With its long, sun-filled days and warm temperatures, one of the great pleasures of late summer is the pepper and tomato explosion ignited in the garden. Both are members of the sun-loving nightshade family, as are other favorites—potatoes, chiles and eggplants among them. In case you’re wondering, that’s the same family that claims more infamous brethren as well: tobacco and deadly nightshade. Though the edible nightshades contain the same alkaloid compounds that render their cousins toxic, in the amounts we regularly consume, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants (any nightshades we find in the farm share) are entirely safe. And considering the beneficial nutrients they contain, these beauties are healthy choices on an August dinner plate. Our favorite red ones are loaded with dietary fiber, potassium, A, B and C vitamins, and antioxidant lycopene, known for its heart health and cancer fighting properties.
It’s tough to imagine life in the kitchen without the assistance of peppers and tomatoes. These cousins are the building blocks to a wealth of culinary possibility from across the globe. Roasted, grilled, stir-fried or raw. Stuffed or not. In salads, crostini, tacos, curries and tagines. Paired with cheeses, corn, rice and whole grains, beans, olives and their oil, green herbs of all sorts, vinegar, lemon and nightshade relatives.
Among our favorite approaches is to fire up the oven on a cool evening—or the grill on a scorcher—and roast up a batch of pepper strips. The heat concentrates the flavors and creates a moist, supple texture beneath the skins. Add a few tomatoes for sweetness and acidity and chopped herbs and olives for flavor. For the simplest supper, spread a layer of creamy fresh ricotta or goat cheese over toasted bread and top with a spoonful of the fragrant scarlet mix (juice and all) plus a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of salt. Or on a lazy day, simply scoop the mixture, gluten-free, from the bowl, stirring a casual dollop of cheese right in. This is summer eating at its best, simple and fresh, yet loaded with flavor—all thanks to an abundance of nightshades. The less shady ones.
Oh, and though we love our nightshades, one bit of advice, if you’ve ever noticed a greenish layer under the skin of a potato, peel it off. That green flesh contains alkaloids which though they won’t harm us in such small amounts, do pose the possibility of a stomach ache we’d rather avoid. It’s always best to store potatoes in a dark, cool environment that discourages alkaloid production and sprouting.
Roasted Pepper and Tomato Crostini with Herbs, Olives and Fresh Ricotta
adapted from Local Flavors, by Deborah Madison
Serves 4 as a main course, 6 to 8 as an appetizer
- 3 large red or orange bell peppers, cored and cut into quarters
- olive oil
- 3/4 pint cherry tomatoes, stems removed
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 12 to 15 pitted kalamata olives
- 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
- 4 cloves garlic, pressed
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
- fresh lemon juice
- a handful or two of chopped basil or other fresh herbs
- crusty bread such as Italian baguette, pugliese or ciabatta
- fresh ricotta cheese
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Coat peppers lightly with olive oil and place, skin side down, on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast until flesh is soft and skins are charred in places, about 20 to 30 minutes. Place in a medium sized bowl, cover and set aside for 15 or more minutes. Peel peppers and roughly chop into one inch or so pieces.
- Place peppers into a medium casserole dish, along with tomatoes, oregano, olives, capers, garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt and a large pinch of pepper. Stir ingredients, adding two tablespoons olive oil to lightly coat the mixture.
- Cover with a lid or aluminum foil and place into the oven for 30 minutes, or until tomatoes are very soft. Remove from the oven and press lightly on tomatoes with a spatula so that they release their juices. Allow the mixture to cool until it is nearly room temperature.
- Stir in lemon zest and a generous squeeze of juice to taste, plus the chopped herbs and more salt and pepper as needed.
- Slice bread and toast. To serve, spread each slice with a generous amount of ricotta then top with roasted pepper mixture.
- Stir homemade or store bought basil pesto into the mixture, instead of fresh herbs.
- Use goat cheese instead of ricotta.
- Roast eggplant along with the peppers then cube and add to the casserole dish with the tomatoes.
- Leave out the capers and oregano and substitute cilantro for the basil, then top with crumbled feta instead of spreading ricotta on the bread.
- Toss the mixture with cooked pasta and fresh spinach or arugula, or stir into cooled, cooked rice or other whole grains.
- Add a drained can of white beans just before serving.
- Use as a sauce over fish or chicken.