My father-in-law, who passed away this month, used to tell me about his beginnings in gardening: two tomato plants and a cucumber in a Victory Garden at the end of World War I. Children, especially those of struggling immigrants, did surely not receive any pocket money in those days, so the dime he received as a prize for the tomatoes must have been quite special for a nine-year-old.
He also told me that two of the most difficult things he had to do in his life was closing his medical practice upon retiring, and taking down his garden when he was no longer able to physically do the work.
I never saw my father-in-law’s garden, as it had disappeared years before I first met him. I only saw photos of it, yet I could tell that the area that is now just lawn must have once delivered a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables.
We talked gardening often, he sitting at his usual place at the end of the long kitchen table with a view of the back yard where his garden used to be. I remember him laughing out loud and shaking his head over and over again when I told him I had planted almost two dozens of tomato plants. “What the heck will you do with so many tomatoes?” he asked. My answer, “Soup, sauce, freeze them whole so I don’t have to ever buy canned tomatoes,” did not quite seem to convince him. However, after we brought along a few bags of homemade frozen cream of tomato soup in the midst of winter, he did not question the number of my tomato plants again.
These past few weeks have not been easy, and I have even wondered whether I would have the oomph to plant a garden this year. But then I remembered how my father-in-law told me that he always had some sort of a garden and was growing something, no matter where he lived, and no matter what difficult times he was going through. When we buried him, we buried his rusty shovel with him. Thinking about this, I feel that I simply must plant a garden this year to continue in his spirit.
After several bags of frozen bell peppers and jalapeños have reproachfully looked at me every time I opened the freezer, I finally made a batch of red pepper spread today. I never bother to remove the skins, those are all healthy fibers. After cooking the peppers slowly in the oven and pureeing them, the spread is so smooth it is almost impossible to tell the peppers have not been skinned. The spread tastes a bit like Harissa but it is much milder. For a hotter version, just add more jalapeños. Starting with two pounds of seeded peppers sounds like a lot but they shrink considerably.
Red Pepper Spread
6 to 7 large red bell peppers, seeded (about 2 pounds)
1/3 cup olive oil
6 small garlic cloves (3-4 fat ones)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Coarsely chop the peppers. Seed the jalapeños and chop finely. Chop the garlic.
3. Mix all ingredients except for the salt and put in in a large ovenproof dish with a lid, ideally a cast-iron casserole or Dutch oven.
4. Cover and cook for 1 hour, then remove the lid and continue cooking until the peppers are very soft and look almost melted. Stir and scrape down the sides once in a while with a rubber spatula.
5. Remove from the oven and cool. Puree very finely and salt to taste.
6. Fill the spread in a glass jar and pour a little bit of extra-virgin olive oil on top to prevent the spread from drying out. Refrigerate and use within a month.
Makes 1 jar