Pick a Peck of Pickling Peppers

sweet pepperSweet peppers have so much value in the kitchen, it's tough to tally all the ways a good harvest of peppers can be enjoyed. First of all, peppers are easy to grow, and their plants are neat and compact, taking up little space in the garden for the wealth of fruit they produce. They're relatively resistant to pests and disease.

It's time to pick your peppers when they reach the full size for their variety, based on the maturity date on the seed packet or growing instructions. Bell peppers should have a glossy surface and deep green or brilliant gold or vibrant red overall color. Some varieties have variegated hues at maturity. They should feel firm but not hard when squeezed with slight pressure. Sweet banana peppers are generally ripe when they reach a bright yellow, yellow-green, lime green or red color and yield to slight pressure, as well.

That's when to pick. And now for the how to pick and how to feast on your harvest.  Peppers sometimes are stubborn, so it's best to cut them off the plant with clean, sharp shears or a knife. Leave the stem end attached, to preserve the fruit as long as possible. Store at room temp, in a slightly cooler root cellar, or in the refrigerator, until ready for use. They're at their peak flavor when fresh off the plant.

Sweet peppers are delicious raw, and are colorful and crisp additions to veggie trays, served with hummus, ranch dip or cream cheese fillings. They can be sliced or diced to mix into tossed salads. And, they add color and texture when used as garnishes on entrees.

Cooked, bell and banana peppers are a bold flavor enhancer. They add a full, sweet taste to nearly any recipe. They can be cut into large or small pieces or long skinny slices.  Tiny diced red peppers add zing to simple cooked corn or green vegetables. They soften when cooked but can be added early or late in a dish's preparation, depending on how much crispness or wilting is preferred.

Pickled peppers are a good source of nutrition and a delicious side dish throughout the cold season, when store-bought peppers just don't satisfy. Peppers can be preserved in any traditional manner. Gourmet kitchens are never without roasted bell peppers in jars filled with brine or olive oil and they can be added last-minute to perk up even the most boring dish. Peppers can also be frozen for use months after the garden has retired for the season. Just chop and freeze in airtight containers.

The flavors and colors of sweet peppers marry well with onion, garlic, and most other vegetables, meats and spices. Many traditional American foods, as well as ethnic cuisines, call for sweet peppers, and no garden harvest is complete without them.

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