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The majority of the book contains new recipes along with the best recipes from her award-winning Pepper Trail book. The mouth-watering recipes herein range from appetizers to main courses, sauces, and desserts, including Roasted Red Pepper Dip, Creamy Pepper and Tomato Soup, Jicama and Pepper Salad, Chipotle-Portabella Tartlets, Green Corn Tamale Pie, Anatolian Stew, South Texas Turkey with Tamale Dressing, Shrimp Amal, Couscous-Stuffed Eggplant, and Creamy Serrano Dressing.
What is a Pepper?
How do you account for the popularity of the pepper pod—neither pepper nor a pod? It is the fruit of the genus Capsicum, which was named and defined by J. P. Tournefort in 1700, yet is still a rather mixed-up group of plants. Not just the Spanish name pimiento is cause for argument but the defining characteristics of that genus are still being debated. However, there are some things on which all agree. To begin with, a Capsicum pepper is not related to its namesake, black pepper, which is the seed of a woody vine native to India, Piper nigrum.
Origin and Discovery
The confusion originated over five-hundred years ago with Christopher Columbus, whose quest for black pepper and other spices, under the auspices of the crowned heads of Spain, caused him to sail to the west from the Spanish Canary Islands in his attempt to reach the East Indian Archipelago and India from whence spices came. If successful, the new route would have broken the Moslem monopoly of the spice trade. When he arrived at the Islands of the Caribbean he was so certain he had reached his goal that he called the islands the Indies, the natives Indians, and their pungent, red spice pimiento after the pimienta for which he was searching. Later other Spanish explorers added to the confusion when they also called a second unrelated indigenous American spice pimienta, or pepper. It was allspice, Pimenta dioica, in the myrtle family.
Before the discovery of the Americas Europeans had also used another pungent spice known as Guinea or ginnie pepper, Aframomum melegueta, which came from Guinea in West Africa. It was known as "grains of paradise" or melegueta pepper which, along with its kin, cardamom, is a member of the ginger family. Soon after the Spanish Discovery the Portuguese acquired the new tropical, pungent, "pimento" from the "New World" and introduced it to their tropical west African bases where it flourished. The natives, who were already accustomed to pungent spices, fell in love with the new, fiery Capsicum pods. In 1535, the Portuguese first brought those capsicums to Brazil with their African slaves, who couldn't eat without them. The new pungent spice had not only largely supplanted the native melegueta pepper but also adopted its common name —"Ginnie" pepper. These elongate cayenne type chili peppers or "Ginnie" peppers were the capsicums the Portuguese introduced to India and the Far East from their African outposts.
If it is not related to the black pepper of India, then just what is a Capsicum? The genus Capsicum is a member of the plant family Solanaceae along with potatoes, tobacco, petunias, the deadly night shade, and others. Thousands of years ago, some tropical Amerindians domesticated a wild, native Capsicum into a wide variety of plants with fiery fruits that grow from sea level to an altitude of ten thousand feet but are killed by frost. The original capsicums were perennial herbaceous to woody shrubs native to the American tropics. Today, breeders have developed annual varieties that can be grown in areas subject to freezes.
There is still no agreement among scholars as to its exact place of origin—either somewhere in central Bolivia or southwestern Brazil. Some capsicums had been carried by birds, their natural means of dispersal, to other parts of South and Central America long before humans migrated across the Bering Strait to America, and before human migration reached Mesoamerica (Middle or Central America). That indigenous spice had also been carried by birds and native Americans from Mesoamerica to the Caribbean long before the Columbian Connection began in 1492. The pre-Columbian natives had also domesticated the four or five species of capsicums that are cultivated today, and no new species have been developed since that time.
All species of wild capsicums have certain common characteristics: small, pungent, red fruits that may be round, elongate, or conical and are attached to the plant in an erect position. The seeds of the deciduous fruits are dispersed by birds that are not affected by the pungency. Wild Capsicum flowers have a stigma-bearing style that extends beyond the anthers to facilitate pollination by insects. Domesticated cultivars have short styles that promote self-pollination. When humans began to cultivate the Capsicum plants they, unconsciously or perhaps even consciously, selected seed from those fruits more difficult to remove from the calyx so that birds could not pluck them, thereby remaining attached until harvest. They also found that capsicums, which hung down and were hidden among the leaves, were more difficult for hungry birds to collect. Consequently, pendent fruit became more desirable, and today most domesticated capsicums have pendent fruit instead of erect. As larger and larger fruits were selected, the size and weight increased, which caused the capsicums to become pendent. The fruit, the most valued part of the plant to humans, was changed through the grower's selection for the desired characteristics. All mild and sweet capsicums are the result of selection because all wild capsicums are pungent—mouth warming. This pungency results from the presence of a group of closely related alkaloid compounds and is unique in the vegetable kingdom.
