Friday, January 28, 2005

Praising all peppers

Food for thought by Gregory Foley


Gregory Foley

As the mercury hovers around 32 degrees and fields of snow linger on the hillsides, many of us sustain a search for foods that warm our hearts and enliven our palates.

Peppers, those colorful bell- and bullet-shaped vegetables that bring life to any produce section, can easily make that search as short as a trip to the local market.

Peppers are one of the more misunderstood foods in our country. Many Americans associate the entire pepper family with the varieties they see and taste the most: green and red bell peppers. Otherwise, we tend to think of chile peppers, lumping all the varieties together as little fingers of fire that should only inhabit kitchens in the Southwest and Latin America.

In fact, peppers come in hundreds of varieties cultivated across the globe. They range in colors that span the rainbow and vary immensely in flavor, from soft and sweet to fiery hot. They can be used effectively in a wide range of cuisines, including European, Asian, Mexican and Southwestern. And, they can be obtained in many forms: fresh, dried, canned, pickled and powdered.

Many peppers, especially the sweet varieties, are highly nutritional. Eaten raw, they are low in calories and rich in vitamins A, C and E. Red peppers have considerably more vitamin C than citrus fruits, making them ideal for combating winter colds.

Peppers—which are not directly related to their kitchen counterpart of a related name, peppercorns—can be classified in two general categories: sweet peppers and chile peppers.

Sweet peppers include the ever-popular bell peppers and the Corno Di Toro, or bull's horn, an elongated variety from Italy.

Bell peppers are named after their shape and color, which ranges from red, orange and yellow to purple and black. All bell pepper varieties start out green. Some remain green and retain a somewhat sharp flavor, while others develop rich, bright hues as they mature and sweeten.

Bell peppers are typically available throughout the year. Domestic crops supply the market from spring to late summer and imported crops fill the gap in fall and winter.

With their firm, crisp flesh, sweet peppers can be sliced and added to stir-fries or salads, chopped and added to casseroles and relishes, or roasted, skinned and doused with olive oil.

Chile peppers are ideal for adding a burst of flavor to dishes with a mix of ingredients. Some are mild and ideal for stuffing; others are so hot they can literally burn one's eyes or skin.

Mild varieties include pepperoncini, which are typically served pickled, and Anaheim, which are preferred for stuffing, as is done for Mexican rellenos.

Medium-hot varieties include poblano peppers and Hungarian wax peppers, also called banana peppers.

While the jalapeño is perhaps the best known of the hot chile peppers, it is far from the hottest. Cayenne peppers boast intense heat when fresh, so are typically dried and added to soups, stews and sauces. Serrano peppers, which can be colored red or green, are often incorporated into Mexican cuisine. Habanero peppers, a small, orange variety, reign at the top end of the heat scale.

Of course, pepper recipes abound. On cold winter nights, I like to serve a warm pepper bruschetta—the Italian garnished-bread appetizer—to start a hearty meal.

Pepper Bruschetta Mélange

12 slices baguette-style bread
3 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, diced
3 peppers, 1 each red, yellow, and orange, cut into small matchstick slices
2 Tbsp. fresh basil, chopped
12 basil leaves, whole
Salt and black pepper, to taste

Brush the bread slices with 2 Tbsp. of the olive oil and toast or grill them lightly on each side. Set aside.

Place the garlic and shallot in the remaining 1 Tbsp. of oil. Add the peppers. Cook about 10 minutes over medium heat. Stir in the basil, add salt and pepper, and top the toasted bread slices with the mixture. Garnish with the whole basil leaves and serve. Makes 6 servings.

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