(Nov. 17) If you’re into Southern or Italian cuisine, you know you can’t cook without bell peppers. But the versatility of the flavorful vegetable makes it significant to many dishes and applications.

Stuff it for an entree, slice it for salads, chop it for brunoise, roast it for class and mix varieties for color.

The biggest change in foodservice with bell peppers in the past decade is the emergence of red bell peppers in chefs’ kitchens, says Frank Pero, vice president and director of marketing for Pero Packing & Sales Inc., Del Rey, Fla. The company, which grows peppers on more than 7,000 acres in Florida alone, is one of the largest bell pepper growers in the East.

The best green pepper to Pero is dark green, has a thick wall for longer shelf life and is blocky with four even lobes.

Green peppers have a stronger flavor than red, yellow and orange ones because the vegetable is immature when it’s green. One variety turns red when it matures. Other varieties turn other colors like yellow or orange, when they ripen. Because the colored bell peppers are more mature, they have a sweeter, milder flavor, Pero says.

The company sells field- and greenhouse-grown peppers, which have the same flavor, but may differ in other characteristics, he says.

Field-grown peppers tend to be larger, have a thicker wall from weathering the elements, may have some scarring and are not as uniformly shaped because of pollination, he says.

Because of the protected environment, greenhouse-grown peppers have a more consistent quality.

The bulk of U.S.-grown bell peppers come from Florida, California and Georgia.

Evaluate your menu to see where you can add a little pepper color and flavor.

STUFF AND SERVE

While stuffed peppers might be classic, use your imagination to add a unique or seasonal flair.

The stuffed bell pepper on the menu at The Notchland Inn Bed and Breakfast and Restaurant, Hart’s Location, N.H., has lasted through five chefs, and they all have added their own signature flavor. But the common denominator with each is a tofu stuffing, says Leslie Schoof, one of the owner/innkeepers.

The written recipe calls for a large red, yellow or orange bell pepper stuffed with a mixture of tofu, onion, garlic, tomato, tamari, white wine, salt and pepper, he says.

The Notchland Inn uses the stuffed pepper as a vegetarian entree or sometimes as an appetizer. Since tofu takes on the flavor of the other ingredients, if you add more garlic, that’s the overriding flavor, he says. Some chefs add teriyaki sauce.

For another variation, the restaurant adds different toppings to the pepper, like julienned fresh vegetables, bacon bits or smoked salmon, he says.

There is more than one way to stuff a pepper. Jason Pound, executive chef at Aquavina and Latorres restaurants in Charlotte, N.C., takes a square red pepper, fire roasts it, peels it and stuffs it with a chive, cream cheese and goat cheese mixture. He rolls the pepper until it becomes round and slices it into three or four stuffed red pepper disks. He uses the disks to ornately decorate a salad of baby arugula tossed in roasted tomato dressing with crabmeat tossed in black olive vinaigrette. The salad is one of the most popular menu items, he says.

His goal with the salad is to tie in flavors of the Mediterranean (black olives, red pepper and tomatoes). The mellow sweetness and tang of the red pepper works well with the creamy richness of the goat cheese, he says.

A LITTLE SAUCY

Roasted bell peppers add a trendy ring to the title of anything you add them to.

The Gables Inn Bed and Breakfast and Restaurant in Stowe, Vt., makes roasted bell pepper hollandaise sauce with which to smother portabella benedicts as a vegetarian breakfast entrée.

To make the hollandaise sauce, co-owner/chef Randy Stern makes a paste of pureed roasted red pepper, salt, pepper and heavy cream and mixes 2 tablespoons of the paste with 2 ounces of a basic hollandaise sauce made of egg yolk, white wine and lemon juice.

He ladles the sauce over poached eggs served in portabella mushroom caps poached in red wine and shallots.

It’s a vegetarian version of eggs benedict with a creamy, lemon buttery flavor with roasted bell pepper undertones, Stern says.

If you’re trying to expand the flavor profile of an entree, consider roasted pepper chutney as a topping.

At Latorres, Pound tops coconut glazed tuna with roasted red pepper chutney to cut through the richness of the tuna and the coconut glaze, he says.

To make the chutney, he sautés onion in habanero chili oil, which he makes from an infusion of the chilies and oil, then adds brown sugar and cider vinegar. To finish it off, he folds in red bell peppers that he has roasted, peeled and julienned. He adds chopped cilantro to it after it has cooled.

For the color, imagine using bell peppers as a coulis to enliven an otherwise bland-looking item. Sandy Reinschmidt, chef at The Notchland Inn, makes a simple coulis of ground, roasted red peppers, salt and pepper and spoons it on the plate with corn custard on top. It adds extra flavor to the custard along with the red brightness, she says.

She also likes to make red or yellow bell pepper balsamic relish to serve with chicken. She juliennes the peppers and sautés them with balsamic vinegar until both ingredients are reduced to syrup. She also uses this on grilled lamb chops with a saffron reduction and the relish on top, she says.

Reinschmidt enjoys the flavor of bell peppers so much, having grown up with Creole cooking, that she enjoys adding them to soup. For example, red bell peppers add color to her lemon chicken barley soup and her beef soup with red wine, vegetables and wild rice she says.

While many chefs throw away the seeds and core of the pepper, she throws it in the soup stock to add a heartiness to the flavor, she says.