Origin and Use of Name
When Columbus first came upon capsicums the Arawaks, who had come to the West Indies from South America, called their South American pepper axí, which the Spanish transliterated to ají (ajé, agí). That language is extinct now, and so are the Arawaks. Today, that name is applied to the pungent varieties in only a few places in the Caribbean along with much of South America. However, uchu and huayca are ancient native American words still used for capsicums by some Amerindian groups in the Andean area. A different Capsicum species arrived from Mesoamerica without a native name. The Spanish called fruits of both species pimiento or pimientón in the Caribbean Islands (depending on the size) after pimienta or East Indian black pepper. Those Spanish names traveled with the new plant to Spain but not to all parts of Europe; it is called piment in France, peperone in Italy, and paprika by the Balkan Slavic people.
In 1518, when the Spanish conquerors came to Mexico, they heard the Nahuatl speaking natives calling their fiery spice by a Nahuatl name that sounded like "cheeyee." A half century later, when the Spanish botanist Francisco Hernandez arrived in 1570, he wrote that Nahuatl name as chilli, giving it the Spanish spelling using a "ll" which sounds like "y"—hence, chilli. The term chilli did not appear in print until 1651 when his work was first published. Later the Spanish "ll" sound as a "y" reverted to the sound of a single "l" (el) in Spanish.
The Nahuatl stem chil refers to the chilli plant. It also means "red." To the generic word chilli, the term that described the particular chilli cultivar was added (e.g., Tonalchilli = chilli of the sun or summer, Chiltecpin = flea chilli). In Mexico today, the Spanish word chile, which was derived from chilli, refers to both pungent and sweet types and is used in combination with and placed before a descriptive adjective, such as chile colorado (red chilli) or a word that indicates the place of origin, such as chile poblano (chilli from Pueblo). The same variety can have different names in different geographic regions, in various stages of maturity, or in the dried state. Consequently, the names of capsicums in Mexico can be very confusing.
The Portuguese language uses pimenta for capsicums and qualifies the various types—Pimenta-da-caiena, cayenne pepper; Pimenta-da-malagueta, red pepper; Pimenta-da-reino or -da rabo, black pepper; Pimenta-da-jamaica, allspice; while pimentão is pimento, red pepper or just pepper. Ají and chile are not found in a Portuguese dictionary, nor did they carry those words with them in their travels.
It is likely that the current Capsicum names were first carried to the Eastern part of the world by the Dutch. After that the English were probably responsible for their movement because in Australia, India, Indonesia, and Thailand chilli (chillies) or sometimes chilly, is commonly used by English speakers for the pungent types, while the mild ones are called capsicums. However, until very recently only mild varieties were to be had in Australia, while Indonesians and Thais don't yet consume sweet capsicums so they have no word for them. Each Far Eastern language has its own word for chillies—prik in Thai and mirch in Hindi, to name but two.
The United States is where the most confusion exists. Here we find both the anglicized spelling, chilli (chillies) or chili (chilies) and the Spanish chile (chiles) used by some for the pungent fruits of the Capsicum plant, while chili (minus one l) is also used as a short form in chili con carne, a variously concocted mixture of meat and chillies. The Oxford English Dictionary gives chilli as the primary usage, calling chile and chili variants. Webster's New International Dictionary prefers chili followed by the Spanish chile and the Nahuatl chilli. In the American Southwest, the Spanish chile refers to the long green/red chilli that is/was first known as the Anaheim or the long green/red chilli, but is called the 'New Mexican Chile' by the locals. New Mexicans even had the name entered in the Congressional Record of November 3, 1983 (misidentified as C. frutescens instead of C. annuum var. annuum). In an English speaking country it seems incongruous to choose the Spanish chile over the anglicized chili, or chilli. It would be so much less confusing if they were called what they are—Capsicum, but getting Americans to call all peppers capsicums would be like getting us to use the metric system.
Not because one name is right and another is wrong, but for the sake of consistency and clarity, in this book Capsicum or pepper will be used for the fruit of the Capsicum plant. When used in singular form it is capitalized and in italics—Capsicum. When plural, it is lower case and without italics—capsicums. The pungent types will be chilli or chili pepper. Chili pepper is the most common usage in American scientific papers. Chili with one l is the spicy meat dish, and pimento is the sweet, thick-fleshed, heart-shaped red Capsicum. If chile in italics is used, it will refer to a native Mexican cultivar or, without italics, to the long green/red 'New Mexican Chile,' which is a registered cultivar. Whenever possible the name of the specific fruit type/group or cultivar name will be used. It is hoped that the reader will follow suit, thereby helping to stabilize the troublesome situation.
