Easiest Summer Ever: Peperonata (Sautéed Bell Peppers With Tomato, Onion, and Garlic)

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A Southern Italian side dish of sweet bell peppers melted in olive oil with onion, garlic, and tomatoes. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Quick: How many dishes can you name with bell peppers as the one and only star ingredient?

I asked myself this question recently and got stuck on crudités. And even that's not a good answer, because a raw vegetable platter gives equal billing to all the other options, from celery sticks to carrots.

Stuffed peppers? I'd argue that the stuffing is just as important.

Roasted pepper pasta? Nah, it can't exist without the pasta.

See what I mean? As much as we use peppers in all sorts of dishes, they almost never get the spotlight all to themselves. Except for in peperonata. If you haven't heard of it, peperonata is a side dish from southern Italy that features sweet summer bell peppers cooked down in plenty of olive oil until they're meltingly soft. It's so simple, it belongs in our collection of Easiest Summer Ever recipes.

Sure, there are a few other ingredients. There's some tomato in there, and certainly some onion and garlic. You can hit it with a splash of wine vinegar for a little sweet-sour effect, or add an herb like basil or oregano for some extra layers of aromatics. But peperonata is ultimately all about those peppers.

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So let's start there: This dish is most worth making in the summer, when bell peppers are intensely sweet and flavorful. That sweetness is important, since it forms the base of the gentle sweet-sour character that makes peperonata so good. Out-of-season peppers can be used, but you may need to sprinkle on a tiny bit of sugar to get the flavor balance right. Green bell peppers, which are just red or yellow ones before they turn ripe, have no place in this dish for the very same reason—they bring very little natural sugar to the table.

To make it, I start by slicing bell peppers into strips. Be sure to trim away any of the white ribs inside the peppers.

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I gently cook sliced garlic in a generous amount of olive oil until it shows the first hints of turning golden.

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Next, I add sliced onions and get them started on their way to softness.

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I don't let the onions go too long before adding the peppers, though. Peppers need quite a bit of time to fully soften, so it's better to get them into the pot sooner than later.

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I let the peppers cook for a bit, until they start to compress. You'll notice that at first they nearly fill this pot. That's because they're so rigid that they stack up with lots of space between them.

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Once they've started to collapse, I add some tomato puree, which I make by simply blending canned whole tomatoes with their juices.

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I also throw in some herbs. In this case, I've used sprigs of fresh basil, which I love in this dish, but oregano and marjoram are excellent choices, too.

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I let the whole thing simmer over moderate heat until the peppers are totally softened and bathed in a rich sauce of their own reduced juices mixed with the olive oil; that can take up to an hour or so, so be patient. A touch of wine vinegar right at the end helps brighten the whole thing up.

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This is another one of those dishes that's good hot, but even better served at room temperature after spending a night in the fridge. It's great alongside roasted meats or as a side dish that's part of a larger spread, as well as spooned onto good, crusty rustic bread.

One bite is enough to make me believe that bell peppers are capable of a lot more starring roles than they're given. But even if they're destined to be a one-hit wonder, this is a heck of a hit.