When I moved to Southern California after spending 14 years in Cambridge, Mass., I noted two quite remarkable cultural differences. (Subsequently I have found many things remarkable.) Understand that Santa Monica and Cambridge are night and day. As a single father of three for 20 years, I noticed that women I dated in L.A. didn’t cook and didn’t eat. This is very depressing if you are 1) a cookbook author and 2) a man and 3) think that voluptuousness is a good thing in both women and food.
The second odd thing was that when people asked me at parties what I did and I answered I was a writer, not a soul asked what I wrote about. My interlocutor usually walked away. In Cambridge, the opposite would occur. Finally, it dawned on me that in Los Angeles, by default, “writer” means screenwriter. So I started saying cookbook writer and I met people.
This is how I met my girlfriend –because of food. My girlfriend Michelle eats and cooks. I was browsing an Internet dating site and came across her picture. I knew there wasn’t a chance she’d be interested since she was far too beautiful, meaning she probably had hundreds of slobbering men writing her. But then I read her profile, and her second sentence said she loved to cook and her third sentence said she was crazy about chiles. I had written a book about chiles called “Some Like It Hot,” published by Harvard Common Press in 2005. Ah … a window of opportunity, I thought.
So I wrote back the following suave comment: “I wrote a book about chiles. Wanna come to Santa Monica and I’ll tell you all about it?” Michelle’s first thought was “Yeah, sure.” Almost a year later, Michelle and I are cooking with chiles. Even though I’ve written a book about chiles, I don’t consider myself a chile-head. Michelle, though, really is a chile-head. She taught me a wonderful snack: grill a corn tortilla slightly over a burner, arrange thin slivers of habanero chile in the center, squirt with lemon or lime juice, season with sea salt and roll up while hot and eat. This I’m addicted to.
Michelle’s cooking is different from mine and I enjoy her food very much, although I tend to do much of the cooking because I have so many recipe tests to do for this book or that project. But because we’re in the middle of the chile season at farmers markets, she’s cooking more. One dish Michelle makes that I like, partly because it’s versatile and can be served as an appetizer the next day is chile- and tomato-stuffed roasted bell peppers. We made it once with what I think was an uvilla grande chile (Capsicum chinense) that replaced the habanero she normally uses. The farmers market stand we bought it at misidentified it as a Thai chile, which it was not. On the other hand, it should be realized that chile names are regularly confused, so much so in fact that in California, supermarkets call the poblano chile a pasilla chile, which it is not. This is a perfect summer dish; I’d make it now.
Chile and Tomato Stuffed Roast Bell Peppers
This is a recipe by Michelle van Vliet, who says you should choose fleshy chiles and to leave the membranes if you want it even more piquant. You can serve the stuffed roasted chiles on top of a toasted slice of French country bread rubbed with a cut garlic clove; it will catch all the delicious juices.
Note: Leftovers can be placed on top of toast points and served as an appetizer or wrapped in corn tortilla and heated.
Makes 6 servings
2 poblano chiles (about ½ pound)
1 habanero chile or uvilla grande chile, seeds and membranes remove, thinly sliced
3 New Mexico chiles (1/2 pound), seeded and coarsely chopped
2 large jalapeño chiles, seeded and chopped
¾ pound mixed color cherry tomatoes, large ones cut in half
4 scallions, trimmed, white and green parts chopped
½ cup halved and pitted black Kalamata olives
1 tablespoon salted capers, rinsed
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
¼ cup chopped or snipped fresh basil leaves
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
4 green bell peppers, split lengthwise, seeded
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
2. Place the poblano chiles over a burner and blister the skins until black, turning with tongs. Place them in a plastic bag to steam for 20 minutes, which will help rub off the skin. Rub the skin and seeds off with a paper towel. Chop coarsely.
3. In a bowl, toss the roasted poblano chiles, habanero chile, New Mexico chiles, jalapeño chiles, cherry tomatoes, scallions, olives, capers, garlic, basil, olive oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper. Michelle says to squeeze and toss everything with your hands, which will mingle the flavors better than tossing with a spoon.
4. Arrange the bell peppers in a baking casserole. Season the cavity with salt and pepper. Stuff them with the chile-tomato mixture. Cover the casserole tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 50 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking until the mixture is bubbling and parts of the exposed chiles are turning black, 10 to 15 minutes more. Serve hot or warm.