Pepper season is just beginning here in the Prescott area. Chiles, chili peppers, peppers, bell peppers—no matter the name, they are all fruit from plants of the same Genus: Capsicum. Capsicums are native to the Americas and are extremely popular worldwide in cuisine.
Fossil evidence shows prehistoric people from southern Peru up to the Bahamas were cultivating peppers 6100 years ago. Currently there are around 25 recognized species in the Genus, five of which are domesticated. There are thousands of cultivars of peppers.
Hot peppers contain the chemical capsaicin, which produces the burning sensation when eaten. This chemical is most plentiful in the placental membrane of the fruit that holds the seeds. Most mammals find the burning sensation unpleasant, however birds are unaffected, thus contributing to the spread of seeds. Peppers’ heat is measured on the Scoville scale, which rates a given pepper by units, a bell pepper having 0 and an extremely spicy pepper having over 2 million.
Peppers are an excellent source of vitamin C and vitamin A. They are also a source of vitamin B6, folic acid, potassium, and fiber. Red peppers contain lycopene, which is believed to help reduce the risk of certain cancers. Peppers are extremely versatile in the kitchen: roasted, smoked, dried, fermented, sautéed, pickled, stuffed, grilled, powdered for spices, infused in oils and liquors and pulverized for hot sauce.
Americans are familiar with bell, jalapeno, poblano, and cayenne peppers. Those looking to expand their repertoire should look to local farmers. Some pepper cultivars gaining in popularity on the farmers market scene? Lunchbox: a small, thumb-sized super sweet pepper perfect for snacking. Indian Bhut Jolokia (Ghost pepper): a super hot pepper that should be left to very experienced spicy pepper enthusiasts. Shishito: a Japanese pepper with great flavor and a little heat. Padron: a Spanish pepper with a lot of flavor and one in every ten is hot (Spanish roulette!)