Recipe: Red Pepper and Beet Soup with Basil Mascarpone
“Colors pursue me like a constant worry. They even worry me in my sleep.”
That was said by Claude Monet. You know what worries me? Watching gorgeous dark crimson radicchio turn mud brown in my skillet. That’s the stuff culinary worries are made of.
My color needs are especially hard to satisfy during the New York winter. Cabbages, potatoes, and dirty snow are all around me. I’d love to see a cardinal, but that seems unlikely on 13th Street (I’m talking about the bird here, not the ecclesiastical official). Red is hard to find right now, although I did see what looked like a trickle of blood in a puddle of slush the other day. The ultimate urban snow cone. Things get visually depressing in February. It’s amazing how Christmas lights hide a multitude of sins.
What’s red and available? A Negroni, a rose, the Chanel lipstick called Gabrielle. All beautiful creations. Supermarket bell peppers. Not so great, but still, when I see them lined up in neat rows in my supermarket I can’t turn away. They certainly don’t smell like the ones I get at the Greenmarket in July, with that deep mix of sweet, bitter, and earth. The ones I find now are from Florida. They have a slight gasoline aroma, which is odd. But I bought a few anyway, figuring I could coax a more pleasant flavor out of them.
For me, cooking almost always entails balancing color and taste. Heat intensifies flavor, and these winter peppers definitely needed help. Caramelization gives steaks and tomatoes and just about any food a layer of sweetness, but it also causes browning. I knew I’d need to roast the peppers (a form of caramelization), but I didn’t want their flesh to darken, messing with their lovely color, so I put them in a really hot oven until they blistered all over but didn’t quite char. The skins slipped off easily, and the flesh was now tender, fragrant, and still bright red. They didn’t have that smoky flavor you get with a flame. All that I asked from them was that they taste more like peppers. And they complied. Oh, I added a sole red beet just to up the color and sweetness.
And here’s a little report on the colors of vegetables and what they tell you about their vitamin content. Very interesting.
Red Pepper and Beet Soup with Basil Mascarpone
(Serves 4 or 5)
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 red bell peppers
1 large shallot, chopped
1 large baking potato, peeled and cut into small dice
1 garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped
1 fresh bay leaf
4 sprigs thyme, leaves chopped
A splash of sweet vermouth
3 cups of light chicken broth
1 large red beet, roasted until tender, peeled, then chopped
A big pinch of cayenne
A few drops of sherry wine vinegar
About ½ cup mascarpone
A handful of basil leaves, cut into chiffonade
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Coat the peppers all over with a little olive oil, and place them on a sheet pan. Roast, turning them occasionally, until the skins are browned, cracked, and slightly blistered all over. Cover them with a kitchen towel, and let them cool until you can handle them. Then pull off their skins, gently rinsing away any remaining bits of skin under cool water. Remove the seeds, and then chop the peppers roughly.
Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a soup pot. Add the shallot and the potato, and sauté for a few minutes. Now add the garlic, bay leaf, and thyme, and sauté a minute longer, to release their flavors. Add the vermouth, letting it boil away. Add the chicken broth. Bring to a boil. Turn the heat down a bit, partially covering the pot, and let the soup simmer at a lively bubble for about 10 minutes. Now add the beet and the red peppers, adding a little water if needed to cover the vegetables. Simmer until everything is tender, about another 8 minutes.
Purée the soup in a food processor, and return it to the pot. Season it with salt, the cayenne, and a few drops of the vinegar. The soup should be a medium thickness. Add a little water if you need to loosen it.
Pour the soup into bowls. Top with a dollop of the mascarpone and a scattering of the basil chiffonade.