Columbus, searching for a new route to the spice laden West Indies, was thinking of a different pepper from those he found in the New World. The dried black pepper that is ground as a seasoning comes from berries and seeds of the Piper nigrum which is no way related to the of the genus Capsicum, bell peppers and chilies, that Columbus found growing in the Indian gardens in the Caribbean. His find was described upon his return to Spain as "pepper more pungent than that of the Caucaasus."
Spice-hungry Europeans immediately adopted the new vegetable. Within 50 years peppers were found growing in England: in less than a century, on Austrian crown lands. They became so common in India that some people thought they were a native plant.
The common bell peppers are perhaps the most familiar peppers in the United States. Most but not all are bell shaped; some are tapered. There are also a few hot bell peppers, so don't presume that a bell pepper is sweet. Most bell peppers that are sold green in the market will turn red, some yellow, and some purple at maturity.
Most gardeners harvest the fruit when it is green, but if left on the plant until red, yellow, or purple the they become even sweeter and more mellow. To prepare, remove stems, seeds and pith. Then slice and chop them for use in salads, raw vegetable crudities, soups, stews, omelets, and vegetable casseroles. They can be fried, sauteed, stuffed and baked, or pickled, depending on the type.
Chopped bell peppers can be sauteed or butter-steamed in about 5 minutes; they are very good with onions and or mushrooms. Purple bell peppers will usually turn green when cooked.
The sweetest of all peppers is the pimiento. Dried pimientoes become paprika.
Most intensely flavored, most loved, and most confused group of vegetables is chiles. Part of the problem is the many types.
There are more than a 100 varieties and they cross pollinate with ease. A chile grown in a mild climate like the coastal valley of California will be mild tasting, but the same chile grown in more stressful conditions like Mexico will be hot.
Most but not all chiles that are long, tapered, thin, cone shaped, or round are hot, the color has nothing to do with its spiciness. Chiles are sold when red, but they can be green or yellow as well. When dried, chiles become chili powder or cayennne pepper and are the base for Tabasco and other hot sauces. Chiles are used in international cuisines such as Mexican, Indian, African, Spanish, Portuguese, Indonesian, and Korean to name a few. The pepper or chile used depends on a Cultures taste.
Since the oil can irritate the eyes and skin, wear rubber gloves when preparing them; you might even want to hold them under running water. Be sure to remove the stems, seeds, and inner membranes (the hottest part). To peel chilies, blister them under the broiler, then slip them into a brown paper bag, twist to close and let stand to steam and cool. Remove them one at a time and peel, starting at the stem end.
Chilies can be stored in vinegar to add picante to any type of dish. Both the chiles and the vinegar can be used in cooking and for salads.
Both bell peppers and chiles can be dried for later use. Dry in the microwave, on a drying rack or air-dried and strung together until needed.