By Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross
Extension Educator, Health & Human Sciences, Purdue Extension Elkhart County
GOSHEN — Fall is a great time of year to continue your healthy eating! Peppers are foods of color and they are nutrient dense foods. Now is the time and all through the fall to put more peppers in your healthy eating routine. This is a good year for peppers of all colors, sizes, and flavors. When I am teaching food and nutrition programs I encourage you to eat using MyPlate and in the process to eat foods of color or to eat a rainbow. Peppers are vegetables that not only provide lots of color, have lots of nutrients, but they can be prepared so many ways, and can also be preserved.
Now for your food/history lesson, all peppers whether sweet or hot, are members of the capsicum family and native to the New World. The plant that produces peppercorns, piper nigrum, is native to Asia and is not related. When selecting peppers choose ones that feel solid for their size and as a result have thick, meaty skin/walls, and they should be firm and shiny. Avoid peppers with soft spots or shriveled areas. Peppers are nutrient dense which means they have a lot of nutrition. Peppers are one of the best sources of vitamin C, higher even than oranges and grapefruit. When it comes to vitamins, peppers are also a good a source of vitamin A as carrots.
Pepper nomenclature is confusing, as it varies from county to county. In the United States the mild peppers are known as sweet peppers; hot peppers are known either as hot peppers or chilies. In Latin America hot peppers are chilies and mild peppers are pimientos. In the United Sates pimientos are just one variety of sweet red pepper. To add to the confusion, some varieties have several different common names.
So we divide peppers into two types of peppers: sweet and hot. Although it is sometimes difficult to distinguish by sight a sweet pepper from a hot one, it is generally true that the smaller the pepper, the hotter. However, weather, soil, and degree of maturity can affect capsaicin content, making one pepper hotter than another of the same variety; even peppers on the same plant can vary in their hotness. Chilies (hot peppers) have been put to medical use, particularly as a topical heat agent. Today many commercial liniments contain oleoresin of capsicum.
When working with hot peppers you need to protect your hands as well as your eyes and face. Over the years I have heard many wild and scary stories from some of you on how you were careless and ended up soaking your hands in cold water, milk or honey for a long time. Hot peppers really require that you wear gloves. I have written about my own personal hot pepper hand burning experience and I don’t want to experience that ever again and I am sure don’t want to either!
The most widely available sweet pepper is the bell pepper, named for its bell-like shape. Green bell peppers are the most common, but red, yellow, orange and even purple bells peppers are common. Many green bells become red with age and are sweet when red. I think the red, yellow and orange peppers are all sweeter than the green and the flavor is milder.
Regardless of the color all bell peppers have a mild flavor and a crisp, crunchy texture. Raw bell peppers add color and crunch to salads and raw vegetable assortments served with dips. Think about using the bell pepper as a container for your favorite dip or cheese spread. You can also cut in strips and spread the cheese spread on them, then they are easy for your family and friends to pick up and enjoy. They are also wonderful when stuffed with a meat and rice. Now is the time to enjoy the last of our fresh locally grown peppers!