Climaxity

Stuff that matters

It looked so nice in the fruit bowl that I just left it there, red and muscly among the pears. Every time it caught my eye, which was often, I admired it, then thought “must-put-in-fridge-before-it-wrinkles”. It had started to wrinkle by the time it reached the fridge. I also suspected a soft spot, which I hoped would go away in the fridge drawer. Strangely, it did not go away, and the next day I picked up the pepper and put my thumb through its side.

Fresh, bloat, active decay, advanced decay, dry: the five stages of decomposition, one of the few things I remember from biology lessons at school. They are the stages of vertebrate animal decomposition, I know (I feel them all), but surely they can be applied to fruit and vegetables, too? As hard as I try to be vigilant, I usually have something at all five stages of decomposition in my kitchen, especially at this time of year, when the window between firm and ripe with a halo of fruit flies is not a big one. Tomatoes, apricots and peaches are the trickiest: the kitchen counter in August is a sort of incubator, but the fridge numbs out flavour, and in the case of tomatoes alters their flesh so you get that soft, mealy texture when they’re brought back to room temperature. Again, I feel this. I also know the red pepper should never have been in the fruit bowl; it was careless, and now here I am with my thumb inside a soft, gaping hole.

Active decay requires action. “It won’t hurt you, Just wash or scrape it off, cut it off or out.” I’m glad to have learned these lessons young from every woman in my family, and to have had them fortified by Vincenzo, who is his grandmother’s grandson and even more ruthless than me – only not as careless. Cutting off the rotten bit felt like amends for my carelessness. As did slicing what was left and cooking it slowly in olive oil with sliced red onion and, after a while, endive, then treating it all to a handful of pine nuts, currants, sugar and vinegar for what turned out to be a Sicilian-tasting sweet-and sour-mixture to have with potatoes.

I have used endive, escarole and romano lettuce in this dish, and they all worked beautifully, wilting down into floppy rags but retaining their sturdy midribs. I’m sure rocket or radicchio would work, too. The thing to remember is to let the onions and peppers cook until they have lost their raw, sunny crunch and softened completely. This takes time, so don’t rush or be afraid to let the edges of the peppers and onions catch ever so slightly: in this, you catch flavour. It turns out that slightly wrinkled peppers actually do this more effectively and willingly than fresh, muscly ones.

Not that I am advocating carelessness or decomposing vegetables: simply noting that if you did happen to encounter active decay, use it to your advantage: sweet and sour.

Peppers and potatoes
Prep 10 min
Cook 40 min
Serves 4

2 red onions
1 large red pepper
6 tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove
1 pinch red chilli flakes
1 tbsp pine nuts or chopped almonds
1 tbsp currants (optional)
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 small head endive or lettuce, cut into thick ribbons
800g waxy potatoes

Peel and halve the onion, then cut it lengthways into slender new moons. Cut away the pith, seeds and any soft spots from the red pepper, then slice it into strips, roughly 5mm wide x 10cm long.

Put the onion, pepper, olive oil and a pinch of salt in a frying pan, set it over a medium-low heat and cook slowly, stirring often, until the vegetables are soft. Add the garlic, still in its skin but crushed, and chilli, nuts and currants, then cook a bit longer.

Make a well in the middle of the vegetables before adding the sugar and the vinegar, let it bubble a few seconds, then stir. Add the endive or lettuce and cook, stirring, until it wilts. Taste for salt, and add more sugar, vinegar or both, if you think it needs it.

Meanwhile, boil the peeled and quartered potatoes in well-salted water until tender. Drain, cut into rough chunks, toss with the peppers and leave to sit for 20 minutes – and up to an hour – before tossing again and serving alone, or with lamb chops, sausages or hard-boiled eggs.