When Christopher Columbus discovered sweet peppers on his travels in the New World, he thought he could make a fortune importing the delicious vegetable. However, the sweet peppers grew fine in their new, Mediterranean home. They remain a popular ingredient in Italian and Spanish dishes today.
When young, sweet peppers - or bell peppers as some call them - are green. There are also yellow, orange, purple and brown varieties. Red sweet peppers are actually green peppers left to ripen on the vine for a longer period of time. The sweetest peppers are red, yellow and orange, while green and purple peppers tend to have a more tart flavor.
The Nutrition Factor
Peppers are full of vitamins C and A, as well as folate. They are also high in fiber. Peppers consist mostly of water so the added bonus is they are low in calories. Colorful bell peppers add appetizing appeal as well as nutrition and can be included on any diet menu.
One-half cup of chopped fresh bell pepper has only 15 calories. One pepper provides as much as 150-percent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of Vitamin C.
Red Bell Peppers High in Antioxidant Activity
A study of ten different vegetables, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, found that red bell peppers had the highest total antioxidant activity of those studied. Broccoli, carrots, spinach, Cabbage, yellow onions, celery, potatoes, lettuce and cucumber followed red bell peppers, in that order. According to the study, red bell peppers contain beneficial phytochemicals called phenolics and are also high in vitamin C.
Red Pepper Medicinal Uses
- Robert Collins (Kiple and King 1981: 164) wrote in 1854, "For the child and adult alike red pepper (particularly in the cotton south) was an important weapon of prevention, believed to keep at bay that langor and apathy of the system which renders it so susceptible to chills and fevers."
- Folk practitioners use it to treat arthritis, sore throats, colic, some types of diarrhea, and other medical ailments.
- Folk practitioners mention red pepper as placed in the shoes to prevent the chills, as a tea for the flu and for pain.
- Red pepper is now believed to act on circulation, affect digestion, and has significant antimicrobial properties (Chevallier 2000). Wechtl (2004) reported that the plant has demonstrated some efficacy in treating rheumatic diseases. Peirce (1999) reported that the burning sensation of red pepper does reduce the sensation of pain.
Picking a Pepper
Look for smooth, firm flesh that has rich color and no shriveled or soft spots. Avoid peppers with a hefty feel - this usually means they are full of seeds. Peppers are in the market year round but they are at their peak after Labor Day. They make great companions to the other vegetables and herbs of the season, like tomatoes or the last of the summer basil. You can store your peppers in the refrigerator, in a plastic bag, for about a week.
Bell Pepper Tips
- When you slice open a pepper, be sure your knife is firmly inside the pepper. This keeps the knife from bouncing off the rubbery surface.
- Bell peppers are green when immature but turn red, orange, and yellow or purple when fully ripe. No matter the color, they are good just sliced and eaten raw. Add sliced uncooked peppers to your relish dish or use as an hors d'oeuvre with your favorite dip.
- Always remove the cap and stem and scoop out the seeds (hands work fine as tools) unless you're planning to roast or grill or broil your sweet peppers whole. Scrap away the charred peel with a knife afterwards. Washing the peppers under running water dilutes their taste. If the peel is stubborn, you may wet your hands and then peel the skin off with your fingers.
- Pretty bell peppers can serve as edible bowls for a side dish of chicken salad or even potato salad. Cut the tops off and clean the insides; fill with salad.
- Store fresh peppers in the refrigerator for up to five days. You can also freeze sliced or chopped peppers for up to six months.
- A zippy dish is to saute colorful bell peppers: Take three large peppers, cut into one-half-inch strips. Add one-half-cup celery, finely chop a small onion and saute in 1-tablespoon olive oil for about eight minutes, or until vegetables are tender crisp. Sprinkle a few croutons on top with drippings of your favorite salad dressing.
- Use large, greased muffin pans as molds when baking stuffed bell peppers. The pans keep the peppers upright and spaced for more even baking.
Sweet peppers taste great with eggplant, tomatoes, summer squash, onions, garlic or corn. As for herbs, try basil or marjoram. Other good flavor partners include vinegar, capers, olives, mozzarella, goat cheese and Parmesan.
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