Some weeks ago I wrote about a spring visit to Paris where our son Oliver and I had a great meal at Chez Janou. In iconic French fashion a nearby blackboard listed daily specials, including an hors d’oeuvre of Poivrons grillées au feta. Grilled peppers with feta. Sounded straightforward, simple. Okay, I could go with that. But instead of the expected plate of grilled green peppers with some feta scattered on top my appetizer was a crock. Potted peppers. Or at least I assumed it was–the top surface was unbroken feta, presumably hiding the green peppers beneath.
I probed the contents with my fork. Dense. Dense as a block of cheese. Something sank in me. Oh God, I’m not up for this. Not with a main course of brandade inbound for landing in twenty minutes.
As a gross generalization, French portions tend to run smaller and lighter than their upscale American counterparts, but there are exceptions. On our first day in Paris Oliver, our friend Amy, and I shared lunch at the venerable bistro Chez Paul where I sidestepped an entree titled the Temptation of Saint Anthony, a dish of such catholic tastes that it included a pig’s foot, a chunk of pork groin, ears and a tail (Saint Anthony must have been a forward-thinking hip Brooklyn butcher kind of guy). Instead I opted for what I thought would be the more restrained steak tartar. As it happened, the portion was large enough to have sustained the two ouvriers laying paving stones outside the restaurant for a week.
My apprehensions about having stumbled into another gastro mantrap were misplaced. More probing revealed my mistake. The appetizer’s density was caused by how tightly the concealed peppers had been packed into the crock. I had to run my knife down the inside of the jar to extricate everything so it emerged with a kind of olive-oiley plop! onto my plate.
It was delicious, the smoky flavor of the grill mixing with the olive oil, feta and herbs. Still substantial, but nowhere near as rich as I’d feared .
One of the great advantages of traveling with adolescent males is that if you can’t finish everything, someone else can. Oliver was more than willing to swap a couple of mussels with pistou for a crack at my peppers and feta. A little while later a waitress swept our empty appetizer plates off the table as another server stood by, waiting to descend with our main courses. No problem. The runway was clear.
Makes 4 4-ounce portions
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons thinly sliced garlic
- 3 green bell peppers, roasted, peeled and cut into strips ½-inch wide
- 3 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled and cut into strips ½-inch wide
- Kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
- Zest and juice of ½ lemon
- 6 ounces creamy French feta
- Thyme sprigs
- Heat ¼ cup oil with the garlic in a saute pan over medium low heat. Cook until the garlic is tender, about 3 minutes. Cool completely.
- Put green and red peppers in separate bowls. Season with a little salt and divide the garlic with its oil, both kinds of paprika, thyme, zest and juice evenly between the peppers. Toss to coat well.
- In 4 clean dry 4-ounce crocks or glass jars, put the green peppers down as the first layer. Put a quarter of the feta on top and arrange in a flat layer. Top with the red peppers and press down with the back of a large spoon to eliminate air pockets. Top with a thyme sprig and drizzle a couple of teaspoons of olive oil over the top. Allow to set overnight in the fridge.
We’re moving into new territory. I’ve always been in the drivers seat, sharing it with the seasonal God, when it comes to deciding what I am going to make on a given day, but recently I’ve had to ride shotgun. In this case I was happy to be there with an assignment: take Ken’s original inspiration and tweak it. I simplified things by using regular roasted peppers instead of grilled ones–although this would be a cakewalk to make with grilled leftovers. I also thought it might be fun to bump up the color with some red peppers. Everyone loved the results, but this is a recipe that begs you to play with it. For a more savory flavor just use green peppers (red ones are sweeter). If you’re giving these away you could make things even more colorful by including a layer of orange peppers on the bottom. Since we first made this it’s occurred to me that you could take the recipe in a wildly different direction by incorporating a little chopped chipotle or jalapeno, or even using roasted fresh Poblano peppers in one of the layers. I might shift the seasoning to match the peppers, maybe adding a bit of cumin or cracked coriander seeds.
I made a couple of extra jars to give away when we made these at home. We ate a jar and a half for lunch after testing the recipe. That left a half-jar for nibbling and a couple of untouched jars for family consumption sometime in the next week. I love having things like this in the fridge–it’s lunch or dinner or appetizers for a big dinner ready to go.
Roxanne and a friend discovered them a day later. That was that.