Growing, cooking and healing with capsicum
Known as “sweet bell peppers” in the United States, capsicums are a luscious and highly nutritious vegetable that are incredibly versatile in the kitchen.
Capsicums are part of the nightshade family and are from the same species that produces cayenne or chilli peppers. Technically, although we use them as a vegetable, capsicums are actually a fruit, and they are believed to have originated in South America. Christopher Columbus is credited with introducing the capsicum to Europe from where it spread to Africa and Asia. Today, capsicum is a favourite food the world over, and for very good reason.
It was from capsicum that scientist Albert Szent-Györgyi was first able to isolate the compound vitamin C in usable quantities. For a long time it was known that citrus like oranges, lemons and limes could prevent scurvy, which is vitamin C deficiency. Of course, in the early stages it was not known that vitamin C existed, but just that citrus could prevent the dreadful symptoms of scurvy in sailors. By 1907, however, researchers Axel Holst and Alfred Frohlich proposed the existence of “vitamin C”, this substance that could be made by neither guinea pigs nor humans and lack of which led to scurvy. However, although orange juice and lemon juice have high levels of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), they contain sugars that make purification of vitamin C extremely difficult. So this “vitamin C” remained unisolated until in 1933 Szent-Györgyi managed it, deriving ascorbic acid from paprika made from capsicum. Vitamin C, however, is just the beginning of what capsicum has to offer.
Green capsicums are usually mature, but not fully ripe, versions of yellow or red capsicum, which is why they are a little less sweet.
Capsicum is not as well studied for its health benefits as its cousin chilli, but it contains a treasure trove of nutrition. As mentioned, it is an excellent vitamin C source, containing around 120mg per cup. Capsicums are also a fantastic source of antioxidant carotenoids and vitamin E. One cup of freshly sliced red capsicum, for example, contains about 1.5mg of beta-carotene. In addition to these conventional antioxidant vitamins, capsicum also boasts a range of antioxidant nutrients, including flavonoids, luteolin, quercetin, hesperidin, lutein and zeaxanthin. In all, capsicum is an antioxidant powerhouse, and some of the antioxidants have shown specific benefits.
Lutein and zeaxanthin
Both lutein and zeaxanthin have shown a proven capacity to protect the retina of the eye and to be helpful in preventing loss of vision due to age-related macular degeneration.
Luteolin is an antioxidant flavonoid found amply supplied in capsicums, but it also occurs in celery, thyme and chamomile tea. It has been shown previously to be strongly anti-inflammatory as well as being antioxidant.
Grow your capsicum
You can plant capsicum all year in tropical climates, but optimum germination rates are when temperatures reach above 23°C. Planting is best in spring and summer in cooler areas after frosts have passed. They will grow throughout Australia but are considered warm-season plants.
Capsicum plants prefer a sunny but sheltered position. They are known as heavy feeders, so enrich their soil with well-rotted manure before planting. Good drainage is essential, and add some lime to help prevent blossom end rot. Keep up regular watering when fruiting. Ensure good air circulation to prevent moulds and mildew in the humidity. Capsicums can also do well in pots.
Capsicums are also delightful in a stir-fry, grilled, stuffed, baked or roasted.
It takes at least 13 weeks from planting for fruiting to start. Capsicums can be picked from the green stage until fully coloured and they will get sweeter as they ripen. Cut from the plant with scissors or twist the stems until they break.
Cooking with capsicum
Crisp, yet fleshy and also sweet, capsicums have a wide variety of uses in your kitchen. Many of the world’s renowned cuisines have embraced the culinary possibilities that capsicums offer, including Italian, Spanish, Mexican and Chinese.
If you are buying capsicums you will find them available in a variety of colours, typically green, red, yellow and orange. Green capsicums are usually mature, but not fully ripe, versions of yellow or red capsicums, which is why they are a little less sweet. The lack of ripening also means that green capsicums contain less vitamin C than their more vibrant counterparts. Red capsicums contain three times as much vitamin C as green ones, but even green capsicums contain twice as much vitamin C by weight as the equivalent amount of a citrus fruit. Just to confuse the issue though, not all capsicum varieties start off green, and neither do green capsicums always mature into the other colours.
When choosing your capsicums, look for ones that have a tight, smooth skin with no wrinkled patches. Avoid capsicums that appear dull or have soft spots. In a paper bag they will store well in your fridge’s crisper section for up to a week. Since capsicums are grown in every state in Australia, your chances of finding locally grown product is high if you care to look for it. In Australia they are at their best and most plentiful from November to June.
You can eat the skin of capsicums, but if you have difficulty digesting the skin it is possible to peel them using a vegetable peeler. Alternatively, you can roast or chargrill the capsicums, after which the skin will just peel away.
To roast a capsicum, brush it lightly with oil and then place it in an oven at 220°C for 15 to 20 minutes, turning occasionally or waiting until the skin looks burnt and will peel away from the flesh. Cool the capsicum for 10 minutes in a paper bag or bowl covered with a towel. After 10 minutes cut away the stem, pull out the seeds and cut the flesh into the desired sizes.
Barbecuing capsicums is easy and a great option for vegetarians and vegans. Just put the whole capsicum on the hotplate, turning occasionally until the skin shows signs of charring. This will take about 10 minutes.
They are delightful to eat raw, but capsicums famously feature in stew-like dishes such as ratatouille and piperade. Equally, they do well in a Tunisian salad called mechouia or in the Turkish sauce muhammara. Capsicums are also delightful in a stir-fry, grilled, stuffed, baked or roasted. Get creative with your capsicum because the variety of uses for this nutritious, delicious and delightfully textured fruity vegetable are only limited by your imagination.
Indeed, for hundreds, and probably thousands, of years cooks have been getting creative with capsicum. If you want to get historical in your kitchen, here is a recipe for stuffed capsicum that dates back to 1896 from The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer.
- 6 green peppers
- ¾ cup hot steamed rice
- ½ cup cold cooked meat cut in small dice
- ⅓ cup tomatoes stewed and strained
- 1 tablespoon melted butter
- Few drips onion juice
- Salt and pepper
- Cut off pieces from stem ends of peppers. Remove seeds and partitions; parboil eight minutes.
- Fill with rice, meat, tomatoes, and butter, well mixed, and seasoned with onion juice, salt, and pepper.
- Place in a pan, add one and one-half cups water or stock, and bake forty-five minutes in a moderate oven.
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