Capsicum annuum is the botanical name for what everybody else calls sweet peppers, bell peppers and chilli peppers, and is also the plant from which paprika and cayenne pepper is made. It is a shrub native to the Western hemisphere (e.g. Mexico, Central and South America) that is now being grown in many parts of the world and consists of many different cultivars. The seed as well as the plants are widely available in nurseries. The fruit is usually green and then ripens into colours ranging from red and yellow to purple and black. Although some other Capsicum species are perennials, the annuum species is reported to be an annual. Ornamental peppers are also grown from this plant.

Sweet peppers (or bell peppers or pimentos) are used with almost any other food that one can think of. They can be used in soup, pasta, salads, relish, sauces, stuffing for chicken and fish, grilled or baked on their own, sliced for edible garnish, and are especially useful to add to any stir-fry. Probably the best known dish is chilli con carne, made with beans, mince (ground beef) and chillies. They have the highest vitamin C content of all vegetables and fruit, even higher than lemons! Generally speaking green peppers taste, well, peppery, while red peppers taste milder, and yellow and orange taste quite sweet.

Chillies or hot peppers are also used in food, although some of them are very hot and caution is needed when handling them. The heat is due to an alkaloid called capsaicin which is concentrated mainly in the seeds so removing the seeds will result in less heat in the food. It is best to handle hot peppers with gloves. Do not touch your eyes, mouth, nose or even any place in your face if you have touched chillies with your bare hands. It really does burn ferociously and sensitive people may need treatment for chilli burns. The Scoville Index is most often used to indicate the relative heat of chillies, and according to this index, Habaneros are the worst.

When buying fresh peppers, it is important to select those with a tight skin and that feel firm to the touch. Wrinkles and soft spots mean they are old or have spent too much time in cold storage. Do not keep for more than one week in the crisper drawer and do not store in plastic wrap. Dried and preserved chillies last for ever (at least 15 years, in my experience!)

Sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Wikipedia, www.epicurean.com

Find lots of photos of different kinds of peppers at http://www.hear.org/starr/plants/images/species/?q=capsicum+annuum


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