The pepper plant’s origin is firmly rooted in the Americas, but the diversity of peppers has led to the spread of this vegetable throughout the world. In the 1400s, peppers made their way from Latin America to Spain, eventually reaching around the world and into Asian cuisine. From the humble sweet peppers, such as bell and pimento, to fiery chilis, each variety has its own unique culinary contribution.
The heat of peppers, which is perhaps the most significant difference in varieties, is measured by the Scoville Scale. Peppers are ordered on this scale based on the level of capsaicin, the chemical that creates the heat we feel when biting into a pepper. The heat is measured in Scoville Heat Units, or SHU. At one end of the scale, bell peppers sit at a sweet zero. On the other end are Ghost Peppers and Carolina Reapers reaching as high as 2 million. Each type of pepper can fall in a range of SHU based on how it is grown and when it is harvested.
Just as the variety of peppers is wide, so too are their effects on health. In the milder peppers, such as bell and pimento, antioxidants and vitamins abound. They also have a high water content, making them a filling and hydrating snack. As the peppers increase in SCH though, they begin to take on some less healthy characteristics as well. Extremely hot peppers can induce sweating, increase heart rate, create digestive discomfort, or even cause chemical burns to the skin and mouth. That is why it is important to be careful in handling chilis when preparing or eating.
To avoid harm when handling hot chili peppers, use gloves when chopping and avoid contact with your eyes until after removing the gloves. Even with comparatively mild chilis like the jalapeno or shishito, chemicals can still burn. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling these peppers, especially their seeds.
Fire Roasted Pepper
Roasted peppers can be purchased in a can from the store, but in the time it takes to locate them on aisle four, you could have made freshly roasted peppers right at home. To roast the pepper, you need a gas range and a pepper large enough to sit on the eye — habaneros for example will be too small, but this technique works perfectly for a bell pepper. Toss these roasted peppers into any number of recipes, several of which are listed below.
Wash pepper thoroughly and dry. Turn a gas eye on to medium heat. Place pepper directly on the eye so that the flames just lick the bottom of the pepper. The skin of the pepper will blacken. As this happens, use a set of tongs to turn the pepper until each side is blackened. Once the pepper is entirely black, remove the pepper from the stovetop and set aside to cool. Once the pepper has cooled, halve and use a paring knife to remove the seeds and the thin layer of blackened skin.
Roasted Pepper and Dill Soup
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup onions, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups roasted bell peppers
1 32-ounce container of broth of choice
1 tablespoon dill
¼ cup half-and-half
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large stockpot, warm oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic, sauteing until softened. Add the roasted bell peppers and broth and bring the mixture to a simmer. Using an immersion blender, blend the mixture until smooth. If an immersion blender is unavailable, transfer the mixture to a standard blender to puree, returning the soup to the pot when smooth. Add half-and-half, dill, salt, and pepper to the soup. Simmer for an additional 10 minutes to allow the flavors to get acquainted. Serve warm with a few slices of heavily buttered toast.
Roasted Pepper Pasta Sauce
The sweetness of the peppers and the umami of the Parmesan pair beautifully in this rich sauce.
½ cup roasted bell peppers
¼ cup heavy cream
1 garlic clove
¼ cup pasta water
1 teaspoon tomato paste
¼ cup freshly shredded Parmesan
Salt and pepper to taste
Place peppers, garlic, cream, and pasta water into a blender and blend until smooth. Transfer the mixture to a saucepan and warm on medium heat. Once the mixture begins to bubble, add tomato paste, salt, pepper, and Parmesan. Stir to combine and reduce the heat to medium low. Allow the sauce to cook an additional 5 minutes or until it begins to thicken. Toss with your preferred pasta and garnish with fresh basil.
Kung Pao Stuffed Bell Pepper
Kung Pao Chicken is a traditional Chinese dish featuring two types of peppers: bell and Sichuan. The bell peppers bring a sweet flavor and crunchy texture while the Sichuan chili peppers add heat to the sauce. This recipe is a spin on the traditional dish. Instead of cooking the bell peppers alongside the chicken, the chicken and rice will be stuffed into the bell pepper for a lovely presentation.
