Red bell peppers are hot. Well, not hot actually. Not like fiery red chilies. Hot as in popular or trendy.
In fact, the word pepper can be confusing. Sweet peppers -- also called bell peppers -- are botanically related to chilies yet are quite different in their usage.
Sweet peppers can be used in large quantities in a dish such as in stuffed peppers. Paprika is made from dried sweet red peppers. Chilies, on the other hand, are prized for their hot, spicy qualities. The potent ground cayenne pepper is made from dried chilies.
Once considered exotic, sweet red peppers are turning up in supermarkets and restaurants and on home dining tables. Believe it or not, someone has even created a recipe for red bell pepper ice.
Actually, the sweet red pepper is nothing more than the mature stage of the green pepper. It's easy to get them: Leave the green bells on the plant until they turn a rich, bright red. In the process, their taste becomes milder and sweeter.
Another benefit is that the longer time in a sunny field increases the vitamin A in red peppers to about 10 times the amount in the average green pepper. (There are 5,700 units of vitamin A in 3 1/2 ounces of red pepper. The recommended daily allowance is 530 units.)
The red ones are just a little higher in calories -- about 51 for a whole red pepper as compared to about 36 calories for a whole green pepper. So they're still a diet-worthy item.
Consumers also can find yellow peppers, purple peppers and brown peppers, which are cultivated for their novel colors, although they taste about the same. (Except the golden yellow ones, originally imported from Holland, which are said to be the sweetest of all the peppers.)
Shoppers pay for the unusual colors, however. Red and other hued peppers are higher priced -- sometimes by three or four times as much -- as their green cousins.
When shopping, pick firm, smooth, shiny peppers that are heavy for their size and have no pale spots. Odd-shaped peppers are fine to eat, just more difficult to use except diced.
Soft, cracked peppers are overripe. Besides being stuffed whole or cut in half length-wise and stuffed, peppers are often cut into rings, julienne slices or diced.
To use fresh peppers (no matter what the color), wash and cut out the stem with sharp knife. Cut in half or remove a slice from the top and remove seeds and inner ribs, which are not eaten.
If you want your stuffed peppers cooked through, parboil them whole first for three minutes and then plunge into cold water to refresh for five minutes. Then stuff and bake as usual.
In the raw state, red peppers add color and flavor to crudite trays and salads.
Red peppers also work well in stir-fry dishes. Cook long enough to soften but not so long that pepper strips or dice become limp.
For something different, cut pepper into rings, dip into light batter and deep-fry like onions rings. (A batter of equal parts of beer and flour works well.)
Raw red peppers are enhanced by a vinaigrette dressing and roasted ones by a dressing of olive oil, fresh basil and paper-thin sweet onion slices.
Sicilian chicken and peppers with spaghetti
Makes eight servings
1 pound raw skinless boneless chicken breast (chicken cutlets)
2 onions, diced
3/4 cup dry white wine
16-ounce can tomatoes, crushed
8-ounce can plain tomato sauce
1 sweet red bell pepper, diced
1 (or 2) cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
1/2 teaspoon dried sage (optional)
1/2 teaspoon thyme (optional)
salt to taste
pepper to taste
1/2 pound uncooked spaghetti
Cut chicken into serving-size pieces. Spray large non-stick skillet generously with cooking spray; heat over moderate flame. Brown chicken on each side; remove from skillet and set aside. Stir onions and wine into skillet; cook and stir until wine evaporates. Add tomatoes, tomato sauce, bell pepper, garlic and seasonings. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
Arrange browned chicken on top of sauce mixture. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes more, or until sauce thickens. Meanwhile, cook spaghetti in boiling (salted) water until tender; drain well.
To serve: Place chicken over hot drained spaghetti and spoon on sauce.
This rice dish has a Mexican accent with the addition of the spice cumin. If the amount of scallions is too much for you, just add less.
Cumin rice with peppers
Makes 12 servings as a side dish.
L 4 bunches scallions, or enough to make about 1 1/2 cups chopped
1 each red, yellow and green bell pepper
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups long-grain rice
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon oregano
3 1/2 cups chicken broth
Chop scallions. Halve, core, seed and coarsely dice peppers into 1/4 - to 1/2 -inch pieces. Melt butter in large saucepan. Add onions, peppers and garlic and saute, stirring, for about 4 minutes. Add rice, cumin and oregano. Stir to coat rice well. Pour in chicken broth. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to very low, cover and cook for 20 minutes or until all liquid is absorbed.
Roasted peppers with oil
Makes four servings
2 or more red peppers