Paying homage to the pepper
The long, strong days of sunshine are slipping away, and nighttime falls silent as the insects finish their summertime symphony. Every environmental cue carries one message to the plant world: FINISH WHAT YOU STARTED. If you haven’t bloomed yet, bloom. If you need to be pollinated—you better find a bee. If your seeds are ready, ripen and swell and change colors and split, fall or explode—whatever it is, make your play and get those seeds into the ground.
As temperatures start falling into the 50s and 40s, peppers of all shapes and sizes will suddenly and miraculously ripen to warm reds, brilliant yellows and oranges, and even a rich purple-black.
Hot peppers and sweet peppers are all part of the genus Capsicum, a diverse and established branch of the New World Nightshade family that has been stinging the human palate since 3500 BC. The flavor of Capsicum so reminded him of black pepper (Piper family, no relation) that Mr. Christopher Columbus himself dubbed New World peppers pimenta and pimentao.
By his arrival in 1492, peppers had already made their way throughout North and South and Central America, with regional cuisines cropping up to take advantage of their flavor and tenacity. Upon oral ingestion, capsaicin raises the heart rate and causes perspiration, which in turn discharges heat through evaporation and lowers the body temperature. Aside from this heat relief (and the flavor buzz), cooking with hot peppers retards the growth of harmful microorganisms at room temperature and under refrigeration. In a pinch, even a topical application of capsaicin has been reported to lessen the chance of infection.
Clever peppers have also harnessed the animal kingdom to do their bidding! When they mature, peppers transform from a dull green (that matches their foliage) to a brighter, eye-catching color. This is a signal to the animal world that the pepper is sweet and ripe (oh, and by the way, I need someone to move my seeds around for me, toots, and sure, wrap it up in something safe like manure, would ya?) But really the ideal seed-spreader would have a wider range than, say, a raccoon, and would just ingest the seeds whole (without grinding them too much). In fact, birds lack the pain receptor that registers capsaicin and they don’t have teeth, so they do the bulk of the seed spreading for peppers.
But what about sweet bell peppers? Aha. The sweet red bell peppers (and their immature counterparts, green bell peppers) carry a recessive gene that inhibits the formation of capsaicin. Their palatability to humans makes them the most widely cultivated and consumed pepper in the world; they need our protection to thrive, however, because they lack that certain something that keeps the varmints away.
Peppers can be eaten raw, lightly cooked, or fully cooked. They can be roasted, which also involves steaming, peeling, and de-seeding before use. Roasting is the best treatment for very firm peppers with a thick skin and thick flesh, like bell peppers and Carmen peppers. A mature red jalapeño can be smoked to become a chipotle; chipotles are most often found mixed into adobo sauce (which is a pureed tomato sauce). Peppers with thin flesh can be most easily dried, like cayennes and poblanos (the latter becoming an ancho when fully dried). From dried peppers come pepper flakes and chili powders of all sorts, plus taco and salsa mixes (and there’s no reason you can’t make that yourself). For home storage in an era of electricity, peppers can be cut and blanched and frozen, or cooked and pureed into a sauce that can be canned or frozen.—Lisa Reeder
Our kitchen columnist, Lisa Reeder, is an educator and advocate for local and regional food production in Central Virginia. She received chef’s training in New York and currently works in Farm Services and Distribution at the Local Food Hub.
Pepper survival guide
The best way to prevent pain and tissue irritation from spicy peppers is to wear rubber gloves when handling them—including harvesting or handling the whole peppers, which may have some capsaicin on the exterior.
When cooking with fiery peppers, practice PERFECT sanitation in the kitchen. That is, don’t touch anything but the food, and when switching between tasks clean the knife, the cutting board, and the counter and then wash your hands. If you are concerned about capsaicin, try using your nose to detect its presence on hands, apron, and dishes.
Because capsaicin is hydrophobic, washing with soap and water to combat a real scorcher is less than effective. Whether you ingest it, or it accidentally touched your face, your body, your pet or your child (not recommended) be prepared to flush the area with oil or milk (oil to bind to it and milk to neutralize it). If that isn’t practical, dip a paper towel in oil to swab the area, discard, and then repeat the process with milk. A set of un-spicy hands will really be useful when disaster strikes.
Uncertain of a pepper’s Scoville units, but willing to give it a whirl anyway? Start by leaving the pepper WHOLE and infusing a dish with it (a stirfry with rice, a soup, or perhaps a salsa). If the dish is too mild, split the pepper a little, stir it a few times, and then try. And while you are testing it, don’t let anyone eat the pepper!