A Little Something From Your Auntie Pasto What’s Cooking? Roasted Red Peppers And Sausage-Stuffed Dates

Kitchen Goddess note: Roasted red bell peppers is only the first half of this post; the rest of what constituted my gourmet antipasto, including the recipe for those dynamite stuffed dates, follows the recipe for the peppers.

Another gourmet group dinner haunted me this month. The theme this time was Italian, and our assignment was the appetizer course. Which should have been easy, right? Antipasto. In Italian, the word “antipasto” literally means “before the meal.” And I even had the authentic set of dishes used to serve it. But what would go into a “gourmet” version? I needed it to be more than a bunch of things I bought ready-made. I needed it to be special.

The ingredients for an antipasto platter (plural is “antipasti,” though when or how you’d use that formulation is beyond me) would fill a book on their own. From what I've read in a ridiculous number of Google searches, here’s a summary of sorts:

■ Cured meats (pepperoni, prosciutto, soppressata, salami,...)
■ Pickled mushrooms and vegetables in oil and/or vinegar: artichoke hearts, asparagus, peperoncini (unrelated to pepperoni, these are little pale yellow peppers that come in jars, pickled)...
■ Olives
■ Anchovies
■ Italian cheeses: provolone, mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, ricotta, goat cheese
■ Fruits: chunks of fresh melon (cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon), figs (dried or fresh), dates
■ Roasted nuts
■ Roasted red peppers

In short, food from Italy. Well now, that’s helpful, I said to myself.

Something about the number of combinations and permutations made me feel like I was back in my college probability class, and the probability was that I’d drive myself crazy figuring it out. So I used my gourmet “shout out”: I called my friend Barbara, who is the closest combination I know of (1) Italian heritage, (2) a great cook, and (3) a good enough friend that she wouldn’t mind if I called and whined about my dilemma. (She's also a very talented interior designer, with a website here.)

“First,” she said, “you have to have roasted peppers.”

“But I don’t like roasted peppers,” I whimpered. “And the times I’ve tried, that business of steaming them in a paper bag then peeling off the skin just made me crazy.”

“The reason you don’t like them,” she countered, “is that you’ve never had mine. And I have a much better way of cooking and peeling them.”

She was right on both counts. Turns out she halves the peppers, then marinates them before she cooks them on the grill. Grilling them on both sides (rather than whole, which most recipes dictate) induces the halves to flatten out, which makes the skins easier to peel off. It also introduces that lovely roasted flavor to the inside of the peppers. Once she gets the skins off, she marinates them again. The result is completely delicious – tender, smoky, slightly sweet yet suffused with the herb-and-garlic flavors in the final marinade. None of that briney taste you get with the ones in the jars. I’ll confess it was a bit of a project, but there’s nothing hard about it, and I now have plenty for other uses:

■ Stir chopped into scrambled eggs or a frittata;
■ Add chopped to pasta with sautéed onion, roasted tomatoes, and spicy Italian sausage;
■ Loosely puréed with olive oil, basil, cream, sautéed onions and garlic for a great pasta sauce;
■ Best of all, puréed with mayo, lemon juice, garlic, and some olive oil to make an aioli sauce that’s great as a condiment for grilled shrimp, crab cakes, fish, or chicken, or as a dip for veggies.

Kitchen Goddess note: I am now so dying to make the pasta sauce and the aioli that I will get you some recipes next week. Get busy and roast some peppers, so you’ll be ready.

Roasted Red Bell Peppers

Makes 1½ quarts, but you can easily halve the recipe if you want.

For the vinaigrette:
½ cup balsamic vinegar
½ cup good olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped (or, for extra flavor, one clove of roasted garlic – You have some in the fridge, don’t you?)
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

For the peppers:
8 red bell peppers
12-15 cloves garlic, sliced
6 sprigs rosemary, cut in half
6 sprigs thyme, cut in half
olive oil, as needed

special equipment: one 1-quart mason jar plus one 1-pint mason jar, or 3 one-pint mason jars

1. Mix the marinade: Purée the vinaigrette ingredients and reserve in a jar or other pourable container.

2. Prepare the peppers for grilling: Halve the peppers, removing stems and seeds. Cut out the soft whitish interior ribs. Put the prepared pepper halves into a large bowl and pour about ¼ cup of the marinade over them. With your hands, slather the peppers inside and out with the marinade. Let the peppers sit for at least 15 minutes at room temperature, or up to a day in the fridge. (If you put the peppers overnight in the fridge, let them come to room temperature before grilling).

