The modern pepper, known as capsicum in the UK, received its name from overly optimistic Spanish explorers on the hunt for lucrative black peppercorn plants. Related to other nightshades such as potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant, the pepper family features a great diversity of flavors, colors, and shapes, as well as a host of nutritional and medicinal benefits.
Peppers have been cultivated for more than 9000 years, starting in the kitchen gardens of South and Central American civilizations. Mistaken (perhaps wilfully) by Spanish explorers for the coveted black peppercorn, the pepper plant was spread throughout the Americas and West Indies by traders and colonists, leading to the development of countless regional breeds. By the late 19th century, mild bell peppers were a fairly common ingredient in the United States, with early cookbooks listing recipes for both stuffed and pickled peppers.
All pepper varieties are excellent sources of vitamins A and C, as well as potassium, folic acid, and many antioxidants and carotenoids. Spicy peppers have been linked to lowering blood pressure, cholesterol, and inflammation.
Wrap unwashed peppers in a lightly dampened paper towel, seal in a plastic bag, and store in the refrigerator crisper for up to 5 days. Green peppers will last slightly longer than red or orange varieties.
Hollowed out peppers make ideal vessels for stuffing with grain, meat or other fillings, to be served cold or baked. Spicy peppers can be turned into relish or jelly, pounded into a paste, or steeped in oil. Sweet peppers can be sautéed or roasted over an open flame, and served with egg dishes, stir-fry, grilled meat, pizza, and pasta, or added to tomato soup for a more complex acidic flavor. Traditional dishes with peppers include Mexican fajitas, French ratatouille, Italian peperonata, and Greek gemista.
Cut bell peppers in half and remove seeds. Roast peppers over an open flame until blistered all over, then enclose in a sealed container while still hot. When peppers are soft, combine in a blender with walnuts, fresh garlic, cumin, paprika, olive oil, and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Blend until smooth, then season with salt to taste. Serve as a dip with crusty bread, topped with crumbled goat cheese if desired.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that bell peppers with four “bumps” at the base will be sweet, while those with three bumps are more bitter.