For Whom the Bell Tolls
FOOD FOR THOUGHT - May 10, 2006 - Mark R. Vogel
Archive of other articles by Mark Vogel
Two decades ago while working on a psychiatric unit, I was engaged in a conversation with one of the schizophrenic patients about his vegetable garden. He mentioned that he grew bell peppers. Being completely culinarily and horticulturally ignorant at the time, I thought that green and red bell peppers were two entirely different plants. The patient chuckled at my naiveté and explained that red bell peppers were simply green ones that had ripened. He may have been psychotic, but I was the one out of touch with reality.
Bell peppers, like all peppers, belong to a large group of plants known as the nightshade family, which also includes potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant. Bell peppers are in the same genus as hot peppers but bell peppers however, have a recessive gene that eliminates their capsaicin, the substance that fuels the hot pepper’s fire.
Bell peppers originated in South America sometime around 5,000 BC. Bell and hot peppers were a mainstay in the native populations’ diet for millennia. Columbus is credited for bringing them back to Spain where they quickly were incorporated into the cuisine. In fact, because of their adaptability, they could be planted in a greater range of climates. This further expedited their assimilation into the culinary profile of numerous cultures.
Bell peppers, so named for their bell shape, are also known as sweet peppers. They possess a thick, sweet, and juicy flesh. They come in a rainbow of colors including green, red, yellow, orange, purple, black, white, and striped. The green and the purple tend to be the least sweet; almost slightly bitter, while the yellow, orange, and particularly the red are the most sweet. The green however, are almost always the cheapest.
Bell peppers are available year long although they are most abundant in August and September. California and Florida lead the way in domestic production. Choose peppers that have a firm, shiny skin, free of wrinkles, blemishes or soft spots. Store in the fridge in a bag for no more than a week. Bell peppers are high in vitamins C and A, but also contain B vitamins, calcium, iron, phosphorous, niacin, fiber, and beta-carotene, (especially the red ones).
There are so many things you can do with bell peppers I almost don’t know where to start. First of all, they are amenable to a wide variety of cooking methods but the dry heat methods, (sautéing, grilling, broiling, baking, etc.), produce the most intense flavor. Bell peppers can be julienned or chopped, and sautéed solo or in combination with any number of other vegetables as a side dish or topping. They’re good in salads and crudités platters where they add not only a crunchy texture but a dazzling array of eye-catching colors. They can be stuffed and baked, pureed into a sauce, finely chopped into salsas and chutneys, or dried and ground into a powder. Once pureed or dried and ground, they can be incorporated in multifarious preparations such as pasta and bread dough, vegetable dishes, risotto or rice pilaf, mayonnaise, vinaigrettes, etc. To dry bell peppers, remove the seeds and stem, cut into strips and place them into a 200 degree oven overnight. When dry, grind them in a spice grinder.
Peppers are frequently roasted first to remove their skins. If you add pieces of bell pepper to a dish and cook them, the skins will become detached. The fibrous skins will infiltrate your dish, making it taste like you sprinkled it with tiny magazine clippings. Removing the skins first by roasting them eschews this problem. Moreover, roasting the peppers intensifies their flavor. Remember, the roasted peppers will not need to be cooked as long as raw ones.
To roast peppers place them on a pan just underneath a fully heated broiler. As they turn black, rotate them. Or cut the peppers down their shoulders, (where the curved edges meet), and remove the seeds and stems to produce flat wedges of pepper. Place these pieces under the broiler and you needn’t worry about turning them. Peppers can also be roasted on top of the stove by simply placing them directly on the gas or electric burner or on the grill. Finally, they can also be briefly dropped in hot oil to detach the skin. Once roasted, place them in a sealed container to steep for a few minutes. This will facilitate the skin’s extraction
BELL PEPPER COUSCOUS
The different colored peppers in this recipe add a bright dimension for the eyes as well as the taste buds.
• Half a red bell pepper, finely diced
• Half an orange bell pepper, finely diced
• Olive oil, as needed.
• 2 tablespoon butter
• 2 cups water or chicken broth
• 12 oz couscous
• Salt and pepper to taste
Sauté the peppers in olive oil and butter until just soft. Meanwhile, start bringing the water or broth to a boil. Add the couscous, salt, and pepper to the bell peppers and sauté for another minute or two. Pour the boiling water over the couscous, cover, turn off the heat and let stand for five minutes. Fluff the couscous with a fork, taste for additional salt and pepper, and serve.