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Zuni Pepper Relish

This past Sunday, thousands of DC residents who work for government frantically checked email to see whether they’d be considered essential staff in the event of a government shutdown. Politicians continued to refine the art of ignorant obstructionism. This town became even more this town-ish.

…and the rest of us? Well, we went outside.

Government shutdown notwithstanding September 2013 should go down in the history books as a glorious time in this town. The weather has been incredible: clear skies, cool breeze, not too much rain. It’s practically screaming at you to stop being an idiot, get up off your butt, and get stuff done. The pols may not listen, but I will.

We spent the morning at the National Arboretum, an outdoor oasis owned by the Department of Agriculture (government! Ahh!) right in the middle of Northeast. It’s got big, green pastures, hundreds of varietals of plants, trees, and herbs, and even a separate garden with twenty kinds of chile peppers. The first time we went was for a birthday party that actually happened elsewhere — oops! — but we were so taken with the expanses of green in the middle of the city, we decided to go back.

We roamed the grounds for an hour, and then — because what’s a hike without a picnic?  — we chose a speckled sunny spot in the middle of one of the gardens, put down a big blanket, and laid out a majorly awesome spread of food. We covered the blanket with fresh harissa, hummus, three kinds of bread, zaatar-roasted eggplant, cucs, sprouts, avocados, and plenty of feta cheese.

Oh, and of course, some of this pepper spread.

Put thoughts of saccharine, mushy relish out of your mind. Would the Zuni Cafe ever commit such a crime? Of course not. It’s more of a salad, this pepper relish. It’s meaty and rich, the perfect balance of tangy and sweet. At Zuni, they pair it with lamb, quail, and sea bass. I’ve yet to try any of these combinations, as I’ve been too busy spooning heaps of it onto sourdough toast.

For our Sunday outing, I added about 1/2 a cup of the relish to a big bowl of simply cooked white kidney beans, and tossed the mixture with whole peppercorns and plenty of olive oil. The resulting bean-pepper salad was great on its own, but especially tasty piled on baguette with avocado and feta. One of these days, I’ll get around to using it for its intended purpose. But between you and me, there’s no rush.

Zuni Pepper Relish
Adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook
makes about 1 1/3 cups (I doubled it)

2 medium bell peppers (I like red or yellow)
1 1/2 tablespoons dried currants
2 teaspoons sherry or red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon warm water
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1 tablespoon freshly chopped basil
2 small garlic cloves, pounded into a paste
3 tablespoons good olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons sweet sherry or marsala (or substitute 1 teaspoon sherry/wine vinegar and a pinch of sugar)

Combine the currants, vinegar, and warm water. Set aside to plump up while you roast the peppers.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Lay peppers on a shallow roasting pan and place on the top rack of the oven. Turn the peppers as their skins start to brown, and roast them for 25-30 minutes, until they are blistered all over and have nearly collapsed.

On a separate, smaller, roasting pan, roast the pine nuts just to warm through, about 4 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Transfer the roasted peppers to a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Once the peppers are cool enough to handle (about 15 minutes), slip the skins off of the peppers. It’s okay if bits of skin remain on the peppers; try to avoid running them under water, since you’ll lose much of their flavor that way. Instead, peel the skins over a bowl to catch the juices; if the skins stubbornly stick to your hands, run your hands under water.

Remove the stems, membrane, and seeds from the peppers. Dice the peppers and combine in a bowl with their juices, holding back any seeds that may have fallen in with the pepper liquid.

Combine the peppers, pine nuts, currants, basil, garlic, oil, and sherry/marsala. Taste, and season as desired. Serve at room temperature.

Serving suggestions:

  • alongside lamb, quail, or chicken
  • as bruschetta on toast
  • stirred into a big bowl of cooked white beans for a great fall salad
  • on pizza, topped with smoked mozzarella
  • as a sauce for grilled white fish (tilapia, rockfish, snapper, etc)

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