Peppers are native to America and didn't become known in Europe or Asia until the sixteenth century. Related to the tomato, they come in all shapes and sizes and range in flavor from very sweet and mild to so hot they can actually burn the skin. None of them is related to black pepper, which is actually the berry of an asian shrub, although red cayenne pepper, paprika, and prepared chile powder are all derived from native American peppers.
Sweet peppers include the commonly available bell pepper and thin-walled frying peppers. Chile peppers come in an enormous range of sizes, shapes, and degrees of heat - from very mild green chiles to jalapeños to fiery Scotch Bonnets (or habañeros). These and other varieties too numerous to name are used in Mexican and southwestern cooking, as well as in Indian, Chinese, Thai, and other Asian dishes.
Bell Peppers The green bell pepper, which is available year round at supermarkets all over the country, is a shiny, thick-walled sweet pepper shaped something like a bell. It has a sweet, refreshing flavor and a firm, crunchy flesh. California, Florida, and Texas are the biggest producers in the United States, but bell peppers are grown in almost every state.
Green bell peppers are simply immature versions of sweet red peppers. The red version is sweeter and more tender, and it spoils faster than the green pepper. It's also more expensive because growers get a lower yield of reds from each plant. At the end of the season, however, when they are coming on very quickly, ripe red peppers will be less expensive than they are during the rest of the year. Bell peppers that are green with red patches, usually called "suntans," have reached an intermediate stage. Very good and sweet, they're almost always the least expensive peppers on the market.
Cheese peppers, also called bull-nosed peppers, are simply a strain of bell pepper that has an extra-thick wall and a flattened shape. They are a superb all-round pepper that also makes an absolutely wonderful pickle. My mother made the best pickled peppers in the world.
Yellow, orange, white, and even deep purple varieties of sweet peppers - largely imports from Holland - are now showing up in most markets. These colorful varieties tend to be even sweeter and crisper than their green or red brothers, and they command premium prices. Holland has practically made their cultivation a national pastime, and it produces wonderful peppers - exceptionally crisp and sweet, with a very thick wall.
Frying Peppers Also called Italian frying peppers, Italianelles, or cubanels, these long, pale green peppers are sweet and tender and have a thin skin. They are usually either sautèed in olive oil stuffed and baked with the stems and seeds intact, as the seeds give the peppers their characteristic flavor and sweet taste.
Chile Peppers Generally, the tinier the chile, the hotter the taste, although there are no hard-and-fast rules. Even the same variety can be mild to hot, depending on local growing conditions. Jalapeños are the ones most often found fresh. Small and plump, with a pointed end, jalapeños range from an inch and a half to three inches long and from dark green to bright red. They are moderately hot to very hot. The smaller serranos, which are also dark green to red and shaped like little bullets, tend to be a bit hotter. They are usually added to sauces and cooked dishes, roasted, or pickled. Banana peppers, which are relatively large and yellow and range from mild to moderately hot, and fresh mild green chiles, which are large and pale green, are available in many markets. If you like the distinctive flavor of jalapeños but can't take the heat, try the mild green chiles, which have a similar flavor without the fire. Most other varieties - including the tiny hot peppers used in Asian cuisines - are either sold dry or are limited to specialty stores and ethnic neighborhoods. Handle all of them with care.
Bell peppers are excellent bought locally at the peak of the season in your area, but good-quality green bell peppers are available year round, and red sweet peppers nearly year round, although they're most abundant in the summer. The peak season in the United States is between July and November. Peppers are most expensive in midwinter and late spring. Those that are shipped any distance are always waxed to prevent loss of moisture and crispness.
Frying peppers are most abundant during your local growing season - the summer and fall months. Frying peppers out of Florida are available for a little longer into the fall, but shipments tend to taper off in the late winter and early spring, until the next crop comes in.
Chile peppers are a little harder to find. California jalapeños are available pretty much year round, but other varieties like long hot peppers and cherry peppers are easiest to find in season in your local growing area, about the same time local bell peppers are in season.
Whatever the variety, choose firm, crisp, shiny peppers with a good bright color and a green stem. They should be hard, not limp, with no wrinkles or withering or signs of mold. Those that have lost some crispness or are less than perfect can be fried or chopped and added to cooked dishes, but those that are to be stuffed or eaten raw should be top quality.
Refrigerated in the crisper drawer, peppers will keep for up to three or four days, but they will lose their crispness and get limp in fairly short order. Left at room temperature, they'll lose their crunch in a matter of hours. Don't wash until you're ready to use them.
Bell peppers should be washed, stemmed, and seeded. They can be sliced raw into salads, added to crudité platters, or used to make salsa. They are good stuffed and baked or added to meat loaf.
The stems and seeds should be left in frying peppers during cooking because they add a great deal to the flavor. To fry, simply sauté in a little olive oil until very tender, then remove the stems after they're done. A small seedpod will come away with the stem. Frying peppers are excellent stuffed with ricotta cheese and baked, but be careful handling them, as the walls are thin and will break or tear easily. Frying peppers are also a key ingredient in the classic Italian dish of sausage and peppers. A lot of people use bell peppers instead because frying peppers cook down and it takes more of them to get the same quantity cooked. But to my mind, the frying pepper is the only one to use for sausage and peppers. I don't think anything else compares to its sweet taste!
Handle hot chile peppers with extreme care, and wash your hands thoroughly after preparing them. Not only will the residue burn your lips and really burn your eyes if you touch them after handling peppers, but it will also transfer to other fruits and vegetables.
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