This is the only vegetable that sounds like an exciting substance. Maybe that’s why everyone loves a pepper.
Most other veggies are used in a pejorative sense. Turnip reminds us of our Taoiseach. Pumpkin is one of the clumsy twits from a children’s novel. Aubergine belongs to a thousand bridesmaid dresses. And tomato is the shade many of us sport from May to August. That’s if you’re a ginger.
Pepper’s hell-raising nephews and nieces, the chillies, are indeed responsible for pepping up moods with their ability to release natural endorphins in our body.
The larger equivalent however is juicier, sweeter and sensationally flavoursome minus the sting. Don’t ignore the plain pepper on your next supermarket trip, especially if you’re a smoker. Peppers contain plenty of beta-carotene, protective carotenoids and vitamin C to toughen up your immunity. Go for the yellow, orange and red ones raw. Green peppers are a little shy and therefore best roasted, grilled or ignored.
A Big Bowl of Mexico
This is the ultimate comfort food intended to feed indolent limbs and massage achy heads. You’ll find feisty chillis, potent garlic, sharp lime and fragrant coriander – a goblet of goodness. The recipe is a classic Jamie Oliver, morphed into the confines of my kitchen cupboard. He uses tortilla chips the way you would with croutons in a French soup. Let them soak up the soup and carry extra flavour. He rocks it.
I like to lob in loads of fresh red onion. French men and scientists go mad for this bulbous little beaut. Here’s why. Onions are flush with flavonoids, otherwise known as heavyweight antioxidants that fight ageing and disease. A growing body of research suggests that flavonoids help reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease (but not bad breath. Oh well. Small price to pay for a healthier hummer, no?). According to the Irish Heart Foundation, cardiovascular disease is the most common form of death in Ireland. No harm in putting onions on your shopping list then, eh?
Quercetin is the red onion’s hallmark flavonoid, the one that robs all the limelight. Quercetin acts like an anti-histamine and anti-inflammatory in the body. Interestingly, quercetin is not destroyed through cooking. It is thought to be transferred into the cooking liquid. That chicken soup granny does for indolent hangovers and the sniffles? It all makes sense now.
Various studies also point to the onion’s role in maintaining strong bones. One such study, in the journal Nature, fed rats a small amount of dried onion and noted a 17% increase in calcium absorption. Imagine a pill that could promise the same?
For the soup:
1 large onion, peeled and diced
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 carrots, peeled and cut into mouth-sized chunks
4 peppers, deseeded and roughly chopped
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 cup of cooked black beans
2 large tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 fresh bay leaves (pinch them from a neighbour’s tree)
4-5 cups good vegetable stock
1-2 teaspoons smoked paprika powder
For the best bit:
2 ripe avocados
2 chillis, deseeded and finely sliced
Good quality tortilla chips
1 large handful of fresh coriander, torn
Put a large, deep-based pan on a low heat and splash in some olive oil. Add the onion, garlic, carrots, peppers and gently heat for 10-15 minutes until softened. Stir every-so-often to prevent burning at the bottom.
Add remaining soup ingredients, bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes.
While the soup is gurgling away, peel and dice the avocado. Grate some lime zest over the avocado chunks, and squeeze on the juice to keep it from turning brown. Put in the centre of the table, next to the bowl of fragrant green chilli, torn coriander and plate of tortillas. You can also heat the tortillas in the oven for a few minutes at 180 degrees.
Have a taste of the soup, season, taste again, and once you’re happy, call in the troops.
Worried about the social side-effect of eating beans? I ask Harold McGee about the science behind trouser trumpets and beans, here on BBC’s food programme January 4th. Harold is everyone’s hero, but most famously, Heston Blumenthal’s culinary guru. ‘Nuff said.
These beans are the best tinned variety on the market. Find them in Picado, a Mexican pantry on Portobello Bridge Dublin 2, or order them into your local grocers. T