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How to Roast a Pepper

I remember the first several times I tried to roast peppers, I found it pretty daunting. I tried the oven, the barbecue grill, and the stove top at various heights before I finally began to get the hang of it. Since my recipe for Basque stew includes roasting peppers, I thought it would be helpful to include the following directions with pictures.

Today I roasted a red bell pepper and a poblano for tonight’s shrimp gumbo. (I know, poblanos don’t really belong in gumbo – think of it as a Cancun/Creole fusion dish.) When I bought the peppers they both had fairly long stems. (You can see them off to the left.) The first thing to do is trim off the stem so the pepper can be stood on it’s cap over the heat.

I place a wire rack directly on the stove heating elements. That way the peppers can get within millimeters of the heat without actually touching the elements. I also have a set of tongs available. I do most of my turning and adjusting by hand, but toward the end of the process the peppers get hot and it’s helpful to have tongs to turn them.

Make sure your vent fan is turned on, this occasionally gets a bit smoky. You will hear the peppers pop and they will actually jump around a bit on the grate, but don’t turn them yet. That’s just the juices beginning to boil and steam. Wait until you can smell the skin scorching before you turn the peppers. As each side scorches, turn them again. The first several times I was far too timid about this because it goes against my nature to burn things, but the whole process goes faster if you let each side get a good scorch.

It’s also important to scorch as much of the pepper’s surface as possible. That means you have to set them up on end, and hold them at odd angles over the heat to get the various surfaces burnt. (Notice that the poblano is roasting faster than the red bell. It takes almost twice as long to roast a bell pepper because their flesh is quite a bit thicker.)

Peppers have flat surfaces and edges. (Poblanos are three-sided and therefore have three edges.) The skinning goes better if the edges are scorched as well as the flat surfaces. In order to do that I hold the edge face-down with the tongs. Sometimes you can balance one pepper against another to get the edges. The poblano is nearly finished. Noticed that all the skin is, if not blackened, at least crinkly.

As soon as the peppers are done roasting it’s important to put them into a plastic sack. I save produce sacks and use them to steam the peppers. Notice that even though the red bell is still roasting I went ahead and sacked the poblano. The sack holds in the heat and allows the pepper to naturally steam off the skin from the pepper flesh. If you place it in the plastic bag promptly and leave it alone for an hour or two, not only will the pepper cool down so that it can be worked with, the skin will slide right off.

Once the peppers are done roasting, put them in the plastic bag and twist the top so the hot air can’t escape the bag. Leave it set just like this for a couple of hours.

When it’s time to take the skin off, I roll the bag back so that I can do my work directly on the bag. The skin and seeds tend to stick to everything, so this not only makes clean-up easier, it will actually make cutting up the peppers easier when we get to that step.

Here’s what the peppers look like with the skin removed. Notice how clean the board is. All the mess is in the bag.

Once they’re skinned, I slice them open so that they will lay flat and then hold them over the bag and remove the seeds and core. The heat of a poblano pepper is mostly in the seeds and membrane, so make sure you remove all the seeds. It can be tedius.

If you’ve not worked with poblanos before it’s very important to make sure you remove all the membrane. In the following picture, the knife is slicing under the membrane. It doesn’t look like there’s much to it at all (especially compared to a bell pepper membrane which is much larger). But don’t be fooled. After slicing some of it off, stick in your mouth and eat it. That will give you an idea just how hot they are: not as hot as a jalapeno, but if you’re more of a “medium” rather than “hot” sort of person, the membrane will definitely give you a jolt. I think it’s important for the cook to actually eat some of the membrane. You can control how hot the dish will be by including none, some, or all of the membrane. But if you don’t know how hot the membrane is (and it varies from pepper to pepper) it will all be guess work.

Notice on this pepper I have left some of the membrane behind. I’ll eventually add tobasco sauce to the gumbo. I might as well get some of the heat from this pepper as from the tobasco sauce.

Once the peppers are cleaned, I line them up for slicing and dicing.

Chop the poblano quite fine. (I didn’t use the nknife in the picture for chopping the peppers, by the way. Use the right tool for the job! That one is good for working with membranes. You need a long, flat knife for chopping.) Since the poblano functions much like a spice, the small pieces will spread the flavor out. I personally like to leave the red bells in larger chunks. They’re a savory rather than a spice and I think they work better in most dishes in larger chunks.

And that’s it. Your kitchen now smells great. You have a batch of freshly roasted peppers. Just one more thing. Don’t rub your eyes! If you’ve been deveining poblanos, it will make your eyes burn when you rub them.

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