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Thursday, Aug. 26, 2004 11:34 am

That burning sensation

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If you want zip and heat in your favorite entrée, add a chile pepper. Peppers come in a variety of shapes and colors and range in taste from sweet and mild to hot.

Bell peppers are often picked when green and immature. Allowed to ripen to red, yellow, orange, brown, or purple, they are sweeter. Hot peppers are often harvested at maturity, usually when red.

At the market, choose high-quality peppers that are fresh-looking, firm, thick-fleshed, and free of disease and insect damage. Avoid bruised or soft peppers.

By varying the type, quantity, and part of the pepper you use, you can adjust the heat of a dish. The main source of pungency in peppers is capsaicin, which is odorless and tasteless but produces a burning sensation on contact. Capsaicins are found in the inner wall of the fruit (the white "ribs" and white lining) and are concentrated at the stem end of the pepper. The seeds may also contain heat. You can reduce heat by removing the seeds and ribs.

A pepper's heat is measured in Scoville heat units with the use of a systematic dilution test developed by Wilbur Scoville in 1912. The scale ranges from 0 for the mild, sweet bell pepper to 300,000 for the fiery hot habanero pepper. Water stress on pepper plants can increase pungency, whereas cooler temperatures can decrease the heat of a pepper.

If you eat too much of a hot pepper or can't bear the heat, don't drink water. Because capsaicins are oils, they do not mix well with water, which will spread the heat around your mouth. Instead, drink milk or eat pasta, bread, or potatoes. These oil-absorbing foods will help relieve the burning sensation.

Wash peppers before peeling or chopping them. Avoid direct contact with hot peppers, because the volatile oils they contain can cause skin irritation or burns. Wear rubber gloves while handling them, and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before touching your face. The seeds from hot peppers are often removed.

Most all peppers are good sources of vitamins A and C. A mature pepper has a higher concentration of vitamins. Both sweet and hot peppers are delicious raw, grilled, or added to cooked recipes. One type of pepper may be substituted for another in salsa recipes, but, when canning, do not vary the total amount of peppers called for in a recipe.

For more information on peppers -- growing, harvesting, common problems, and recipes -- visit the University of Illinois Extension's "Watch Your Garden Grow" Web site, www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/veggies/peppers1.html.

Color without flowers

When most home gardeners contemplate adding color to their gardens, they think of flowers. But flowers are fleeting. Leaves are not.

"If you utilize plants that have colorful leaves, you'll have color in your garden all the time, as opposed to just when the flowers are in bloom," says Greg Stack, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. "You can build a whole garden around plants with colorful foliage rather than flowers."

Home gardeners can visit the university extension's Web site "Fantastic Foliage" at www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/foliage/index.html.

Don't overlook the many annuals, hardy perennials, trees, and shrubs that offer the benefit of colorful foliage and can be incorporated into the garden as seasonal favorites or long-term residents. The "Fantastic Foliage" site features pictures of these and other plants, including some that may not be well known. The site also includes a directory of plants that are suitable as color-providing foliage, plus guidelines for their use.

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