Roasted red bell peppers are among my favorite cheater ingredients.
I call them cheater because once people taste them, or a dish with them in it, they think you've used some extravagant ingredient. They are packed with that much flavor.
Red peppers are nothing more than an overripe green pepper. They are red because they've been hanging on the vine longer; that also makes them sweeter.
Fresh red bell peppers can be pricey, up to $4 a pound, but sometimes you can find them on sale.
If you see them at a bargain price, load up. They generally keep well for at least a week or two, and you can roast and freeze them for longer storage. You can also buy jars of already roasted red peppers, but those often are pricey, too.
To roast, place whole peppers on a sheet of foil under the broiler or on a grill and cook, turning often, until the skin is charred on all sides. Immediately place the peppers in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap (or the foil you broiled them on) or seal in a paper bag and let it stand about 15 minutes. The peppers will steam, making it easier to remove the skin, core and seed.
Use them immediately or layer them whole between sheets of plastic wrap and place in a freezer bag. Freeze up to 4 months. Thaw and pat dry before using. By freezing them in layers, you can pull out only what you need.
Fresh red peppers also freeze well without any blanching. Wash, core and seed them before cutting them into strips or pieces and freeze. They will lose their fresh, crisp texture but will be ideal for using in cooked dishes such as stir-fries, casseroles, soups and chilis.
Here are five ways to use roasted bell peppers that will wow your guests:
--Puree the peppers in a food processor and serve as a dip. They're fat-free and extremely low in calories.
--Serve slices of roasted red pepper with fresh mozzarella, a drizzling of quality olive oil and some fresh herbs as an appetizer.
--Mix pureed red peppers with low-fat mayonnaise and use as a sandwich spread.
--Use as a topping for appetizers such as crostini or canapes.
--Puree with pitted kalamata olives to make tapenade.
Pasta With Scallops and Roasted Red Pepper Pesto
Serves: 2 (generously)
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
3/4 cup roasted red peppers, patted dry and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup low-fat ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 small shallot, peeled, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme, minced
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
1/2 pound pasta (about 3 cups dry)
1/2 pound dry (not soaked in water) sea scallops, patted dry
Place the garlic in a skillet over medium heat. Toast the garlic, shaking the pan often, until the skins are spotty brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the garlic, cool and then peel and coarsely chop. In a food processor place the garlic, peppers, parmesan and ricotta cheese, parsley, 1 tablespoon olive oil, shallot, thyme and 1/4 teaspoon salt; process until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and season as needed with salt and black pepper.
At this point, the pesto can be covered with plastic wrap (press the wrap directly onto the surface of the pesto) and refrigerated up to 3 days.
Bring large pot of water to a boil for the pasta. Season it with kosher salt. Add the pasta and cook, stirring often, until al dente, about 8 minutes. When done, reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water and drain the pasta.
Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil in the same skillet in which the garlic was toasted. Season the scallops with salt and pepper. Add to the skillet and sear until nicely browned on each side, 3 minutes each side for 1 1/2- to 2-inch diameter scallops.
Add the pesto to the cooked pasta and toss to combine. Add reserved pasta water a little at a time until it's a sauce consistency. Place in serving bowls and top with seared scallops.
Per serving: 440 calories (27 percent from fat), 13 grams fat (4 grams sat. fat), 46 grams carbohydrates, 34 grams protein, 647 mg sodium, 56 mg cholesterol, 213 mg calcium, 3 grams fiber.
Adapted from "Cooking for Two" by the editors of America's Test Kitchen (America's Test Kitchen, $35).