In Calabria there is a particular variety of peperoncino that is more or less the size of a small, slightly flattened plum, with postbox-red, crisp, slightly piquant flesh. While the flesh makes your mouth feel warm, the tiny seeds have real heat that at first doesn’t seem so intense, until it builds and builds, and then you touch your contact lens. It’s the same with the pithy veins, so for certain preparations both are scooped out. When they are stuffed, for example, for which the seedless, hollow shells are boiled briefly in water and red-wine vinegar, then drained, before being filled with a pounded mixture of tuna, anchovies and capers, and finally, covered with olive oil.
I remember seeing jars of peperoncini piccanti ripieni di tonno, alici e capperi in shops, and while I knew they were edible and most likely delicious, I couldn’t rid myself of the idea that the red shells and white filling seemed like storybook mushrooms or psychedelic specimens. It was at the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school, though, when an oval plate of them was brought out before dinner, that I discovered that the little, briefly pickled peppers stuffed with salty fish are one of the tastiest things. The other thing about them is they are often slightly too big to eat in one mouthful, but don’t try and bite them in half because the filling will end up on your shoe. To avoid a similar risk with this week’s recipe, which is inspired by the storybook peperoncini, decide if you want to make the squares of toast one bite, or two.
Either way, put two large red peppers on a baking tray and into a hot oven for 30-40 minutes, turning them every now and then, until charred. Put them into a bowl, cover with a plate and leave for 20 minutes to steam and cool. Working over the bowl, separate the charred skin, seeds and stem from the pepper flesh. Rip the flesh into thick strips and put this in a clean bowl with a pinch of salt, a tablespoon of red-wine vinegar and some olive oil, and leave to rest. Using a food processor or a sharp knife, blend or mince 15g capers, 20g anchovy fillets, a small handful of parsley leaves and 100g tuna under olive oil, drained, into a thick paste. If you are working with a knife, scrape everything into a bowl, then add enough olive oil to make a soft, spreadable paste. It almost certainly won’t need any extra salt, but taste and check anyway. When you are ready to serve, make some toast, cut it into bite-sized squares, spread each one with some of the paste and top with a velvet curl of marinated pepper. If you are fearful of slipping, secure with a toothpick.
A friend once described the sensation of being presented with a series of delicious things before a meal as like a bell at a level crossing. She was talking specifically about Polish zakąski, which ( and I hope I remember this correctly) means “something to bite” and, of course, comes with something to drink. But we decided that the bell at a level crossing sensation, the ding-ding-ding-ding in response to highly tasty things, was a universal one, and especially when the things are fishy, salty or fried – or, better still, all three combined. And, of course, the best thing about them is that not only are they delicious, they are the bell warning that something is about to arrive, although the danger is that the train meal may not live up to the ding-ding-ding-ding, but that is another column.
For even more excitement, serve these alongside battered and deep-fried strips of courgette or sage leaves (or anything fried, for that matter), cubes of salty cheese impaled on a toothpick with a green olive, more anchovies, salami, cheese crackers with Philadelphia or a large bowl of salt-and-vinegar crisps. For even more warmth, serve to/eat with people you haven’t seen for months and months.
Serves 6-8, as antipasti
2 red peppers
Salt and black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
15g capers, rinsed
1 small handful parsley leaves
100g tuna under olive oil, drained
Toast, cut into bit-sized squares
Put the peppers on a baking tray and into a hot oven for 30-40 minutes, turning every now and then until charred. Put them ino a bowl, cover with a plate and leave to steam and cool for 20 minutes. Working over the bowl, separate the charred skin, seeds and stem from the pepper flesh. Rip the flesh into thick strips and put in a clean bowl with a pinch of salt, a tablespoon of red-wine vinegar and some olive oil, and leave to rest.
Using a food processor or sharp knife, blend or mince the capers, anchovies, parsley and tuna into a thick paste. Scrape into a bowl, then add enough olive oil to make a spreadable paste, taste and adjust as necessary.
When you are ready to eat, make the toast, cut it into bite-sized squares, spread each one with a little paste and top with a curl of marinated pepper.