I love peppers, and I love chiles. Notice I separate chiles and peppers? Lots of us do, even though that’s technically incorrect; sweet peppers are the same genus and species, (Capsicum Annuum), as the hot peppers referred to as chiles.
When it comes to cooking, I most often use chiles for heat and the fruity, earthy flavors they provide. Sweet peppers to me are for salads and stir-fries, soups and breakfasts, (I love them with eggs), and especially for stuffing. Sweet peppers certainly do have flavor, even if it’s a relatively minor note compared to the knockout punch of a hot chile.
Just as hot chiles have expanded in variety over the last couple of decades, so have the sweets. If you’re my age or older, then you probably remember back when you might find green bell peppers in the grocery and nothing else like it, (and their flavor was, uh, shall we say, lacking… ) Now you can find sweet bells in green, red, orange, purple, yellow, and even brown and white, as well as some great non-bell sweet types. My favorite options lately are the bags of small, sweet peppers we’re seeing quite often in stores. They’re perfect for salads, salsas, roasting and even stuffing.
Sweet peppers are not only tasty, they’re good for you. In addition to containing notable amounts of Vitamins C and E, they pack abundant carotenoids, including alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, cryptoxanthin and zeaxanthin, (Trust me, those are all good things).
Here’s a little primer on what’s out there these days, both for shopping and growing.
These are the peppers so many of us grew up with. They too have grown up, and there’s a bunch of varieties out there to grow and enjoy. From the store, they have a slightly bitter, grassy flavor that goes great in salads, or as part of an aromatic base for sauces, stews and soups.
Purple & Chocolate Bells.
The least sweet of the bells other than green. They’re great raw in salads and probably are best left to raw uses, as that pretty purple hue turns to mud real quick when they’re cooked. They also tend to be wildly expensive, so if you love them, grow them.
Yellow & White Bells.
Mildest flavor of the bells. You may see whites as either a Bell variant, or referred to as a Hungarian Stuffing Pepper, (note that the white bells are often silly expensive…). Lightly sweet, with a nice hint of the grassy notes greens are prized for. These are great as part of an aromatic base, and for stuffing and roasting.
A bit less sweet and slightly more tangy than a red, orange bells are great raw in salads or roasted and stuffed.
Far and away the most popular sweet peppers. Reds are genuinely sweet and fruity in flavor, and are fabulous in salads, with rice, or roasted.
Mild Hatch or Anaheims.
If a New Mexican chile lover reads that heading, I’m gonna get roasted…. Fact is, these long green and red chiles do come in mild form, but again, you need to take care when cooking with them, because hot ones can sneak in there. They’re wonderful for roasting, stuffing, salsa, and especially green sauces.
Sweet, yes, but some of these can be as much heat as sweet, so ask and try before you buy! Pimentos have an intense flavor base that holds up beautifully to roasting and preserving, (pickled peppers). They also are fabulous in aromatic bases, given their depth of flavor.
While called sweet, these little round guys can also pack a bit of fire in them, so if you’re not a lover of such, taste before you cook! They have a dense sweetness that is perfect for roasting, salsa, and other Mexican sauces.
These long, slender chiles look a bit like a Serrano or an Anaheim, but are a notable lighter pale green color, (If you’re growing them, they will turn red if allowed to mature on the plant.) Cubanelles have a light, grassy sweetness that is great for roasting and stuffing.
Same warning as the other non-bell varieties; there are hot bananas as well, so be careful, and test before you eat. They have a nice veggie flavor with a hint of heat, which makes them great for stuffing.
Notice how many of those guys up there I noted were great for stuffing? All the glory a sweet pepper has to offer comes out when you stuff ’em with wonderful things. Doing so and then slow roasting deepens the sweetness and intensifies minor flavor notes. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that this only works at home; you can slow roast on coals with aluminum foil, a Dutch oven, or a cast iron skillet. The sky is the limit on what you stuff with, but here’s a couple of my favorites to get the creative juices flowing.
1 Pound ground protein, (Beef, Chicken, Pork, Ground Turkey, Tofu, Cheese, or any combination thereof)
1/2 Cup Wild Rice
1 Cup Water
6 Sweet Peppers, (Bells, more if you’re using Cubanelles, Anaheims, etc)
2 large Tomatoes
1/2 Sweet Onion
1-2 cloves Garlic
1 Tablespoon extra virgin Olive Oil
1/2 teaspoon Oregano, (Hungarian is my favorite, it’s sweeter and milder than Mexican)
1/2 teaspoon smoked sweet Paprika
Splash of wine for deglazing, (Anything you’re drinking is fine, and if your drinking bourbon, etc, that’s fine too, if you’re willing to spare some…)
Sea Salt and fresh ground Pepper
Place rice and water in a saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil.
Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
Cut protein into bite sized chunks.
Lightly salt a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat, and cook the protein until evenly browned.
Set the protein aside and leave the pan as is.
Field strip the peppers and keep the tops if you’re using bells. Arrange the peppers hollow side up on foil, or in a baking dish or Dutch oven. You may need to even out the bottoms a bit if you’re using a pan; thats just fine, but don’t cut through the peppers.
Dice tomatoes and onion, and mince the garlic.
Toss the olive oil into the pan you cooked the protein in. Once it’s heated through, toss in the onion and sauté until they’re starting to get translucent. Add the garlic and sauté for a minute or so, until the raw garlic smell is gone.
Time to deglaze. Splash whatever booze you’re drinking into the pan, (and it’s high proof and you’re cooking over flame, step back so you don’t burn your face off). Get a fork and work all the little bits of this and that loose in the pan; that’s some serious flavor you want in whatever you’re making. Any time you sauté an ingredient and then add that to a dish, deglaze, otherwise, you’re leaving good stuff out.
Add the tomatoes, rice, and protein to your pan and mix well.
Add oregano, paprika, salt and pepper; taste and adjust seasoning.
Remove the pan from heat and spoon the mixture evenly into your peppers, then pop the tops back on the peppers.
Roast in, ideally, 325° F heat for about 45 to 60 minutes, until the peppers are fork tender. If you’re doing this on a campfire, put the pan or foil bundle over low coals and let them work. If you’re on a grill, spread the coals or adjust flame and place your roasting pan on the side of your grate.
Serve with crusty bread, a green salad, and maybe a nice Wollersheim Prairie Sunburst Red. This winery is in Wisconsin and grows all their own stuff. Yes, Wisconsin, and they rock!
If you prefer a stuffed pepper with a little more pop, try our recipe for classic Oaxacan Chiles Rellenos. Trust me, it’ll knock your socks off in a good way!