Pick a Peck of Palate-Pleasing Peppers
by Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely

Peppers of the Capsicum genus have outgoing personalities, often provocatively so-a riot of color as they ripen in the summer garden, excitingly spicy and sweet on the palate, and full of confusion in their various names and spellings.

These New World plants grew wild in their native Mexico and many parts of South America well before Europeans arrived. Christopher Columbus, who was looking for precious spices as he sailed west, confused the piquant red fruit with the black pepper that Europeans knew already. Undoubtedly he tasted a species of Capsicum and probably brought it back to Spain. He gave it the name pimiento in Spanish, making the connection with the familiar but botanically unrelated black pepper berry already called pimiento, and jumbling the two ever since.

The name chili, from the Aztec Nahuatl word for the Capsicum, is even more confusing. Whether it means the hot or sweet fruit changes from one time and place to another. Today in American usage, chili usually implies a hot pepper, with the plural chilies; British spelling is usually chilli, with chillies for plural. In Spanish the word is chile (chiles plural). Other spellings are chillie or chilly in the Far East, and there are regional variations in America that turn these upside down.

So, dear reader, now the nomenclature is perfectly clear!

Whatever the name, after the Spaniards brought it home, the enticingly spicy pepper quickly made its way through post-Columbian Europe, Africa, India, the Far East, the Pacific Islands and back to North America. Along the way it conquered them all, especially those with hotter climates. Where it does not appear is in the ancient world. Nor does Marco Polo make any mention of it in his late-13th-century accounts of the Far East.

Capsicum species are savored in all those regions of the world where the cuisines explore the complexity and dimensions of flavor beyond mere heat. That pungency is concentrated in the capsaicin located in the tissue of the white ribs and attached seeds inside the cavity. Cooks should take care handling this tissue and, for the hottest peppers, use gloves. Also, they should be extremely cautious afterwards not to touch any tender tissue or mucous membrane, especially around their eyes.

In regions such as Southeast Asia and Mexico, hot peppers are deeply embedded in the culture. People become tolerant to their heat through repeated exposure and experience, eating them raw and cooked; whole, sliced or chopped; also dried and flaked or ground. In general, smaller and redder peppers tend to be hotter, but it's important to taste them for the nuance flavor and not only the fire. Some fresh green peppers have herbal notes, while dried ones can have a raisin-like sweetness.  Smoked peppers give dishes an appealing depth of flavor.

To measure the heat, in 1912 American chemist Wilbur Scoville devised a scale that ranges from 0 for a bell pepper up to 15 million for pure capsaicin. The Anaheim or poblano pepper has about 500 to 2,500 units; japaleño about 2,500 on up to 8,000; serrano 10,000 or more; cayenne or tabasco 35,000 to 50,000; and Scotch bonnet 100,000 to 350,000 units. The bhut jalakia comes in at 855,000 to a million, said to be the hottest. Pepper spray, used for riot and animal control, measures 5 million units. But these cannot be reliable, as soils, climate and humidity affect pepper pungency, and the Scoville scale is used only in the United States.

And, yes, dear reader, in Texas there is a peter pepper, yellow or red in color, also known as the penis pepper, which you are not likely to find in farmers markets around Boston. Jean Andrews, in her comprehensively researched and beautifully illustrated book Peppers: The Domesticated Capsicums (University of Texas Press, 1984), writes that "this blistering berry is too hot to eat; therefore, it is classed as an ornamental, or should we say as a conversation piece for the gardener who has everything?"

With an American sense of sports humor, hot peppers somehow inspire chili cook-off contests. A friend of mine has a variation on this.  At his family's clambake rite-of-summer-passage in September, he assembles all the different varieties of hot pepper he can find in the greater Boston area. As he roasts them on a chili-dedicated grill-yellow, orange, red and purple lined up with care-aficionados queue up to taste them. They linger there discussing the relative shades and subtleties of the chilies' blistering flavor.

For those of us not yet initiated into that cult, there are many dishes around the world that highlight or include peppers both sweet and hot, raw and cooked, refined and robust. Besides enlivening the food of those regions, peppers supply very generous amounts of vitamins C and A to the diet, with few calories. Mexican salsa, pipérade from the French Basque or peperonata, its Italian counterpart, and Syrian muhammara are but a few examples of brilliant pepper side dishes that become the main point.

For serving appetizers, a whole bell pepper becomes a colorful container for a dip. Two or three rings of yellow, orange and red pepper around a pile of, say, bean or tuna salad dress the plate in an instant.  In hot summer, when peppers abound in gardens and farmers markets, contrasting several colors of them roasted, skinned, seeded and covered in olive oil or vinaigrette, keep for a long time in the refrigerator.  There they are ready to enliven a dish of vegetables, pasta, polenta, fish, chicken, whatever you will, with their extroverted personalities.


Roasted Pepper, Tomato and Onion Soup

Crab Salad with Bell Pepper and Mango

Cordero en Chilindròn (Lamb Braised with Bell Peppers and Tomatoes)

Bernard Pacaud’s Sweet Red Pepper Mousse

Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely's articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. Her cookbook, A Feast of Fruits, was published by Macmillan in 1993. Her dictionary, The Chef's Companion (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd edition), remains in print after 27 years. She was editor of The Culinary Times, published by the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe from 2000 to 2009.  Beth can be reached at elizabethriely@gmail.com.