Bell pepper, pimiento, capsicum, sweet pepper, bullnose pepper – depending on where you reside the name will vary. And Christopher Columbus can be blamed for the confusion: on his voyage to Asia, the land of the spice pepper, he entered the Caribbean and believed that he had found pepper when he was served a powdered version of hot capsicum in a dish.
So, strictly speaking, not a pepper at all – but the name has stuck. The confusion does not end there either; while we do not have access to the dozens of varieties which grow in their place of origin, Latin America, there are still types like banana chillis and Hungarian peppers and miniature capsicums to complicate a simple shopping request.
Call them what you will, they enrich our culinary repertoires endlessly. The typical bulbous-shaped ones which come in green, red and occasionally yellow are the most commonly found – the green are harvested before they are fully ripe and turn red as they mature; the yellow are closer in sweetness and flavour to the red – but increasingly I am noticing different shapes and sizes. Apart from the element of sweetness with which they imbue dishes, either cooked or raw, they all cry out to be stuff ed and baked – they are indeed quite perfect vessels.
The stuffing and baking of vegetables was, still is, an Arab convention which permeated a lot of Mediterranean cuisines. Bereft of their easy-to-remove interiors, capsicums become instant concavities to be filled in myriad ways.
My younger sister has a wonderful recipe which looks every bit as good as it eats, which you serve straight from its baking dish on a table amply supplied with bread to mop up the juices. Long yellow peppers are suggested but the last time Deborah served it she had used a mix of those small red, green and yellow ones (‘traffic lights’) you can find in supermarkets – the effect was worthy of a food magazine cover.
You just slice the ends off the peppers then, with the point of a sharp knife, scrape out all the seeds and membranes. Then you fill them with feta cheese quite compactly – Deb uses Persian feta but any is fine. Lay the peppers flat on an oiled baking tray so they fit snugly and cover the lot with sliced, ripest tomatoes and a grinding of black pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and bake in a 180°C oven for about 50 minutes or until the peppers colour slightly. This dish – as with all stuff ed capsicum ones – is glorious eaten hot or at room temperature; it makes a lovely antipasto too.
Rice and couscous studded with lots of chopped fresh herbs, onions, anchovies, olives, ham, bacon – these make excellent fillings. Bread softened in a little milk and squeezed dry; dried breadcrumbs scattered over the top, tossed through with freshly grated parmesan and finely chopped parsley. I especially love the Jane Grigson version below – although she does recommend that you first char then peel the skins, so it is a little more fiddly. She calls it a Neapolitan stuffing and it consists of the following all mixed together: 150g dried white breadcrumbs; 75g raisins; 18 stoned black olives, chopped; ½ tin anchovies, drained and chopped; 2 tablespoons capers; 2 tablespoons chopped parsley; 1 tablespoon chopped basil; 6 tablespoons olive oil; seasoning. For a final flourish, add a little pool of your own homemade tomato sauce around each before serving.