We are so blessed to live in an area that can grow such a variety of vegetables and fruits. I know many of you are gardeners and more power (and energy) to you. I recently stopped at the Wakarusa Produce Auction. There are tables where you can purchase produce and baked goods as well as sign up for a number and buy large quantities of produce, flowers, and plants. What a wonderful experience for the senses with all the colors for the eyes and aromas for the nose!

All the rain in the spring put gardening and farming behind and many gardens are still somewhat behind, but many vegetables have caught up. There is zucchini, yellow squash, and plenty of cucumbers and peppers. When I am teaching food and nutrition programs, I encourage participants to use MyPlate and eat a “rainbow” of foods. Peppers are vegetables that not only provide lots of color and nutrients, but also can be prepared in many ways and be preserved.

Pepper nomenclature is confusing as it varies from country to country. In the United States, mild peppers are known as sweet peppers while hot peppers are known either as hot peppers or chilies. In Latin America, hot peppers are chilies and mild peppers are pimientos. In the United States, pimientos are just one variety of sweet red peppers. To add to the confusion, some varieties have several different common names. We do however know that all peppers (whether sweet or hot) are members of the capsicum family and are native to the New World. The piper nigrum plant which produces peppercorns is native to Asia and is not related.

We divide peppers into two types: sweet or hot. Although it is sometimes difficult to distinguish a sweet pepper from a hot pepper by sight, it is generally true that the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is. However, weather, soil, and the degree of maturity can affect capsaicin content making one pepper hotter than another of the same variety. Even peppers on the same plant can vary in pungency. For centuries, chilies (hot peppers) have been used for medical purposes, particularly as a topical heat agent. Today, many commercial liniments contain oleoresin of capsicum.

When selecting peppers, choose ones that feel heavy for their size as this means they have thick, meaty skin/walls. They should also be firm and shiny. Avoid peppers with soft spots or shriveled areas. Peppers are a rich source of vitamin C – even better than grapefruit and oranges! When it comes to vitamins, peppers have as much vitamin A as carrots.

When working with hot peppers you need to protect your hands as well as your eyes and face. Over the years I have heard many wild stories from some of you on how you were careless and ended up having to soak your hands in cold water, milk, or honey for a long time. Hot peppers really require that you wear gloves.

The most widely available sweet pepper is the bell pepper which is named for its bell-like shape. Green bell peppers are the most common, but red, yellow, and even purple bell peppers are common as well. Many green bell peppers turn red with age and become sweet. I think the red, yellow, and orange peppers are all sweeter than the green bell peppers. I only use colored peppers as I like their flavor better than green bell peppers.

Regardless of the color, all bell peppers have a mild flavor and a crisp, crunchy texture. Raw bell peppers add color and crunch to salads and raw vegetable assortments served with dips. Plan to use a bell pepper as a container for your favorite dip or cheese spread. You can also cut them into strips and spread the cheese spread on them. Then they are easy for your family and friends to pick up and enjoy. Enjoy peppers now.

Mary Ann Lienhart Cross is extension educator, Health & Human Sciences, Purdue Extension Elkhart County. She can be reached at 574-533-0554 or lienhart@purdue.edu.

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