Peppers have been chosen “Herb of the Year” for 2016 by the International Herb Association. The IHA is a professional trade association providing educational, service and development opportunities for those involved in herbal endeavors. The Herb of the Year is chosen based on being outstanding in at least two of the three major categories: medicinal, culinary, or decorative.
Peppers belong to a genus of flowering plants in the nightshade family which includes many other vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant. The common name “pepper” is based on the similar flavor to black pepper although there is no botanical connection; however chile pepper has replaced black pepper as the world’s most important and most used condiment. Native to the Americas and cultivated for thousands of years, Peru has the highest cultivated diversity, but India is the world’s largest producer.
There are over 20 species in the genus Capsicum, but nearly all the cultivated varieties belong to one of five species – C. annuum, C. baccatum, C. chinense, C. frutescens, and C. pubescens. C. annuum is the most important species with more than a thousand named cultivars including the sweet bell peppers, paprika and most of the familiar hot chile peppers such as Anaheim, ancho, jalapeno and chipotle. C. baccatum is the only pepper species with spots on the flower petals and most of the peppers grown and eaten in South America belong to this species. C. chinense varieties are well known for their exceptional heat. C. frutescens includes very few varieties of chillies but it does include that most famous pepper of all – cayenne pepper. The C. pubescens species is quite different from all other domesticated species of peppers with its hairy leaves and a strong, peculiar pungency which results in it being the least cultivated. The fruits of the genus Capsicum can vary tremendously in color, shape, and size both between and within species.
Commonly referred to as “sweet” or “hot,” some use piquant (spicy) - peppers that bite back are piquant and mild peppers are non-piquant. Capsaicin is the ingredient that gives peppers their characteristic bite and varies among types, with the growing conditions and even between fruits on the same plant. Ranked in Scoville Heat Units, bell peppers get a zero and the world's current hottest known pepper at over 2,200,000. Most of the capsaicin is located in the interior tissue of the pepper, where the seeds are attached and can be rendered less piquant by slicing in half and scraping out the seeds and membranes with a spoon – be careful as capsaicin can burn the skin and irritate the eyes.
Peppers can be eaten raw or cooked and are particularly appreciated because they can enliven otherwise monotonous diets. Varieties of C. annuum and C. frutescens are generally used in cooking, though a few others are used as well. They are suitable for stuffing with fillings, roasted whole or in pieces, chopped and incorporated into salsas or other sauces, of which they are often a main ingredient. They can also be preserved in the form of a jam, or by drying, pickling, or freezing. Dried peppers may be reconstituted whole, or processed into flakes or powders. Pickled or marinated peppers are frequently added to sandwiches or salads. Frozen peppers are used in stews, soups, and salsas.
In addition to use as spices and vegetables, Capsicum species have other uses. Capsaicin aids digestion and appetite, seems to lower blood sugar and cholesterol and reduces blood clotting. Topical applications are used as pain relievers. Concentrated pepper sprays are used as defensive repellents by mail carriers and police. Organic gardeners use pepper sprays to protect crops from rabbit and deer damage plus as a natural insecticide.
Baked Peppers Au Gratin: Cut 8 large bell peppers in various colors into 1/2 inch wide strips. Coat a roasting pan with 1/3c olive oil. Add the peppers, 1/2c breadcrumbs, 1/2c chopped fresh parsley, 1 minced garlic clove, 2Tbs parmesan cheese, salt and pepper and toss to coat in oil. Roast at 400 degrees for 30 minutes.
Red Pepper Hummus: Combine 1-15oz can drained chickpeas, 1c roasted red peppers, 2Tbs fresh lemon juice, 3 cloves garlic and 1/2c plain yogurt in a food processor until smooth. Add salt & pepper to taste.
Stuffed Pepper Soup: Brown 2lb ground beef with 2 chopped green peppers and 1 chopped onion, drain and place in crockpot. Add 2 (29oz) diced tomatoes, 2 (14oz) beef broth, 1c uncooked white rice plus 2Tbs chopped fresh parsley, salt and pepper. Cook on low for 4-6 hours or until rice is cooked and flavors are blended.
Pepper Relish: Combine 8c chopped banana peppers, a green bell pepper, a red bell pepper and 4-6 jalapeno peppers and 2Tbs salt and let stand two hours and drain. Combine 3c sugar, 3c cider vinegar, and 1tsp mustard seed in a large saucepot. Cut two slits in 2 additional jalapeno peppers and add to vinegar mixture. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and add chopped peppers, simmering 10 minutes. Remove whole jalapeno peppers. Pack hot relish into sterilized jars and water process for 10 minutes in boiling water.
Stuffed Jalapeno Peppers: Mix 2 8-oz pkgs cream cheese, 4 minced garlic cloves, 1/4c finely chopped sundried tomatoes, 2Tbs chopped fresh cilantro and 1/2tsp coarse sea salt until well blended. (Mixture can be frozen for up to 2 months) Slice 12-24 large jalapeños lengthwise, being careful not to slice them in half. Then slice at the top along the width of the pepper just about a quarter inch below the base of the stem until you cut through the core, again being careful not to cut completely through the pepper. Remove the seed webbing with a paring knife for a lot less heat. Partially cook 1lb of bacon and set aside on paper towels to cool. Fill plastic bag with cream cheese mixture, cut a corner and fill each pepper then wrap with a strip of bacon and secure with toothpick. Place on cookie sheet and place in 350 degree oven until bacon is crisp. Let sit 5-10 mins and serve.
Sweet Corn Pepper Salsa: Cut the kernels from the 4 fresh corn ears. Mix with 1 diced red pepper, 1 minced jalapeno pepper, 1 chopped bunch of cilantro, 1 small chopped red onion, 3 minced garlic cloves, 1/2c fresh lime juice, 1/4c wine vinegar, 1/4c olive oil plus salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour to develop the flavors.
Easy Oven Fajitas: Mix the fajita seasoning in a small bowl – 1Tbs chili powder, 2tsp paprika, ½ tsp onion powder, ¼ tsp garlic powder, ¼ tsp cumin, ⅛ tsp cayenne pepper, 1 tsp sugar, ½ tsp salt, 2tsp corn starch and set aside. Cut the 1 large onion and 2 medium bell peppers into ¼ to ½ inch wide strips and place them in a large 9×13 inch casserole dish. Slice 1lb chicken breast into very thin strips and add it to the vegetables, then sprinkle with the seasoning. Drizzle 2Tbs vegetable oil over everything and then toss until everything is well coated. Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, stirring once half way through. Squeeze the juice of a lime over top of the meat and vegetables after it comes out of the oven. Scoop mixture into the center of 8 tortillas and top with a dollop of sour cream or guacamole.