Notice the cuts I made that make it easier to flatten them while grilling.3. Grilling the peppers: Preheat your grill to medium-high. Before grilling, make small (1-inch) cuts up the curvy ends, to allow the halves to flatten out as they cook. Grill both sides of the peppers for a total of 15-20 minutes – 5-7 minutes on the insides, the rest of the time on the outsides. The goal is to get the outsides about 70% charred.

You can see how the skin pulls away from the flesh, even on the lower left, which could use a bit more char.4. Finishing the peppers: Let the grilled peppers cool a bit, then lay them on a cutting board, blackened side up, and with a paring knife, scrape or peel the skin off, removing as much of the char as you can. Slice the skinned peppers into strips about an inch wide. (They’ll be delicious now, but go through the next step anyhow.)

5. In the bottom of your mason jars, pour 2-3 tablespoons of the remaining marinade. Toss in a couple of cloves-worth of the sliced garlic, add about an inch of peppers and some of the herbs. Continue layering the jar with marinade, garlic, peppers, and herbs. If you run out of marinade (and you will), add plain olive oil. Close the jars and turn them up and down to thoroughly mix the marinade with the other ingredients. Store in the refrigerator for a day or up to 3 weeks.

In Praise of Bell Peppers: Remember that red bell peppers are sweet, not hot, nor acidic like green bell peppers. Moreover, these lovely orbs are a great source of Vitamin E as well as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients. Choose peppers that have a deep coloring, smooth skin without blemishes, and feel heavy for their size. The shape is not important.

The Complete Antipasto

Now that I had the roasted red peppers, what else would go on the antipasto?

I used as much as I could of homemade items, and I’ve included links here to the posts where you’ll find the tomato confit and the ricotta (that post also has instructions for the bruschetta). Sort of like the “something old, something new, etc.”, the goal should be to have a range of color, flavor, and texture.

■ Asparagus (roasted at 400º for 10 minutes), wrapped in half slices of prosciutto, for my cured meat and my green veggie.

■ A mix of Italian olives (Castelvetranos and black and green Cerignolas), for color and texture.

■ Sticks of Parmigiano-Reggiano with a plastic butter cup of fig jam to spread on it, for my hard cheese and something sweet.

■ Homemade ricotta cheese with herbs, for a soft cheese and the herbs.

■ Red and yellow cherry tomato confit, for color and because it goes well with the ricotta on bruschetta.

■ The perfect roasted red peppers, again for color and to pair with the ricotta on bruschetta.

■ Medjool dates stuffed with spicy Italian sausage, wrapped in bacon, and baked. I wanted something that would be served warm, and these offered the additional something sweet with meat. OMG – what a taste.

■ Separately, a basket of bruschetta (also called crostini – thin slices of toasted baguette, brushed with olive oil and rubbed with garlic), for the ricotta topped with either roasted red peppers or tomato confit.

And now, since I know you’re drooling over just the thought of those stuffed dates, here’s how to have some of your own.

Sausage-Stuffed Dates

Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis on FoodNetwork.com.

1 package seeded medjool dates (about 20)
2 links hot Italian sausage (raw)
10 slices bacon, halved

Preheat oven to 400º. Line a baking pan with baker’s parchment.

Remove the sausage from its casing. Pry open each date along the line where the seed was removed, and stuff enough sausage into the date to fill the interior (1-2 teaspoons). You should use enough sausage that the date no longer closes completely. Wrap a half slice of bacon around the stuffed date and secure with a toothpick. Place the finished dates on the baking sheet.

Bake the dates for 12-15 minutes, then turn them over and bake another 12-15 minutes, until the bacon looks crisp. Makes 20.

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One Final Thought

You don't have to have a set of antipasto dishes to make an attractive antipasto spread. I got this set of Chinese soup bowls at a garage sale and recreated all but the stuffed dates for an alternate presentation. (We ate every last one of those delicious dates.)