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by Louise Fiszer & Jeannette Ferrary, photo credit: Brock Shamberg

All peppers -- sweet to hot -- belong to the genus Capsicum. In attempting to trace the word to its origin, one group of imaginative etymologists suggests that capsicum comes from the Greek kapto, "to bite." While this explanation takes care of the snappiness that characterizes the hottest varieties, it completely excludes the milder, more sociable sweet peppers.

Another group of imaginative etymologists, therefore, contends that the word derives from the Latin capsa, meaning "box," supposedly suggestive of the shape of many bell peppers. Clearly, neither of these explanations appeases all of the peppers all of the time, but they do serve to illustrate one of the main problems in discussing peppers: their mind-boggling numbers and varieties, types, shapes, and sizes. For our purposes, we simply divided them into two categories: sweet and hot.

Sweet Peppers
The most common sweet pepper is, of course, the innocent, waxy, indestructible-looking, year-round, green bell pepper that everyone has (at least once) eaten stuffed. The prevalence of green peppers is due not so much to culinary preference as to the fact that they have a long shelf life and travel well. Green peppers are, in fact, the pepper's first stage. If left unpicked, they proceed through various shades of yellow-green on to bright red.

Although sweet peppers were originally elongated, wrinkled, and much smaller than they are today, they eventually were bred into their current, more marketable, configurations. The Dutch have even produced an attractive deep-purple pepper that is green inside and turns green outside when cooked. Other color choices include white, salmon, and chocolate-brown.

In addition to these many-colored bell peppers, other types of sweet peppers commonly available include the curved bull's horn; the bright red or yellow Cubanelle; the dark red, heart-shaped, thick-walled pimiento; the tapered Lamayo; and the Japanese Green. Except for the last, which is mildly spicy, the main differences among sweets are their shapes, colors, and relative "meatiness." Sweet peppers are found in all the world's cuisines, from Middle Eastern lamb dishes, to Cantonese stir-fries with shrimp and ginger, to Basque piperade and Hungarian goulash.

Hot Peppers
Like their sweet cousins, hot peppers are New World vegetables, and since they probably date from 7000 B.C., very old New World vegetables at that. Their incendiary presence has become central to many of the world's cuisines, from Thailand, China, and India to Africa and the Caribbean.

Unlike sweet peppers, hot varieties contain a highly pungent substance called capsaicin, which is the power behind such products as anti-mugger aerosols, warming back plasters, postmen's dog-dissuader sprays, and even powdered foot warmers. The hotter the pepper, the more capsaicin it contains, most of it concentrated in the membrane or rib. Removing both this membrane and the seeds can significantly reduce the overall heat level (see Cooking and Handling Notes). Among the more scientific methods for measuring a pepper's heat is the Scoville scale, developed in 1912 by Parke-Davis pharmacologist Wilbur L. Scoville. On this scale, jalapenos rack up 10,000 units, compared to the habaneros' grand total of 100,000. But most people can judge a pepper's heat simply by cutting off a sliver and touching it to the side of the tongue.

New Mexico is this country's main producer of chili peppers, followed by California, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Florida, and Colorado. Pepper addicts attribute all kinds of powers to their favorite scorchers, from lowering cholesterol to removing warts. While scientific evidence for these claims is lacking, we do know that for those who can stand the heat, capsicums provide six to nine times more vitamin C than tomatoes. But as Frederick Turner explains in Of Chiles, Cacti and Fighting Cocks, true addicts believe that their beloved capsicums "induce a sense of spiritual and physical well-being that transcends analysis."

Because there are more than 300 varieties of capsicums, we will describe only the most commonly available ones, though even these will vary by region. Your neighborhood greengrocer will be your best local guide. More information can be found in such specialized works as Elizabeth Schneider's Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables: A Commonsense Guide to Vegetables and Jean Andrews' Peppers: The Domesticated Capsicums.

The most common types include:
Anaheim: 5 to 8 inches long; green to red; mild to hot. Also called New Mexico chili or California chili.

Ancho: 3 to 6 inches long; green to black, often with red spots; mildly hot and sweet; a type of poblano pepper also called pasilla.

Banana: 2 to 3 inches long; tapered; red and yellow; mild to hot; the almost identical Hungarian wax chili is very hot.

