Peppers are more popular than ever. Salsa is outselling ketchup. There seems to be as many commercial hot sauces as there are California merlots. Daring cooks of 40 years ago who had only a few hot peppers to choose from can now select from a fiery arsenal that includes jalapeno, chawa, cayenne, cherry, poblano, wax, serrano, Korean, ají, Thai, Scotch bonnet, and habanero, to name a few.
Few things add as much flavor as peppers. In fact, some peppers pack enough punch on the flavor scale to be considered a spice. It was this quality that led Christopher Columbus to mistakenly think they were related to black pepper when he encountered them on one of his voyages to the New World. Even though they are not related to black pepper, the pepper moniker stuck, although you may also hear them called chiles, chile peppers or chili peppers.
Bell peppers may be slightly pungent when green, but ones that have ripened to full coloration can be quite sweet. Bell peppers can now be found in yellow, ivory, chocolate, purple and orange as well as green and red. Try any of the bells grilled, chopped into salads or served as crudités. Bell peppers, especially fully ripe ones, are mild enough to serve to a small child, and even finicky children will be tempted by chocolate-colored peppers.
Don’t think of hot peppers only as elements to make foods fiery. There are differences in flavor between kinds of hot peppers. A habanero has a distinctive flavor that will never be confused with a jalapeno. With all peppers, sweet or hot, there is a difference in flavor between green and fully ripened peppers. There is also a difference between fresh and dried. The difference is so distinct that the dried forms may have their own names. For example, a smoked and dried jalapeno is known as a chipotle pepper. An ancho is a dried poblano pepper.
Peppers can be attractive, fun, exciting and even a little scary and sexy. (You are never going to see a string of dried Brussels sprouts hanging in a kitchen or on a Christmas wreath for decorative purposes, and you are unlikely to see a rock-and-roll band calling itself the Cold Irish Potatoes. However, ristras and wreaths of peppers and music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers are favorites of many people.) Georgia farmers grow many kinds of peppers. Look for them at farmers markets, direct from the farm or even at grocery stores. Don’t be afraid to give them a try.
Here’s a tip: If you are experimenting with tasting hot peppers, keep some milk on hand. Drinking milk or eating a dairy product such as ice cream or yogurt will help quell some of the burning if you are not used to eating hot, spicy foods.