The important thing to keep in mind is that each variety has its own character and if another variety is substituted, the flavor of the dish will be changed. Therefore it is essential that not only the specific Capsicum but also its specific form (fresh, dried, canned, pickled, etc.) be used and not just hot pepper or green pepper. Studying the illustrated cultivar descriptions starting on page 11 will make this easier.
Capsicums are not only good, they are good for you. Nutritionally, capsicums are a dietary plus. They contain more vitamin A than any other food plant; they are also an excellent source of vitamin C and the B vitamins. One jalapeño contains more vitamin A and C than three medium-size oranges. Capsicums also contain significant amounts of magnesium, iron, thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin. Even though chili peppers are not eaten in large quantities, small amounts are important where traditional diets provide only marginal vitamins. In Peppers, I give a detailed account of the nutritional value of capsicums along with the story of their use by the Hungarian scientist Albert Szent-Györgyi in his discovery of vitamin C (see fig. 1).
Vitamin C is a very unstable nutrient. It is readily destroyed through exposure to oxygen in the air, by drying, by heating, and it is soluble in water. In other words, cooking is very damaging to it. Keep cut or peeled capsicums well covered to prevent contact with oxygen. Don't permit them to stand in water for more than one hour. Nevertheless, cooked and canned green capsicums retain considerable vitamin C. Because vitamin C diminishes with maturity, green capsicums are higher in vitamin C than ripe red capsicums. Vitamin A is just the opposite because it increases as the fruit matures and dries. Also, oxygen exposure does not destroy vitamin A, and it is quite stable during the cooking and preservation process.
Pepper seed, like all seed, have some protein and fat (oil), although they are primarily carbohydrate. There is also a little manganese and copper, but otherwise they add little nutritionally. In Anglo-America they are traditionally removed, but in other countries removal is seldom customary—especially in the small chili peppers. Removing seed from fresh green or red chili peppers reduces the pungency to some extent because the seed absorb capsaicin (CAPS) from the placental wall where they are attached. Pepper seed that are large when mature (for example ancho and 'New Mexican Chile' types) become woody in texture when dry. Some find that texture undesirable; however, others grind them up to give a nutty flavor to sauces (for example chile cascabel). Higher grades of paprika and pepper flakes have had the seeds and veins removed before grinding. Whether you leave the seed in or remove them is strictly a matter of personal preference having little effect on nutritional value.
Weight conscious readers may be pleased to learn that studies have found that eating capsicums and a few other pungent spices cause the metabolic rate to increase. This diet-induced thermic effect requires six grams of chillies or a very pungent chili pepper sauce (for example Tabasco Pepper Sauce®) combined with three grams of prepared mustard to burn off an average of forty-five calories in three hours. Prepare the pungent mixture and put it in a small jar with a screw-lid. Take a teaspoonful about thirty minutes before each meal—you'll get used to it.
Scientific studies in recent years reported the nutritional and medical attributes of capsicums. During this time the public's nutritional awareness has increased. Our daily vocabulary now includes terms like low-calorie, low- cholesterol, complex carbohydrates, high-fiber, low-sodium, unsaturated oils, and low-fat, and food growers and processors have responded to public demand by providing for these nutritional requirements (see fig. 2). An educated change in traditional American food-style is vital to good health. Capsicums are in line with these food restrictions and at the same time their distinctive flavor adds zest to an otherwise bland, creamless, fatless, starchless, saltless, sugarless meal. Capsicums are a real health food!
Capsaicin (CAPS), The Pungent Principle
Vitamins and fiber are not the reason people eat chili peppers; they eat them because they are pungent, which causes a sharp stinging or burning effect. Take away the vitamins and the fiber and people would still eat chili peppers, but take away the capsaicin (CAPS) and they don't want them. Capsicums are the only plant in the world that has capsaicin, hence the name. It is a unique group of mouth-warming amide-type alkaloids containing a small vanilloid structural component that is responsible for the stinging or burning sensation associated with capsicums by acting directly on the pain receptors in the mouth and throat. This vanilloid element is present in other pungent plants used for spices such as ginger and black pepper. For some time capsaicin was believed to contain only one active pungent principle but more recently, studies have added other compounds to form a pungent group of which capsaicin is the most important part. Three of these capsaicinoid components cause the sensation of "rapid bite" at the back of the palate and throat, and two others cause a long, low-intensity bite on the tongue and midpalate. Differences in the proportions of these compounds may account for the characteristic "burns" of the different Capsicum cultivars. In both sweet and pungent capsicums, the major part of the organs secreting these pungent alkaloids is localized in the placenta to which the seeds are attached along with dissepiment (ribs or veins), which is the part of the placenta that divides the interior cavity into sections or lobes (see fig. 3). The seeds contain only a low concentration of CAPS.
Excerpted from The Peppers Cookbook by Jean Andrews. Copyright © 2005 Jean Andrews. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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Posted September 5, 2012
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