Cayenne: 4 to 12 inches long; thin, sharp-tipped; red or green; very hot. Similar to the Thai pepper and the chile de arbol; may be substituted for jalapenos or serranos, which are less hot, and for the hotter habaneros.

Chimayo: 2 inches long; curved; very hot.

Habanero: 1 to 2 inches long; orange to green and yellow; reputedly the hottest pepper in the world!

Jalapeno: 2 inches long, cone-shaped; red to green; hot to very hot; often used raw.

Serrano: 2 inches long; green (immature) to yellow, orange, and red (mature); very hot; often eaten fresh.

Consumer and Cooking Guide

Market Selection
Commonly found sweet peppers include green, red, yellow, and purple bell peppers and pimientos. Hot peppers include jalapenos, Anaheims, anchos, poblanos, and serranos. All types should be glossy, unblemished, and firm.

Year-round; peak July through October

Refrigerate, unwashed, wrapped in plastic, for up to 1 week.

Flavor Enhancers
Cilantro, ground coriander, parsley, garlic.

1 medium bell pepper = 3/4 cup, chopped

Nutritional Value
Good source of vitamins A and C; 35 calories per cup

Cooking and Handling Notes
To roast peppers place whole peppers over a direct flame or in a preheated 400 degrees Farenheit oven and cook until skin is charred. Seal in a plastic bag and let cool. Peel under running water.

Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after working with hot peppers to remove their volatile and often abrasive oils from your skin. Wearing thin rubber gloves is an alternative. The seeds and veins of hot peppers should be removed, as they are the hottest parts of the pepper. (If you want your dish extra hot, do not remove.)

Warm Scallop Salad with Bell Pepper Dressing
serves 4

3 tablespoons butter or oil
1 tablespoon chopped shallot
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
1 pound sea scallops (halved if large)
1/2 cup toasted pecans, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
1 small tomato, seeded and chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon white-wine vinegar

Combine the dressing ingredients in a blender or food processor until smooth. Heat the butter in a skillet and saute the shallot and pepper until soft. Stir in the scallops and cook over medium-high heat for about 3 minutes, or until the scallops are cooked through. Stir in the pecans and season with salt and pepper. Toss with dressing and serve.

Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Soup
serves 4 to 6

6 large red bell peppers, roasted
2 tomatoes, roasted at 400 degrees F. in foil for 20 minutes
1 teaspoon fresh thyme (or 1/4 teaspoon dried)
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper
1 small yellow or green bell pepper, diced, for garnish

Seed the peppers and tomatoes and puree them. Pass them through a food mill to make smooth. In a medium saucepan, simmer the mixture with the thyme and chicken stock for 15 minutes. Add the cream and cook for 5 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot or cold, garnished with diced pepper.

Baked Peppers Stuffed with Confetti Couscous
serves 6

2 tablespoons butter
3 green onions, thinly sliced
1 carrot, chopped
2 teaspoons paprika
1 cup quick-cooking couscous
3 cups golden raisins
3 cup toasted pine nuts
3 cup minced fresh parsley
3 ounces goat cheese
6 small red, green, or yellow bell peppers, stem ends and seeds removed
Olive oil

In a saute pan, heat the butter. Saute the onion and carrot until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in the paprika and 2 cups water. Bring to a boil and add the couscous. Remove the pan from the heat and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes, or until the liquid has been absorbed. Stir in the raisins, pine nuts, parsley, and goat cheese.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Brush a baking pan with olive oil. Stuff the peppers loosely with the couscous mixture and sprinkle with olive oil. Place the peppers on the prepared pan and cover loosely with foil. Bake for 30 minutes; remove the foil and bake for 10 more minutes. Serve warm or room temperature.

Pick-a-peck-of-Peppers Barbecue Sauce
makes 2 cups

1 each red, green, and yellow bell pepper
1 Anaheim Pepper, roasted
2 to 3 jalapeno peppers
2 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon ground cumin
4 tablespoons firmly packed dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons vegetable oil

Use this sauce for basting fish, beef, or chicken. It will keep for about 2 weeks.

Remove the seeds and veins from all of the peppers. Place all of the ingredients in a food processor or blender and puree. Salt to taste. Store in the refrigerator in an airtight jar.

Jeannette & Louise are Bay Area freelance food writers and the authors of several books including Sweet Onions & Sour Cherries and A Good Day for Soup.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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