The bell pepper is actually a chili pepper, which explains the frequent confusion between the two terms, especially as pepper is called sweet pepper in English, piment doux in Quebec, pimienta in Spanish, and peperone in Italian.
Native to Bolivia, the chili pepper spread to South America, Central America, and Mexico. Based on remains found in a cave in Tehuacán in Mexico, it has existed for at least 7,000 years. It was discovered in Cuba by a doctor accompanying Christopher Columbus on his journey in 1493. Seeing and tasting the red berries, they thought they were red peppercorns and they had reached the Indies! Even after the mistake was realized, the name continued to mean the sweet fruit of the bell pepper plant. On his return, Christopher Columbus introduced chili pepper seeds to Europe, and the Spanish and the Portuguese went on to spread this fruit around the world.
Over the centuries, the chili pepper has been subject to selective breeding, which has led to the many varieties we know today, offering flavors from very mild (bell peppers) to very hot (chili peppers). The bell pepper has long been a fairly rare vegetable, not overly popular due to its unique flavor. New varieties appeared, genetically selected to remove a portion of the capsaicin, which led to this becoming a common vegetable, widely consumed around the world. The pepper plant is perennial in tropical regions, where it grows throughout the year, while it is an annual plant in temperate regions.
Choose a pepper that is firm, unblemished, without any bruising, with a glossy skin, and a bright color. Peppers that are slightly soft and feel light in the hand are not fresh.
Red peppers are the sweetest, the yellow one juicier, the greens fruitier, but also a little bitter.
China, Mexico, Turkey, Spain, the United States, the Netherlands, Romania, Morocco, and Hungary are the main producers of peppers.
Fresh peppers are sold all year round.
Frozen, whole or chopped, green, yellow, red: they come from one of the major producing countries.
They are also sold in jars: roasted, broiled, and preserved in oil.
Before use, it is preferable to remove the skin from peppers. Several methods can be used: 10–20 minutes in a very hot oven to blister the skin, which can then be removed, or the skin can be blistered using a blow torch. This operation eliminates the vitamin C along with the skin. Simply peeling peppers using a peeler is faster and nutritionally better.
Next, the peppers are opened and the seeds and white filaments discarded.
Raw: bell peppers are used as an ingredient in many salads: niçoise or Algerian salads, for example.
Cooked peppers can be broiled, baked, steamed, or stuffed.
Many typical Mediterranean dishes use bell peppers: ratatouille in Provence, piperade in the Basque Country, gazpacho and paella in Spain, caponata in Italy, and especially in Sicily, goulash in Hungary, fried and marinated in olive oil in the Maghreb.
Recipes cooked in a Basque, Andalusian or Mexican style usually contain bell pepper.
Raw peppers will keep for several days in the refrigerator. Cooked peppers are more fragile and will keep for a maximum of 24 hours.
Pepper pulp can be stored (peeled, seeded, and cooked) in a jar with olive oil.
Bell peppers contain more vitamin C than any other fresh vegetable. In fact, this vegetable was where vitamin C was first discovered by a Hungarian researcher in 1932.
It also contains carotene and vitamin E, and so offers the perfect antioxidant trio to protect against cardiovascular diseases and certain cancers.
The carotene content of peppers increases with the color: red has the most, followed by yellow,and finally green has much less.
But pepper is often indigestible, unless it is seeded, peeled, and cooked.
The slightly spicy flavor of pepper comes from capsaicin and capsinoids. These substances create a hot flavor and have the advantage of stimulating digestive secretions but also irritate the mucous membranes. Chili peppers are very rich in these substances. In bell peppers, they are mostly found in the seeds (removed during peeling) in the skin and slightly in the pulp.
Although a summer vegetable (the season runs from June through October), bell peppers are sold all year round, as they can be grown in a greenhouse or imported.
There are several varieties, which are classified into three groups, depending on the shape of the fruit and not its color: green peppers, whatever the species, are always peppers harvested before maturity.
Square or cubic bell peppers: the flesh is thick and firm. They dominate the market in Europe.
American sweet bell pepper, yellow, red, or green, with four well-defined lobes, the most common. Grown in open fields in the United States and Italy, and in greenhouses in the Netherlands. It can be found throughout the year.
Spanish sweet square bell pepper, red, longer fruit (July through October).
Asti square bell pepper, red or yellow, three lobes (July through October).
Twingo, yellow (July through October).
Purple bell pepper from Holland: turns green when cooked.
Rectangular peppers: wide, quite long, sometimes almost flat. They are red, and most often from Spain, Italy when they are yellow, Eastern Europe when yellow or cream, France when green.
Lamuyo, red, the most common (July through October).
Nikita, creamy white (July through October).
Valencia pepper, green, red, or yellow, less well-defined lobes, less flavor (July through October).
Triangular peppers: less common in Europe, green, yellow, or red, smooth, thick flesh.
Also called "horn" peppers, they are widespread in Asia and Africa.
Landes sweet pepper, green, very long and narrow (June through October).
Algiers sweet pepper (Doux d'Alger), thin and bumpy walls.
Pimiento del Piquillo, produced in Lodosa, Spain. Red, fleshy, 8–10 cm long. Protected by a PGI.
Although long dominated by the square pepper, the North American market has now expanded to include elongated varieties: Cubanelle, Bull's horn (or Cow's horn), banana chili pepper, and sweet Cayenne, and also by miniature peppers in various shapes.
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