Capsicum annuum—scientific name for any of a genus of pepper plants of the nightshade family, including sweet bell peppers and hot chile peppers.
It's difficult to think of a cuisine that doesn't utilize peppers in some way. After all, what would a French ratatouille, a Spanish gazpacho, a Mexican chili, or even a Creole jambalaya be without peppers—sweet or spicy? And how many Chinese stir-fries or Indian curries have you enjoyed that didn't have some kind of pepper in them—fresh or dried?
It is believed that peppers originated in South America then spread to the northern hemisphere. Christopher Columbus is credited for bringing peppers, among other exotic vegetables, to Europe after traveling to the West Indies in the late 15th century. As a result, they quickly found their way into Spanish cuisine. Because peppers can be grown in a variety of climates, they are now cultivated in backyard gardens and on commercial farms throughout the world.
Peppers are considered a modern day health food: rich in vitamins A, C, and K, minerals such as potassium and magnesium, and naturally low in fat and sodium. Whether spicy or sweet, peppers are rich in phytochemicals, which are believed to help fight off disease, and are also a good source of dietary fiber.
The intensity of spiciness of any pepper is determined by what's called the Scoville Organoleptic Test. Developed by American chemist Wilbur L. Scoville in the early 1900s, the test measures the intensity of heat produced and rates it on a scale from zero, being the mildest, to over a million, being the hottest. The burning flavor is actually produced by an alkaloid called capsaicin, and the test measures the amount present in the pepper. The higher the number assigned, the hotter that pepper will be when you eat it. For example, a sweet bell pepper would naturally be rated zero because it has no concentration of capsaicin. Whereas an Anaheim might have a rating of over 500, a jalapeno over 2,500, a habanero, considered one of the hottest peppers in the world, 300,000 or more, and Trinidad scorpion over a million.
But what part of the pepper–the seeds, the membranes, the oils—actually provides most of the heat is one that's been debated. No matter, when handling spicy peppers, I recommend wearing disposable gloves available in most grocery stores. In the absence of gloves, I have even put my left hand in a plastic bag—like the ones you bring your vegetables home in from the produce department. I hold the pepper with that hand, cut the pepper with the knife in my right hand, then carefully turn the plastic bag inside out as I take it off and toss in the trash without getting any capsaicin on my hands. This chemical will cause irritation to your skin and does not wash off easily, so be particularly careful not to touch anything with it on your hands. After working with spicy peppers, thoroughly wash your hands, utensils, and cutting board with hot soapy water.
Because there are so many varieties of both sweet and spicy peppers, all with their own unique flavor, they are one of the most versatile vegetables I've found. They provide loads of flavor, color, and texture to any dish. In the winter, I love stuffing bell peppers with a ground beef mixture for the ultimate comfort food, but in the summer I enjoy Georgia's Summertime Stuffed Peppers. It's a recipe that was given to me more than 20 years ago by Georgia Machala Massie, founder of Georgia's Farmers Market. The peppers are filled with a mixture of cooked rice and sautéed vegetables, and served with a fresh tomato/basil sauce—perfect for a light summer repast.
Talking about light summer meals, diced peppers, both sweet and spicy, also make a nice addition to salads and salsas. Try well-known cookbook author Joanne Weir's recipe for Orzo Salad with Peppers (I love her California-style of cooking), or the pineapple/pepper salsa I make to accompany my recipe for grilled chicken breasts. I also like peppers grilled and make kebobs often during the summer. Check out my recipe for grilled beef and pepper skewers served with a cinnamon and clove flavored rice.
Roasted peppers have even more depth of flavor; pureed with sour cream and fresh herbs, they make a great smoky-flavored dip with a platter of fresh produce for summer entertaining. Roasted Multi-Colored Pepper Sauce is one of my favorite side dishes this time of year. Slice up several bell peppers into thin strips, toss with red onion and olive oil. Roast in the oven on high heat until the peppers start to get slightly charred, then add fresh tomatoes, garlic, parsley, and roast just until the tomatoes start to break down. Finish the dish with salt, pepper, and fresh basil, and you have an easy but delicious accompaniment to grilled meat, fish, or chicken.
And although I try to eat healthy most days, when I entertain sometimes the decadent diet devil in me comes out. A huge fan of sour cream enchiladas, years ago I applied the same flavor profile to a baked pepper dish I developed when we lived on Cordoba Court in Plano. Roasted Anaheim or poblano peppers are layered with juicy ripe tomato slices, sour cream, and Mexican cheese, baked then sprinkled with chopped fresh cilantro. Because it's so rich, I reserve making Chilies Cordoba Court for company-only events.
When it comes to peppers, there's something to appeal to everyone. Sweet peppers for the "faint of heart" and spicy ones for you devoted "chile-heads." So there's no reason not to add it to your summer repertoire, and partake in what I like to call my favorite fruit of summer—capsicum annuum.
Barbara Walch is Plano Profile's food editor, and is a member of
the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP).