My closest friend threw a yellow pepper at me the other day. Really. “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” she hollered. She’s pregnant, and her husband has taken over the vegetable shopping. Seduced by the alluring colors and neat packaging he sees at their local Namdharis store, he stocks their refrigerator with heaps of vegetables in a bid to get her to eat healthier food. Problem is, the exotic veggies he picks up aren’t really native to Indian cuisine, so other than sticking them in a salad, my friend doesn’t know what to do with them. Result: a plethora of expensive, shriveled up vegetables in the bottom of her fridge. So, this series is for you, M.
Peppers And More
The brightly colored green, red, yellow, and orange peppers we see on sale here in Bangalore are locally referred to as “capsicum.” This is a misnomer; “capsicum” is a large genus of plants that includes practically every variety of chilli we know. The correct name for them is “bell peppers” – these are the only members of the capsicum family that do not contain capsaicin, the substance that causes the burning sensation we identify with all other chillies. This is why they are also often referred to as “sweet peppers”. Oh, and by the way, technically, they aren’t even veggies – they’re fruits.
Bell peppers originated in South America and were carried throughout the world by the Portugese and Spanish explorers. It’s thought that the seeds of the bell pepper can be traced to a wild variety of the plant that dates back to 5000 BC.
Some people – myself included – dislike green peppers, but enjoy the taste of red peppers. This is because green peppers are more bitter than red, yellow, or orange peppers. Although the color does vary with specific cultivars, taste and color are both primarily a function of when the fruit is harvested; it sweetens and turns red as it is allowed to ripen fully on the vine. As with most fruit, a pepper that is harvested green and allowed to ripen in storage will not be as sweet as one allowed to ripen naturally.
Nutritionally, bell peppers are a goldmine. They are low in calories (about 25 calories per cup). Gram for gram, green bell peppers contain twice as much and red bell peppers contain three times as much vitamin C as orange juice. They are fat- and cholesterol-free. They are rich sources of vitamin A.
Buying and Storing
Buying bell peppers is a cinch. Look for brightness of color and taut, unshriveled skin; make sure there are no soft spots, blemishes, or dark blotches and patches. If the stems are still attached, these should be green and fresh looking. Weigh the pepper in your palm. It should feel heavy, and should be firm enough to gently yield to slight pressure. Misshapen peppers do not affect their taste, and will only present a problem from an aesthetic point of view if you wish to serve them whole.
Unwashed bell peppers will keep in the vegetable compartment of your refrigerator for up to a week. They can be frozen – but doing so degrades their nutrient content and texture. Use this option only if you wish to use them for soups or stews.
And Finally… Food Ideas
So what can you do with bell peppers? Almost anything. Use them raw as crudités, a salad addition, or diced, as a colorful topping for a dip. Slice or dice and fry them, then stir them into anything from an omelet to pulao to pasta. Roast them, and you can add pizazz to pizzas, or whip up tapas, soups, and spreads in a snap. You can stuff them and bake them. My top three suggestions:
1. Stuff ’em: Take six bell peppers, any color, slice off their tops, and remove seeds. Steam for five minutes and allow to cool. Make a small quantity of white sauce, and mix in (just enough to moisten) any combination of the following: sweet corn; rice; pulao; cooked mince; cooked potato; cooked paneer; shredded boneless chicken. Use leftovers! Be creative! Have fun! Top with a sprinkling of grated cheese, arrange in a baking pan, and pop in the oven. Cover the pan with foil. Bake at about 180°C until hot. Serve.
2. Roast ’em: Fire roast three different colors (here’s how to do it). Then, slice. Salt. Soak in extra virgin olive oil. Eat on a crusty French bread whenever you suffer a snack attack. Toss with al denté spaghetti and roasted garlic. Or, serve as part of a tapas platter. Restaurants charge big bucks for this stuff, you know!
3. Make soup: Dice and sauté with diced onions, zucchini, and celery. Then puree, add chicken or vegetable stock to thin to desired consistency, and season to taste. Serve hot or cold.