Published in Isthmus, the weekly newspaper of Madison, Wisconsin

September 24, 1999

Sweet as sugar


     "Sweet pepper" is a contradiction in terms, if you stop and think about it. Peppers, the hot pods from South America, were so named by Columbus for their peppercornlike pungency. The man was in search of East Indian spices, after all: These fiery fruits, soon a popular seasoning worldwide, fulfilled the spice agenda better than anyone could have anticipated.

     Peppers are piquant by nature; the genus name, capsicum, is thought to derive from the Greek kapto, to bite. But bell and other mild peppers which are specially bred to be free of capsaicin, the incendiary compound that gives chiles their zing fairly burst with sweet, subtle flavors.

     Take advantage of sweet peppers' peak season at the Farmers' Market right now, where you'll find locally grown red, yellow, and orange bell peppers, usually available only as expensive imports at the supermarket. "No red pepper starts out red," explains Jim Salzman, who grows a wide variety of colorful bell peppers at Jim's Greenhouse and Farm Market in Fall River; all bells begin as familiar-looking green peppers. Left on the plant long enough, they develop exciting new color and exquisite sweetness. "Gypsy goes from yellow to orange to red," says Salzman, indicating a pile of variously colored peppers, "and Sun Gold goes from bright green to a really bright red." Other bells glow purple and even an appealing deep chocolate color.

     After their green stage, bell peppers develop more vitamins, too: "There's 10 times as much Vitamin C in a red pepper as in an orange," says Salzman.

     Though Chile Acres specializes in hot peppers, Oskar Goga's selection of sweet ones is impressive, too. Sweet peppers nestle in woven baskets helpfully labeled by name, characteristics, and cooking tips: the squat, cherry red pimiento (you've seen pickled slivers of it stuffed into green olives), four inches across and resembling a small pumpkin; the smoky flavored Nandello; the stout, glossy Golden Marconi, which grows up to a foot long and is great fried or fresh; and the elegantly curly Corno di Toro, or "bull's horn."

     The mildly warm poblano, which looks much like a narrow, dark green bell pepper, works well stuffed with Monterey jack and cheddar in Mexican stuffed peppers (chile rellenos); Goga keeps copies of a simplified casserole recipe on hand.

     Sweet peppers can be cut in wedges for a crunchy raw snack, or cooked in soups and stir fries. My mother made her scrumptious Serbian filovana paprika by standing bell peppers upright in a casserole dish, stuffing them with ground meat and rice, pouring tomato sauce over and around them, and baking.

     When recipes call for roasted peppers, Goga has this tip: After roasting in oven or on stove top burner till the skin is blistered and black, place the peppers in a paper bag and roll the top shut. After a few minutes of steaming in the bag, the skin will come off easily. "Slit the side, scrape out the seeds, then use as recipe directs," says Goga.

     Fresh peppers don't keep long, especially once they've ripened into their brightest hues. Happily, though, they freeze beautifully. My husband, Don, has developed a system for keeping colorful bells on hand for cooking. Buy some bell peppers of each color you can find: green, red, orange, yellow, purple, brown. Wash. Cut out and discard stems and seeds. Slice into long strips ½" wide. Fill plastic zippered sandwich bags with a mix of colors. Zip shut and pack the little bags into gallon bags. Store in freezer. In the months ahead, you can pick a packet of peppers to enliven any vegetable dish with a rainbow of summer color.

     Sauteed peppers are heaven on grilled brats the tangy flesh lightens up this cookout standard. Try this easy, savory condiment at your next brat feast.

     --Vesna Vuynovich Kovach


Don's Brat Relish

  • 2 bell peppers: one green and one other color, sliced, or
  • one packet frozen multicolored pepper slices, as described above
  • one onion, sliced
  • 1-2 tbs. oil

     Heat a heavy frypan over medium-high heat. Add oil. Add peppers and onion. Cook, stirring as needed to keep from sticking, for about 15 minutes or until desired consistency is reached. "I like to cook it down into mush, so it sticks to the brat," says Don.

     Spoon generously over grilled brat (in bun) and top with your favorite mustard. A spicy whole-grained horseradish mustard sets off the combination nicely.

Sweet as sugar

"Sweet pepper" is a contradiction in terms, if you stop and think about it. Peppers, the hot pods from South America, were so named because....

Copyright 1999, 2000 by Vesna Vuynovich Kovach. All rights reserved.