An impressive expanse of burnt orange lit up the living room wall. Such a wide-open space deserved something dramatic, a powerful burst of color. Spare in furnishings, the golden blush of the wood parquet desired a partner such as burnt orange to illuminate it, to infuse it with a radiance that allowed it to stand bare and alone, no need to cover up with a motley jumble of sofas, chairs and coffee tables. One tremendous burnt orange wall facing a stunning wall of windows framed in gris de Seine which wavered from deep sage to elegant gold divided simply by oak.
Autumn light glowed against that burnt orange, warm and comforting. The summer sun bounced gaily off the walls, chasing one joyously around the salon. Heady with self-confidence, that burnt orange wall drank in the sunshine greedily, almost arrogantly, knowing that we would be drawn to it like moths to the flame, basking in its energetic heat and enthusiasm.
I sat in my study, my office in front of my laptop. Concentrated on whatever project I had been working on. Something on the edge of my conscious niggled, like an odd hushed voice hissing to claim my attention. I shook my head and tried to ignore it.
A bit later, I realized that whatever it was had not gone away. It was only then that I noticed the smell. Distant and hazy, it was hard to tell just where it was coming from but it was disagreeable, something pungent. I sat back and closed my eyes and tried to pinpoint what it could be, where it could be coming from. But again, it remained just out of reach, still inaccessible, so I turned back to my laptop and continued with my work.
As time passed, minutes then more, ten maybe twenty, the smell continued to grow stronger, more present; that odor crept closer. The acrid smell of something rotting. Or something burnt. Like old tar or rubber.
I paused in my work and pushed myself away from the desk. What was it? Invasive, aggressive, that putrid smell pricked and stung the nose. I could not for the life of me figure out what it was or where it was coming from. I peeked out the window… no nothing on fire. Scratching my head, I sat back down and resumed my work until the smell became unbearable.
And then it hit me like a shot to the head. I yelped loudly, released the mangled screech of a wounded animal, and ran into the kitchen. My focaccia! I had completely forgotten the focaccia I had put in the oven to bake ever so long ago! A stream of curses escaped my lips as I saw the smoke filling up the kitchen. I yanked open the oven, grabbed a mitt and pulled out the baking sheet upon which was reposing an inky black mass, a petrified rock billowing heavy, stinking, sour smoke.
And that pungent, putrid smell of burnt invaded our home and hung in the air, taunting me, ever remindful of my forgetfulness, for weeks to come.
Froid, brulé, pas cuit, (simply translated) meaning cold, burnt, undercooked or, in other words, a culinary disaster. But in our home it is often said in a mocking way, to tease. We are all inclined to expect the worst in everything and anything we cook. Or at least I am. My husband dug down deep into his memory and pulled out this old phrase, coined during his university days by a friend, dusted it off and introduced it into our home. Froid, brulé, pas cuit has become a joke in our kitchen, a way to make fun of me when doubts of my cooking or baking prowess consume me, when my confidence in the results of an all-out culinary effort begins to waver. As soon as the wailing and chest beating begin, as soon as the excuses start spilling from my lips, warning that what I have placed on the table before my family may be a horrid failure, he lightens the mood by yelling froid, brulé, pas cuit! In other words: yadda yadda yadda, I have heard it all before and no matter your warning that it is overcooked, undercooked or burnt, it is usually just right.
Charred peppers and eggplants, blackened and bubbling, the smell of summer. Burnt sweetness, papery ebony skin, fluttering away with the flick of a knife.
Burnt toast, just a minute or two too long, in the toaster, under the grill. Scritch scratch scrape the black off with the butter knife over the sink and make the best of it. Butter and jam.
Steaks on the barbecue or whole-roasted pigs, elegant kabobs of cubed meat strung together and dotted with red, green and white, vegetables like Christmas bulbs. Tossed on the barbecue until seared, scorched, burnt bits picked off and popped in the mouth before digging into the tender flesh.
The burnt-out shell of the building stood forlornly in the empty lot surrounded by remnants of a life. Bits of paper fluttered across the dusty surface of what must have at one time been a green lawn. Scraps of wood lay willy-nilly in heaps or leaning against each other, edges burnt. Jagged teeth in gaping mouths, windows shattered, eyes staring in empty and hopeless desolation. The ghosts of chairs and tables crept across the wasteland in the shadow of the carbonized hulk.
I learned long ago that adding a purée of charred, roasted red and yellow peppers to a tomato sauce adds a smoky sweetness making for an incredibly flavorful pasta sauce. A pinch of both smoked paprika and adobo powder adds further complexity and incredible depth to what is usually a rather simple, common sauce. If you prefer a bit of heat, replace the smoked paprika and adobo chili powder with touch of puréed or chopped chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. Inexpensive, simple, yet a kicked up version of your regular red sauce.
JAMIE’S CHARRED PEPPER PASTA SAUCE
Serves about 4 people
1 small or medium red pepper
1 small or medium yellow pepper
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped or minced
1 can very good quality crushed tomatoes
Pinch of sugar
Salt and freshly ground pepper
½ tsp smoked paprika + ¼ - ½ tsp ground adobo chili powder, more to taste
About 1 lb (500 g) fresh or dried pasta, enough for 4 hungry eaters
Rinse, pat dry and trim the peppers; remove and discard stem and seeds. Cut each into 5 or 6 large pieces and press flat on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast under the grill of the oven until the skin is charred black and bubbling. (Alternately, roast over the flame of the stovetop whole, turning the pepper until charred all over; once cooled, cut away the stem and scrape out the seeds.) Carefully remove from the oven and slip the pieces of charred peppers into a plastic bag. Let the peppers sit until just cooled, about 5 minutes, during which time the condensation in the plastic due to the heat of the peppers will lift much of the skin up off of the flesh. Simply pull each piece out of the plastic bag and slip a thin, sharp knife blade between the skin and the flesh and lift off the skin and discard. Purée the skinned roasted peppers.
Trim and chop the onion. Add a couple tablespoons of olive to a large, heavy pot or skillet and heat. Add the chopped onion and cook over medium or medium-low heat, stirring often, until the onion bits are very tender and golden brown around the edges. Add the chopped or minced garlic and continue to cook for another minute or two until the garlic is tender. Add the chopped tomatoes, the puréed peppers, the smoked paprika and adobo chili powder (or the half chipotle pepper, chopped). Salt and pepper and add large a pinch of sugar. Stir, add about half a cup of water, bring to the simmer and allow to cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding a bit of water to the sauce now and then to keep it from burning.
Taste, adjust seasonings and serve over pasta.