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"We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie." David Mamet

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Days of Awe and Roasted Pepper Salad

You know someone like this, right? Someone who belongs
to the "mighty dead," as Keats called them.
Don't you wish that person were here now
so you could touch their feet and whisper, "You are my god"?
From "Get Up, Please" by David Kirby

With the end of the Jewish holidays and the beginning of a new year, I'm thinking ever more about my parents -- and my mother who inspired this blog. The holiday kitchen was our nexus, the place where we came together, the stage for our family joys and psychodramas. That word may be too serious for the mostly warm, fun, creative feelings I associate the preparation of holiday meals - at the center was always her Moroccan Sephardic holiday side dish, "Salade de Piments," a version of matbucha. 

For my mother the holidays were all about the food - the palpable and delicious expression of love, which for some reason, had to be prepared as quickly as possible. She put the rush in Rosh Hashanah. In keeping with the holiday, we had to suffer a little for our rewards (the yum in Yom Kippur?), starting with a frantic shopping trip to the grocery store.

It was frosty in those wide aisles, but in the days before the Jewish new year, my mother, sister and I were in a sweat as we elbowed past troops of ladies competing for the best cuts of brisket -- straight to the vegetable aisle. The peppers at the Publix were the size of an infant’s head and covered in a fine white powder. We'd pick out 4-5 pounds of the biggest and smoothest peppers, trapping their sunny, musky scent in a plastic bag until we got home. The produce was for the her star holiday condiment of garlicky, semi-carmelized roasted peppers and tomatoes that was traditional in my mom’s family. 

Before we could unpack the brown bags of groceries, Mom snapped the broiler on high. Broiling brings out the devil in sweet peppers. Their skin starts to bubble, blister and melt like zombie faces. They hiss and spit out searing fluids. Open the oven and you’re hit with an inferno of dry peppery air. Once a pepper exploded in the oven and cracked the glass window. 

Separated at birth?
It was our filial duty to join Mom in her frenzy. But it was hard to keep up, handling blazing-hot vegetables at the speed of light, fencing her blade-sharp corrections. “Look, you left a whole clump of pepper seeds,” she’d scold in her French accent. “Why do you always insist on using that tiny knife - s'mata!” (S'mata was a Ladino expression that meant, literally, "one could kill," but was used as an almost affectionate admonishment for obnoxious behavior.) Only after years did we learn a trick: put the hot wrinkled peppers in a bag, where they magically start peeling themselves like shy aging strippers.

Only after the ingredients made it into the pan – a slow-simmering elixir of olive oil, garlic, peppers and tomatoes – did we feel free to relax. We settled around the table, taking in the Florida north-facing light and sounds of my son and nieces playing in the pool outside her sliding doors. The pinched bleachy smell of chlorine, the musky scent of peppers. My harried Mom would exhale and glow with the satisfaction of being in the place she loved best - in her kitchen, with her family, waiting for food to finish cooking.
We talked about everything – politics of the day, the progress of our various family members. Distant relatives were called to send holiday good wishes. We drank a little tisane. As the Salade de Piments gave off its aromas, we danced our way across the kitchen. Karren was d-jay with a playlist of songs from Mom’s youth and our family’s golden years, the 60s and 70s. Mom taught us to cha-cha, salsa, swing dance and rumba. We sang, usually out of tune, but for that moment, we were in complete harmony with our mother, so vivid, loving, and full of life.

After Mom passed away, I took up the gauntlet for the High Holy Days – a cheerful pink oven mitt that does little to protect me from the loneliness I feel as I go through the Salade de Piments ritual without her. Instead of wheeling a double-wide cart through Publix, I squeeze through the produce aisle of the Park Slope Food Coop, still stunned by the bounty – heaps of red, orange, yellow, green peppers bursting with organic good health – a kaleidoscope of cherub-cheeked peppers that would have brought tears to my mother’s eyes. Instead of battling grandmothers for the best cuts of brisket, I face the Birkenstock-heeled Coop shoppers, a formidable crew in their own way.
When I leave the Coop there's no blast of tropical warmth or air-conditioned car. I cart my precious peppers home seven blocks and up three flights of stairs to my own urban kitchen. Here, the northern light has a bluish tint. The kids at the nearby grammar school sound almost like my nieces and son playing in the pool. I open my bag of peppers and take in their familiar nightshade smell. I sing Fly Me to the Moon quietly to myself. I allow myself a little cry. I feel that my mother is right here with me. Hurry up, sweetheart, she tells me, we don't have all day.

Salade de Piments (Matbucha)

8 sweet bell peppers, varied colors if available

12 plum tomatoes (or can of stewed, whole tomatoes, drained and chopped roughly)
4 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1/2 cup olive oil
1 bay leaf
pinch red pepper flakes
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to broil.

Prepare peppers: Set broiler on high and arrange peppers on a foil-covered baking sheet 4-6” from flame, turning often with kitchen tongs until blackened on all sides. Or you can roast over a gas flame, turning evenly. Place in a paper or plastic bag for at least 15 minutes to loosen skin. Peel, core, seed, and cut into ½” strips.

Prepare tomatoes: Score tomatoes. In a large pot of boiling water, submerge for 10 seconds and remove with a slotted spoon. When cooled, peel, core, seed, and cut into ½” strips.

Heat olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add garlic (and optional red pepper flakes) and cook until scented, but not browned. Add peppers, tomatoes, and bay leaf. Reduce heat to a slow simmer, cover, and stir periodically. After one hour, add ½ teaspoon salt. Simmer for another 45 minutes to an hour, uncovered to reduce and thicken the sauce, until tomatoes have disintegrated, but peppers still retain some shape. Salt and pepper to taste.

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