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Sweet spice of Hungarian peppers

Grilled, stewed, crisp or tender -- its season may be short, but this vegetable's versatile.

August 20, 2008|Donna Deane and Jenn Garbee | Special to The Times

THEY tumble out of farmers market crates entwined in pairs like folk dancers, elongated necks extending from slender, bell-shaped pods. Hungarian peppers, ranging in color from soft butter yellows to radiant greens, are back for their annual summer fling.

Lighter and more delicate than bell peppers, Hungarian are on the sweet side, with none of the punch of a poblano. Cut them up one night to add a subtle crunch to summer salads, stuff them with a garden of sauteed vegetables the next. Lightly simmered in a fresh tomato stew or simply sliced and served raw, their bright flavor is versatile enough to work into a variety of favorite summer dishes.

Part of the Hungarian pepper's charm is that with its less assertive taste and thinner flesh, it responds well to quick cooking on the grill. Quartered and grilled until crisp-tender, the palm-sized pods gain a smoky sweetness that gives definition to chicken salad that's wonderful when made with Hungarian paprika and small riso or orzo (rice-sized pasta).

The salad components can be prepared ahead and assembled just before serving. When you're ready to serve, fold several handfuls of torn romaine leaves and blanched green beans into grilled lemon-scented chicken. Serve with korozott, a Hungarian caraway-cream cheese spread, lightened in this recipe with cottage cheese. It ages beautifully over several weeks, lending its anise scent to morning bagels or late afternoon rye toasts -- spread and sprinkle with freshly diced peppers.

Use Hungarian peppers to bolster a summery version of lecso, a traditional stew brimming with peak-of-season tomatoes. Trade the classic sausages and potatoes for a small handful of diced, meaty Hungarian kolozsvari (bacon), or any good-quality, lightly smoked bacon to add complexity without too much heft.

Save the pan drippings to saute sweet onions, add the peppers and tomatoes (the juicier the better; if your tomatoes are too dry, add a few splashes of water), and cook until the paprika-laced sauce is simmering with peppery sweetness. Spoon it over a steaming bowl of rice, shower the lecso with chopped parsley, and pull out a crusty baguette to sop up the last few drops.

In Hungary, tolteni valo paprika ("peppers for stuffing") earned their name from the meat fillings they're so closely associated with -- but they're even more seductive brimming with multicolored squash, sweet corn and earthy mushrooms.

Halve the peppers, being careful to leave the base and stems intact, and blanch until the peppers are tender but still hold their shape. Fill with lightly sauteed vegetables, sprinkle with fragrant basil and bread crumbs seasoned with dill, and bake until golden brown. Serve on a sea of fresh tomato basil sauce.



Hungarian pepper salad

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: From Donna Deane. Hungarian peppers are available at select farmers markets, select Gelson's and Bristol Farms markets and at Otto's Hungarian Import Store in Burbank. Riso pasta is available at well-stocked supermarkets and gourmet markets. Korozott is a Hungarian cheese spread.

2 cups cottage cheese

4 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 tablespoon grated onion (grated with a box grater), plus 1/2 cup chopped onion, divided

2 1/4 teaspoons Hungarian paprika, divided

2 teaspoons caraway seeds, plus additional for sprinkling, divided

1 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 10 ounces each)

2 cloves garlic, halved lengthwise

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Juice of 1/2 lemon

6 large sweet Hungarian green peppers, quartered lengthwise, cored and seeded

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 cup small pasta (such as riso or orso)

2 cups chicken broth

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

2 ripe tomatoes, diced into 1/2 -inch pieces

1/4 pound blanched green beans, cut into 1 1/2 -inch pieces

6 cups romaine, cut into 1 1/2 -inch pieces

12 toasted baguette slices, each about 1/8 -inch thick

1. To make korozott , place the cottage cheese and cream cheese in a food processor and process until smooth. Add the grated onion, 2 teaspoons paprika, caraway seeds and three-fourths teaspoon salt and pulse just until combined. Cover and refrigerate. This makes more than is needed and will keep for up to 2 weeks. 2. Rub the chicken on all sides with the garlic. Combine the remaining paprika and salt with the pepper in a small bowl, then rub the blend evenly over the chicken breasts.

3. Heat a stove-top grill over medium-high heat until hot. Grill the chicken until cooked through, about 12 to 15 minutes, or until a thermometer inserted reads 160 degrees. Remove the chicken to a plate and drizzle with the lemon juice. When cool enough to handle, dice the chicken into three-fourths-inch pieces. Set aside.

4. Grill the pepper quarters over medium-high heat until crisp-tender, turning occasionally, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove. When cool enough to handle, halve each piece crosswise. You should have about 3 cups cut-up peppers.

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