When you live in a neighborhood with excellent imported goods but lots of questionable fresh produce, you start getting extra creative with your pantry. When I lived in a Greek neighborhood, for instance, yogurt was a cuisine. These days, I find my fridge is overrun with something else: jarred peppers.
Pickled, spicy, sweet, marinated, puréed—the jars keep piling up. Some pimentos here. Peperoncini there. More ajvar than one non-Balkan person can reasonably consume in months. A couple of weeks ago, while I was in the midst of a major fridge clean-out crisis, I got to thinking—why am I not using these things every day?
You can always lay some marinated peppers on a sandwich, grilled cheese, or pizza and call it a day. But it takes virtually no work to cook with them, too, and that's where things start getting interesting.
Broadly speaking, jarred and canned peppers take on one to three of the following qualities: sweet, sour-pickled, and spicy. A piquillo likely has more heat and sometimes more sour kick than a marinated bell pepper, while a cherry pepper has even more. All this variability means it's worth stocking up on a few different types of jarred peppers; I keep pickled and spicy varieties on hand at all times, plus some pepper pastes for good measure. Once you're stocked up, here are a few ways to use them.
What's the hard line between relishes and other condiments? I'm not exactly sure, but to me a relish is all about texture and the interplay of sweet and sour. Take, for instance, this spicy-smoky-sweet-sour bacon and cherry pepper relish. We've slathered it on burgers, but you could also spoon it over romaine lettuce leaves, in which case it's obviously nothing but good for you.
If you're stocking up on sweet marinated peppers instead, get better acquainted with the briny kick of olive salad, whose OTP is the New Orleans muffuletta, but it also likes to get down with grilled cheese. The key to good olive salad is all in the balance of brine and oil against the peppers' sweetness, so keep the sour pickled ones out for this recipe.
Easy Purées and Proto-Dips
Sometimes I do the same thing for jarred peppers that I do with canned chipotles: purée the whole thing right in the jar with a hand-blender for a versatile paste that's ready for pasta sauce, dips, or salad dressings. Once puréed, spicy, salted peppers take well to fat scoops of tahini thinned out with lemon juice for a spicy, nutty, and fruity dressing I love on bitter greens.
The creamy, slightly pungent Balkan spread ajvar is really just a red pepper purée with some added vegetables (eggplant, garlic, and onions make frequent appearances). It's a perfect dip for vegetables and a nice complement to crumbled feta on toast, but you can also use it as the foundation for an awesome pasta sauce. Our recipe calls for grilling fresh peppers, but if you have some jarred roasted peppers on-hand and are looking for ways to use them, it's an easy shortcut.
Lords of the Hors D'oeuvres
Hollow jarred peppers almost beg to be stuffed, and in the Spanish tapas tradition, they often are. Whip up an Iberian tuna salad with high quality canned fish and shove it inside piquillo peppers, then lay them on slices of baguette for an easy hors d'oeuvre that looks and tastes far fancier than it is. Working with bell peppers instead? Here's another treatment of the fish plus a peppers-on-bread snack with anchovies and Manchego.
But my favorite stuffed pepper may be this cherry pepper wrapped in prosciutto and filled with ricotta, then cooked on the grill. This is another recipe that calls for fresh peppers, but can adapt well to jarred varieties so long as they still have some bite. Keep a few recipes like this on-hand and you'll have party snacks at a moment's notice.
Bring Brightness to Almost Anything
A little acid goes a long way in pretty much anything cooked, but when we think of ways to bring in that acidity, the answer's usually citrus or vinegar. But consider the pickled pepper, a handy dose of salt and sour with some fruity twang for good measure. It's just as useful a source of acidity as a squeeze of lemon.
Keep the acidity gentle by stewing piquillo peppers with beef for a few hours, or go full-throttle by using them as a final accent in this chorizo-enriched pasta salad or this green bean salad tarted up with anchovies.
Pimento Cheese is a Cuisine
The dirty secret of pimento cheese is that it's not actually Southern in origin. The glorious truth—which I realize uses jarred pimentos as a mere coloring accent to offset what is essentially a cheese and mayo salad—is that the dip isn't just a noun, but also an adjective.
You get the picture? You don't even have to confine yourself to jarred pimentos; I actually prefer a sharper, hotter pepper for such purposes. The cheese, however, is all on you.