Peppers in Precious Profusion
The veg of a thousand faces: hot or sweet, red or green, tickle your tongue and keep you young.
By John J. Kochevar
Fresh peppers, artfully arrayed, easily cross the line between vegetable and plaything, inflaming appetites and reminding us of Halloween candy, wax lips, or cinnamon-flavored Red Hots. Once peppers were mostly green and boring, lending “authentic” flavor to faux ethnic casseroles; now intriguing varieties decorate our markets, spice our tofu, and lend allure to the names of countless music groups. Health claims and uses range from antioxidants to stave off the effects of aging to ayurvedic aid for arthritis pain. How did we ever live without peppers?
Europeans and Asians have had a taste for tongue-tingling spice since ancient times. The name “pepper” derives from the Sanskrit word pippali, and originally denoted the dried black berry of a vine (piper nigrum in Latin) grown on the Malabar coast of India. Black pepper was expensive, caravanned overland to western Europe and east to China for centuries. It was the prize Columbus sought when he set off in search of a water route to India in 1492. Instead he found a genus of plants (and its relatives, the potato and tomato) with really spicy fruit. He tried positioning it as a success story and called it pimienta, “pepper,” in Spanish. Botanists, however, were not misled and later named the new genus capsicum from the Greek kapsimo, meaning “to bite,” for the sharp, burning sensation caused by a really hot pepper.
In contrast to tomatoes and potatoes, spicy capsicum peppers caught on rather quickly, and within 100 years they became the prevalent seasoning for indigenous cuisines in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Despite their importance in the American Southwest, chilies did not assume an important place in the mainstream American diet until the last 20 years, most notably when sales of salsa finally surpassed catsup in1992.
Chile, chilli, chili? Dictionaries differ, but cookbook writers persist in calling hot peppers “chiles” and use the word “chilli” for the commercial spice mixture of chile, dried oregano, cumin, etc. used in the making of “chili,” a meat and bean stew.
As Mark Miller notes in his beautifully illustrated volume, The Great Chile Book (Ten Speed Press), there are more than 150 varieties of peppers and not even botanists can keep them straight.
The simplest distinction is between sweet and hot. Sweet bell peppers have no spicy heat. They are green, vegetal, and a little bitter when immature, ripening to red, orange, yellow, or purple with sweeter, complex flavors as they mature. The prime examples—thick-fleshed, imported Holland peppers—are available year-round in supermarkets and are beginning to be home-grown by local farmers as well. They are a little expensive but sweet, fruity, and available in irresistible jelly bean colors. Perhaps the best-tasting sweet pepper is the pimiento, scarlet and shaped like a Valentine’s Day heart. It is used primarily for making paprika but can be found fresh in the U.S. for a few weeks in early summer. Pimientos, roasted, peeled, sautéed in a little olive oil, and stuffed with a thin layer of fresh goat cheese, are sweet pepper heaven.
Dried sweet peppers are ground to make paprika. The mildest are based on pimientos; spicy blends from Spain, Portugal, and Hungary include some hot pepper, the hottest being a Hungarian variety appropriately named Eros. Indian paprikas are called mirch, often with a place name for a particular blend.
At the mildly hot end of the capsicum spectrum are round red cherry peppers, long green Anaheims, and squat poblanos. Anaheims and poblanos appear on Mexican restaurant menus as chile rellenos, stuffed with cheese and fried. Jalapenos, the most widely available medium-hot pepper, last well and are suitable for a wide variety of salsas and guacamole. (Beware: Serranos look like small jalapenos but are much hotter.) Asian markets usually stock Thai chilies—thin, sharply pointed, red and green—bitingly hot but indispensable in Southeast Asian soups, curries, and dipping sauces. At the murderous end of the spectrum are habanero and Jamaican Scotch bonnet chilies. They are attractive, convoluted, lantern-shaped peppers with sweet tropical fruit flavors overlaying searing, blinding heat. In addition to being a culinary hand grenade they can irritate unprotected skin. Cayenne, the most used dried pepper, holds its heat and flavor in whole or powdered form.
Hot peppers derive their heat from compounds called capsinoids. Animals will not eat chilies, but people develop a tolerance for capsinoids over time. They still experience burning, sweating, and an increased heart rate but, more important, eating lots of chilies leads to the discharge and depletion of neurotransmitters signaling pain to the brain. The body experiences an endorphin rush like the feeling of well-being runners experience when they finish a race. As chili lovers say, “It burns so good….”
So, chili is a cheap good-time high, and hot pepper addiction appears to be relatively harmless—chili does not cause ulcers or hemorrhoids as people used to believe. In addition, capsaicin (the most common capsinoid) has known health effects such as blood thinning, reduction of blood pressure, and easing of gas pain. In ayurvedic medicine cayenne is combined in a paste with mustard and applied topically to ease arthritic pain. Chilies also contain antioxidants and significant amounts of vitamins A, B, and C. A single raw bell pepper, for example, has more vitamin C than an orange.
Local farm markets are the place to go in late summer when pepper season is in full swing. Baskets of waxy peppers glow in the sun and give off a faint, appetizing perfume. Even in northern climates, farmers have learned to grow semitropical spicy chilies; fortunately they can describe the heat levels of unfamiliar peppers. Try sampling new peppers, tasting for the fruity richness beyond the burn. Give thanks to the brave Inca and Aztec agriculturalists who saw beyond the burn so many centuries ago.
Sweet Peppers and Green Beans
This recipe combines peppers with green beans, which are often in abundance at the same time. It should be considered as the starting point for many later summer variations. For example, slivered carrots and celery can be sautéed with the onions and peppers. Slivers of fresh basil added at the end of cooking will provide a fragrant grace note.
1 large yellow onion, halved and sliced lengthwise
2 large red bell peppers, stemmed, seeded, and sliced
1 pound green beans, stemmed and cut into 2-inch lengths
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 tablespoons olive oil (extra virgin preferred)
1 pound tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and sliced
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Slice the vegetables so all the pieces are approximately 2 inches in length and about 1/4 inch in width.
2. Start sautéing the onion slices in 3 tablespoons of oil over low heat, while slicing other vegetables. Add the pepper slices and green beans. After the vegetables have softened, add the minced garlic and sauté for another minute or two.
3. Add the tomatoes and cayenne and simmer until the vegetables are soft. Add water if the dish becomes dry. Finally, salt and pepper to taste and add the remaining tablespoon of oil.
This dish improves on standing. Serves 4 as a side dish or first course, combined with pasta such as ziti. (Simply boil 1 pound of dried pasta in salted water, drain when al dente, and mix with hot vegetables. Pass Parmesan cheese at the table.)
Bell Pepper Basics
Fresh peppers keep well in the refrigerator, but do not enclose them fully in plastic because high moisture can cause them to deteriorate. Buy them in volume during their high season and preserve them for later in the year.
Many chefs broil or roast mature red and orange bell peppers to remove their outer skins before using them in recipes. Simply hold the pepper over an open gas flame with tongs and turn until the skin blisters and blackens.
Immediately place the blistered peppers in a paper bag. After a few minutes their skins will slip off easily. Remove the seeds and stems from the peppers, slice into strips, and freeze in small packages for easy defrosting. Or, better, thinly slice 2 garlic cloves and sauté in 3 tablespoons of olive oil until the oil is flavored (do not brown). Add 2 cups of sliced peppers and sauté over low heat until the peppers are slightly softened. Add a few tablespoons of water, salt, and pepper, and sauté for a few minutes longer until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add a handful of black olives, and when they are warm, serve as an appetizer. Or, purée the peppers, garlic, and oil and use as a spread. Both the sautéed peppers and purée freeze well.