Phytochemical-packed, pungent peppers please the palate

Published 10:36 am Wednesday, July 31, 2013

ARLINGTON—Summer peppers are packed with a rainbow of phytonutrients that act as powerful antioxidants to protect against cell damage.

“Brightly colored phytochemicals probably play a large role in the association between high fruit and vegetable intake and lower risk of chronic diseases—especially cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer,” said Kathryn Strong, a registered dietitian and a Virginia Cooperative Extension family and consumer sciences agent serving Fairfax and Arlington counties.

Peppers can help meet daily vitamin requirements. Just a cup of peppers provides more than 100 percent of the daily recommendation for vitamin C, which can lower cancer risk and protect against cataracts.

A cup of red peppers provides one-third of the daily recommendation for vitamin A, which helps preserve eyesight and fends off infections.

“Americans tend to under-consume key nutrients like fiber, potassium and vitamins A and C,” Strong said. “Eating bell peppers regularly is a great way to help meet these nutrient needs and get the added bonus of the extra phytochemicals in brightly colored varieties.”

Bell peppers all come from the same plant but differ in their maturity levels. Green peppers are harvested before they are fully ripe and have a slightly bitter taste. Orange and yellow peppers have a fruity taste and have been left on the vine longer than green peppers.

Red peppers are the most mature. They contain almost 13 times more beta-carotene than green bell peppers and 60 percent more vitamin C. They taste sweet and almost fruity.

Strong recommends eating bell peppers as a snack. Cut them into strips to dip in hummus or a low-fat dip.” Peppers are excellent flavoring agents in mixed dishes, and roasted red peppers add a grilled flavor to salads, dips and dressings,” Strong said. Chipotle peppers and smoked paprika can add a smoky complexity to bean dishes and soups as well.

To choose the freshest bell peppers, look for those with deep, vivid colors and taut skin, she said. The stems should be green and fresh-looking. Store peppers in the refrigerator to help preserve nutrients and keep them fresh longer.

Recipe: Eggplant Ratatouille

2 medium eggplants

4 medium zucchini

2 medium onions

3 medium red ripe tomatoes

2 medium bell peppers

2 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried

1 tablespoon fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried

Cut the eggplants into 1-inch cubes. Slice the zucchini into ½-inch-thick slices. Slice onions, chop tomatoes and peppers and mince the garlic. Put the eggplant and zucchini in a colander, sprinkle with salt and toss lightly. Allow to drain for at least 30 minutes. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels.

In a heavy nonstick skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat on the stove. Add the onions, and sauté until translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir in the green peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, garlic, salt, pepper, thyme, oregano and basil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 30-45 minutes or until the vegetables are thoroughly cooked. Stir to prevent sticking. Remove from heat and serve.

Source: Virginia Cooperative Extension