Peppers: Taste the Rainbow

by The Gilded Fork

a test kitchen dossier

The chile, it seems to me, is one of the few foods that has its own god.
— Diana Kennedy

Foodstuff: Pepper

Etymology: “Pepper” from the Latin piper; “chile” from the Nahuatl (Aztec) chiltecpin

Area of Origin: Tropical South America

Description
No matter how old we get, as June approaches we all dream of a long, leisurely summer vacation. Staring out of that office window, stuck in traffic, or with our arms deep in dirty dishes, we imagine endless beaches and fiery sunsets, crowded piazzas and dusky churches, or vibrant markets and colorfully painted houses. Whether our fantasy vacations take us to tiny Grecian villages or the luxurious resorts of the Amalfi Coast, as our minds travel, our mouths water for exotic, exciting, authentic cuisine. This month’s featured ingredient is designed to help you shake off your winter doldrums and shake up your dinner routine. Chile peppers are by their nature exciting – you never know quite what you’re going to get. And while bell peppers lack their siblings’ fierce presence, their subtle sweetness, mild acidity and beautiful colors brighten up the plate and the palate. Best of all, peppers can be prepared in dozens of different ways, each technique subtly altering their taste and texture until you are certain that you have tasted a thousand different ingredients plucked from markets around the globe, rather than one underappreciated vegetable (well, fruit, actually – but more on that below).

Food Science
Peppers are a member of the Nightshade family, which also includes potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant. You may already know that all members of the Nightshade family are technically fruits. Yes, even peppers; but these botanical fruits tend to be treated like vegetables once they enter the kitchen.

While chile peppers and bell peppers are very closely related, they are obviously distinguished by one important characteristic: Bell peppers have a recessive gene which prevents them from producing capsaicin, the most influential heat-providing compound in chile peppers. Capsaicin is present in the membrane of chile as well as the tissue which surrounds the seeds. While the seeds themselves don’t contain any capsaicin, they can absorb it from their surroundings, so you should still be careful when handling them.

Ever wonder why eating your favorite curry sometimes makes your tongue tingle pleasantly, and other times makes you feel like someone tricked you into swallowing a hot coal? Chile peppers aren’t just exciting because they’re spicy; eating them is a constant surprise, because there is no practical method for determining their relative spiciness other than taking a bite. Each chile pepper is a mystery, because its heat is determined by two factors: its genetic makeup and the environment in which it was grown. The apple may not fall far from the tree, but each little pod on a chile plant can have a different level of spiciness.

If you find yourself facing a dish too fiery for you to handle, don’t bother reaching for a glass of water. The best way to get the burning sensation to stop is to drink milk, eat yogurt or another dairy product, because casein, a milk protein, can disrupt the reaction which causes the burning sensation. If you’re preparing chiles and your skin begins to burn, wipe the area with rubbing alcohol, then soak it in milk. If it gets in your eyes, the only thing you can do is rinse with water or saline. As anyone who has accidentally wiped their eyes (or other sensitive bits) after cleaning chiles can tell you, it’s probably a good idea to wear disposable gloves when handling any of the spicier varieties.

History
Peppers have a somewhat confusing culinary history. While we know that they originated somewhere in Latin America, experts disagree as to exactly where. When Columbus made his first voyages to North and South America, his mistaken belief that he had landed in the “spice islands” created other confusions as well. Some culinary historians believe that Columbus went searching for peppercorns, discovered chile peppers and decided that he had found what he was looking for. Others think that Columbus was simply trying to capitalize on the peppercorns’ popularity. Columbus brought chile peppers, bell peppers and several other members of the Nightshade family back to Europe; from there, Portuguese traders spread them along the coasts of present-day Africa, India, Asia, China, the Middle East, Central Europe and Italy. Areas which already consumed a lot of highly spiced foods — such as present-day Asia and India — very quickly incorporated chile peppers into their local cuisines; so quickly, in fact, that until the 1900s chile peppers were widely believed to be indigenous to Asia and India. Bell peppers were more closely associated with potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant, and they were quickly assimilated into an enormous variety of cuisines. The bell pepper’s beautiful colors probably had as much to do with its universal appeal as its unique and pungent flavors.

Varieties of Peppers

Bell peppers
Cultivation methods determine whether bell peppers are red, yellow or orange. Green bell peppers are simply unripe, so some people seem to have difficulty digesting them. Peppers can be eaten raw, blanched, sautéed, roasted, steamed, stuffed and fried. To prepare, remove the stem, seeds and the white colored flesh inside the pepper. To remove the skin, peppers can either be broiled, placed directly on a gas burner or immersed in hot oil until the skin blisters. You can then cut the pepper into thick slices and use the back of a knife to scrape off the skin.

Chile peppers
First, lets get something straight: “Chile” refers to the edible pods of any member of the Capsicum species, while “chili” is a Tex-Mex dish generally consisting of chile pepper, beans, tomato and ground beef. Depending on your viewpoint, there are either a few varieties of chile peppers, or hundreds; aficionados may have dozens of favorites for different heat levels, uses and flavor profiles. In general, red chile peppers (simply green chile peppers that have been allowed to ripen on the vine) are usually dried and ground or crushed. Green chile peppers are usually roasted and peeled and used to prepare relishes, sauces, stews and Chile Rellenos. A few newer species of chile peppers that are particularly good for stuffing and roasting include the Anaheim chile, which is fairly mild, the Hatch chile and the Slim Jim chile, both of which are medium-hot. (Don’t get Chef Mark started on the favorite fruit of his native New Mexico…he can go on for hours.)

Recipes

Calabacitas
Roasted Garlic & Red Pepper Hummus
Sicilian Sausage and Peppers
Grilled Chicken Ciabatta with Roasted Pepper Duo
Roasted Pumpkin & Vegetable Medley with Creamy Polenta
Pumpkin Flan with Ancho Chile Brittle
Embrace Cocktail
Peppers Stuffed with Roasted Vegetables, Halloumi & Pine Nuts
Theobroma Cocktail
Spicy Artichoke Spinach Dip
Shrimp Ceviche

Sources
The New Mexico State University Chile Pepper Institute
Cross Country Nurseries
New Mexican Chile
The Historical Journey of the Chile
The World’s Healthiest Foods

Dossier by China Millman

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