Quick and Easy Fresh Pepper Dishes

By Chef Nancy Berkoff, EdD, RD

It's the summer and pepper season is at its peak! There are over 200 cultivated varieties of fresh and dried hot peppers. If you select dried peppers, you'll want to remember that dried hot peppers are at least 10 times more potent than fresh. Store dried hot peppers in an airtight container, in a dry, cool place and they'll last up to six months. Fresh peppers, which should be firm, brightly colored, and have no blemishes, can be stored in the refrigerator for up to three weeks.

Here is a mini shopping guide for fresh peppers: Bell peppers: Red are sweetest, yellow the most mild, and green the strongest flavor (for a bell pepper). Bell peppers are very versatile, as they work well raw or cooked. Create a bell pepper rainbow with chopped green, red, yellow, orange, or purple peppers. Use them as in ingredient or garnish for tossed, pasta, rice, macaroni, and quinoa cold salads, or put in soups, chili, stews, sandwich fillings, and stir-fry dishes. Instead of a three-bean salad, try a three-pepper salad or use a fresh, seeded bell pepper as an edible bowl for your favorite salads (cold) or your favorite fillings (hot).

Banana or Anaheim peppers are elongated and may be yellow or green. They are fairly mild and are usually used for cooking, as their skin can be a bit chewy. If you've had chile rellenos, you've had banana peppers. If you have the time, make up some bread stuffing, or use leftover mashed potatoes or cooked grains. Cut the top (the stem end) off the banana pepper, stuff, wrap in aluminum foil, and bake or steam for delicious stuffed peppers.

Many people are familiar with jalapeños, thick-skinned and medium hot (yes, medium!). Found in Southwestern, Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisines, jalapeños add zip to salsa, breads, and sauces. Ripe, red jalapeños have a sweeter flavor; when dried and smoked, the red versions are known as "chipotles." You can purchase jalapeños fresh or pickled (usually in vinegar brine with onions or carrots). Use jalapeños when you want to add some "zing" to soups, cooked grains, tofu dogs or veggie burgers, salsas, sandwich fillings, or even fresh salads.

Habanero hot peppers can be dark green, red, or yellow (depending on ripeness). They look like mini lanterns and are used in Caribbean and South American salsas, chutneys, and marinades. Habaneros are HOT, estimated to be 50-60 times hotter than jalapeños. Use habaneros sparingly in cooked items... you don't really want to use habaneros in a raw menu item.

Poblanos are well known for their roles in mole, the thick, flavorful sauce used in Central American cuisine. They can range in color from dark green to purple, and when smoked are known as "anchos." You can seed and chop poblanos and process in a blender or food processor to add to soups, dips, salad dressings, and sauces.

Thai hot peppers, also called "bird beak" peppers are hotter than jalapeños but milder than habaneros and give the heat in Southeast Asian curries and soups. Proceed with caution! If you are creating an Asian curry, especially a coconut-based one, a small amount of Thai hot pepper goes a long way!

While fresh peppers are bountiful, purchase some extra. Wash and seed, pat dry, dice or slice, and place in freezer bags or airtight containers and freeze until ready to use for cooking. When you are ready to cook with your frozen peppers, there's no need to thaw. Use them right from the freezer in tofu scrambles, to liven up pre-prepared soups, in tomato or mushroom sauces, in leftover takeout food, or as an add-in for mashed potatoes or steamed grains.