As I strolled past the vibrant display of peppers in the produce aisle, my eyes locked on the jade-green, sweet bells. Botanically speaking, all nightshades, including eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes and peppers have "perfect" flowers with a complement of reproductive parts, both male (stamens) and female (pistils), making peppers hermaphroditic (both sexes) or genderless. Bell peppers can have between two and five lobes depending on the variety, and neither the number of lobes nor the amount of seeds determines the sweetness of the fruit. And yes, peppers are fruits, not vegetables because of the presence of these seeds.
Sweet peppers native to South and Central America, Mexico and the West Indies caught the eyes of early explorers like Columbus, who brought the plant back to Europe, which then filtered to North America through colonization.
With an abundance of sun and fertile soil, these tropical plants thrive, and usually reach maturation within two to three months. Green bells are harvested sooner than the purple, yellow, orange and red ones, which are simply different stages of ripeness of the Capsicum annuum plant species. Since the colors-of-the rainbow peppers are long-term ground renters, they are pricier than their green siblings.
Each hue also has a distinct flavor and nutritional profile. The green bells with a fresh grassy taste have a load of chlorophyll. This mighty green pigment is an antioxidant powerhouse that heals wounds, protects DNA from certain carcinogens, reduces anemia, hunger cravings (and bad breath), tempers inflammation and detoxifies the blood.
The purple peppers with a sweet yet tangy bite are partially ripened green bells with a motherlode of anthocyanins. That super pigment endows the fruit with a deep inky hue along with remarkable antioxidant powers to put the skids on viruses, cancers, inflammation and memory loss.
Golden yellows with fruity nuances have a rich store of lutein and zeaxanthin carotenoids to dial up eye health and ward off certain cancers, while the orange peppers are brimming with alpha- and beta-carotenoids to boost the immune system, amp up bone and eye health, and make the skin glow.
Finally, the rich reds, with a slightly spicy sweetness, are packed with two potent carotenoids known as lycopene and astaxanthin, the former an anti-cancer warrior that ratchets up heart health and keeps brain on its toes, the latter roughly 6000 times more potent than Vitamin C is a fountain of youth phytonutrient for the skin, joints, eyes and energy levels.
When you pick a peck of purple, green, red, orange and yellow peppers make sure they are glossy and firm without blemishes or soft spots.
Toss a confetti of chopped peppers in a green salad for a splash of eye candy, or cut a variety of colored peppers into strips for a crudité with assorted dips like hummus and garlic dilly Greek yoghurt. Stuff raw pepper halves with a spicy shrimp salad, tangy coleslaw or salmon mousse with capers, or bake the halves with a quinoa pilaf, spicy ground chicken or lamb hash. Add peppers of all manners to marinara sauces or cioppinos, stir fries, pizzas or risottos.
Or roast whole reds with a drizzle of olive oil, and crush into a delightful paste with a splash of Meyer lemon juice to enliven sandwiches, or use as a colorful, zippy condiment for fish, chicken or beef.
Recipe: Roasted Red Bell Peppers
• Ingredients: 3 medium-size red bell peppers, washed; 1 1/2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil; salt and pepper to taste.
• Method: Preheat oven broiler. Arrange whole peppers side-by-side on a cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place on middle oven rack. Cook peppers until the skin is slightly charred, rotating peppers so they cook evenly. Remove from oven. Let cool. Peel away thin, charred skin. Remove the stem and seeds. Cut into strips. Store in a mason jar with additional olive oil and white balsamic vinegar or lemon juice.
— For additional pepper recipes, e-mail Catharine Kaufman at email@example.com