4 large bell peppers
4 cups of chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon dry sherry
3 tablespoons soy sauce, divided
2 teaspoons and 1 tablespoon cornstarch, divided
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar or Chinese black vinegar
1½ tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 dried Sichuan peppers
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
5 stalks of green onions
½ cup roasted peanuts
2 cups of cooked white rice
Whisk the sherry, 1½ tablespoons soy sauce, and 2 teaspoons cornstarch together. Toss the chicken in the marinade and set aside while preparing the sauce. To create the sauce, combine remaining cornstarch and soy sauce, vinegar, brown sugar, and sesame oil. Set aside.
Cut the Sichuan peppers into 1-inch pieces, allowing the seeds to fall out. Discard seeds. Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add Sichuan peppers, garlic, and ginger. Heat until the mixture becomes fragrant, approximately 2 minutes.
Slice the green onions into thirds. Using the middle section, slice further into 1-inch pieces. Add small green onion pieces and marinated chicken to the pan, being sure not to crowd the pan. This may need to be done in several rounds depending on the size of your skillet. Stir occasionally until chicken is cooked through. Add the sauce and stir to coat the chicken. Continue cooking until the sauce has thickened a bit, approximately 4 minutes. At this point, for a less spicy dish the Sichuan peppers can be removed. Toss in the roasted peanuts.
Cut the top from each bell pepper, removing the stem, seeds, and pith. Spoon ½ cup of rice into the bottom of the pepper and fill the rest of the pepper with the Kung Pao chicken. Serves 4.
2 pounds cheddar cheese
¼ cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon garlic salt
1 4-ounce jar of pimentos, drained
Shred the cheddar cheese. It’s important to shred your own instead of buying pre-shredded. Strain the liquid from the jar of pimentos. Stir together all ingredients. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before enjoying.
Blistered Shishito Peppers
Whip this up for a quick appetizer for friends or snack to enjoy solo.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds shishito peppers
Heat oil in a cast-iron skillet over medium high heat. Once it begins to shimmer, add peppers. Flip peppers occasionally until they begin to blister and blacken. Remove from skillet, sprinkle with salt, and enjoy right away.
Reaching for standard chili powder may be the easiest way to season chili, but incorporating whole chili peppers into this stew provides more control over the specific flavors desired. In this particular recipe, guajillo chili peppers bring the heat with a score of approximately 2,000 on the Scoville Scale. Chipotles, which are actually dried jalapenos, contribute a smoky flavor. The ancho chili peppers are less spicy and add a faint sweetness to the dish. These ingredients can easily be found in the Latin section of a grocery store or at your local Mexican grocer.
4 cups chicken broth
2 dried guajillo
2 chipotle in adobo sauce
3 dried ancho
3 pounds ground beef
2 15-ounce cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion
4 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon oregano leaves
2 bay leaves
Heat the broth in a large stockpot on high. While waiting for the broth to boil, remove stems and seeds from dried guajillo and ancho chilis. Discard stems and seeds. Place the chili peppers into a blender. Once the broth has boiled, pour it into the blender with the chilis and allow it to soften the dried chilis for 20 minutes. At the end of the 20 minutes, add the chipotles and blend until smooth.
While waiting for the chilis to soften, proceed with building the rest of the chili. Pour oil into stockpot used to heat the broth and heat on medium. Add the onion, garlic, and tomato paste. Saute until the onions begin to brown. Add ground beef and cook through. Strain off about 60 percent of the fat released from the beef. Return the broth and chili mixture to the pot along with beans, oregano, and bay leaves. Turn the heat to high and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for another 3 hours. Remove bay leaves before serving. Spoon a healthy serving into a bowl and top with sour cream and/or freshly shredded cheddar cheese.
Pickled Habanero Peppers
2 cups habanero peppers, sliced into rings
3 garlic cloves
1 cup water
1 cup white vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
Slice habanero peppers into rings, removing seeds for a less spicy pickle. Pack a sanitized canning jar with the peppers and garlic cloves. Combine water, vinegar, salt, and sugar and bring to a boil. Pour the mixture over the peppers and seal. Store in the refrigerator for up to a month.