Commentary: Harvest of Month features ‘Pepper Moon’
Special to The Union
Earlier this month, we celebrated the first full moon of the fall, which also happened to be a lunar eclipse. Traditionally, when the moon turns a deep crimson color due to an eclipse, it has been called the Blood Moon.
In honor of October’s harvest of the month, we’re renaming it the Pepper Moon. That’s right, as we have turned the corner into autumn, our harvest of the month is none other than the mighty pepper.
This month, students from 18 local schools tasted sweet, red peppers grown by local producer Mountain Bounty Farm. A total of 7,000 peppers were grown, harvested, washed and eventually crunched on by 89 percent of our K-8 population thanks to Sierra Harvest’s monthly program. As you might expect, the kids loved them.
What do we know about the pepper? It can be sweet, spicy, large or small and are grown all over the world in temperate areas. Nutritionally, it’s a powerhouse.
Here are some perfect pepper points to ponder:
— A 1⁄2 cup of sweet peppers (green, yellow, and red) is an excellent source of vitamin C. By weight, green bell peppers have twice as much vitamin C as citrus fruit but don’t stop there — red bell peppers have three times as much and hot peppers contain even more — 357 percent more vitamin C than one orange!
That’s right, put down the OJ folks and reach for the hot sauce to get all that immune boosting goodness.
— A 1⁄2 cup of sweet red peppers is also a good source of vitamin B6, which helps your body build healthy blood cells.
— The pepper plant is a member of the Solanaceae or “nightshade” family, which also includes tomatoes and potatoes. Unlike its cousins in this family, the leaves of the pepper plant are not toxic.
— As bell peppers mature (become red), their taste becomes sweeter and milder. Any time you are eating a green pepper, it is in fact an unripe red, orange, yellow or purple pepper. This ripeness factor doesn’t seem to matter to Americans though, green peppers are by far the most popular pepper sold in this country.
— About 9,000 years ago, the wild pepper plant originated near Bolivia and Peru.
It was later cultivated for its fruits by the Olmecs, Toltecs, and Aztecs.
— Peppers were named by Christopher Columbus and Spanish explorers who were searching for peppercorn plants to produce black pepper. Columbus took samples of a wide variety of peppers back to Europe where they became quite popular. Peppers are used as a food, condiment, and spice and medicine. Since then, peppers have also been introduced to Africa and Asia.
For thousands of years, people have been enraptured by the spice of peppers. Aside from the culinary peppercorns, nothing else in nature has the spice that we crave. Humans love the burn of a spicy pepper so much that we have been breeding them to be hotter and hotter!
We even created a scale of heat — measured in “Scoville Heat Units” to compare the spiciness of peppers from around the world. The current champion is “Carolina Reaper” coming in at a scale of 2.2 million.
To put that into perspective, a jalapeño rates around 5,000 and a cayenne pepper rates around 40,000 units. Historically, Japanese samurai used chili peppers in order to reduce the amount of fear they felt: eating them as part of a ritual meal before battles made them feel invincible.
All this spice isn’t just good for making us cry (or feel invincible), there are actually many health benefits in hot peppers found in the compound capsaicin, including cancer prevention, pain relief, topical applications (it burns!), appetite suppression, immune system support and a bounty of antioxidants.
Some people even claim that eating hot peppers gives them a burst of energy! Put on your dancing shoes and try it for yourself by joining Sierra Harvest on Oct. 25 at the Banner Grange for a potluck harvest party and contra dance. More information can be found at sierraharvest.org/calendar
Here’s a lovely fall pepper recipe adapted from Gourmet Magazine (September 1995). It’s got all the colors of changing leaves and ingredients that are in season now.
Try it as a side dish, or add beans to it and serve with a side of rice for a full, satisfying meal.
Butternut Squash and Red Pepper Casserole
Serves 6 as a side dish
3 1/2 pounds butternut squash
1 large red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
1.5 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary leaves
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan (about 2 ounces)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
With a sharp knife cut squash crosswise into 2-inch thick slices. Working with 1 slice at a time, cut side down, cut away peel and seeds and cut squash into 1-inch cubes (about 9 cups).
In a large bowl, stir together squash, bell pepper, oil, garlic, herbs, black pepper, and salt to taste. Transfer mixture to a 2- to 2 1/2-quart gratin dish or other shallow baking dish and sprinkle evenly with Parmesan.
Bake casserole in middle of oven until squash is tender and top is golden, about 1 hour.
Amanda Thibodeau is the Farm to School coordinator and Food Love Project director at Sierra Harvest. For more information, call 530-265-2343.
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