even a little vinegar if you wish to sharpen things up a little.
Pepornata: thick, rich, silken and tasting of somewhere warm and brilliant, is delicious served warm with chicken, veal or fish. It makes a good bed for an egg: fried, poached or soft-boiled, the yolk spilling into the red stew and making your plate look like a desert sunrise. I like peperonata as part of an antipasti style lunch slithering seductively beside soft, sharp cheese, lean, pink lonzino and a few salty black olives. It is also nice stirred into pasta. It keeps well so make plenty and then spoon some into a clean jar and float enough olive oil on the surface to seal the contents.
Peperonata Sweet pepper and tomato stew
- a large white onion
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- a knob of butter
- 5 large or 8 medium-sized red peppers
- 6 good ripe tomatoes (or two dozen tiny plum ones)
Peel and slice the onion and then sauté it in olive oil and butter until soft and lightly golden. Cut the peppers into strips, discarding the stalks, seeds and pith.
Add the sliced peppers to the pan, stir and then cover the pan and leave over a medium flame for 15 minutes.
Peel and roughly chop the tomatoes and add them to the pan. Leave the peperonata to cook uncovered for 30 – 40 minutes at a lively simmer or until all the liquid has evaporated away and the peppers are extremely soft and lie in a rich. vivid tomato stew. Season vigorously with salt, possibly black pepper and even a dash of vinegar if you see fit.