Since Columbus brought both hot and sweet peppers back to Spain from America 500 years ago, they have found their way into cooking all over the world. Chilies permeate spicy Szechuan Chinese and Thai dishes as well as America's own Tex-Mex and Cajun specialties. And who could imagine Indian food without curry, which contains ground chili peppers and up to 20 other herbs and spices, or Hungarian goulash without paprika, the powdered form of the paprika pepper?

Those with timid palates may shy away from the more fiery peppers, but it's worth working up the courage to experiment with different varieties. Besides their ability to enliven so many dishes, peppers contain virtually no fat and are rich in vitamins A and C.Sweet peppers are usually called peppers, while hot ones are usually referred to as chilies. Just how keen their bite is varies, but the "heat" of a pepper is actually evaluated by scientific testing and measured on a scale called Scoville heat units. The hottest pepper ever measured was a habanero. To lend some perspective, the jalapeno measures between 2500 and 10,000 Scoville heat units, while the habanero blazes at between 100,000 and 300,000 units.

Preparing peppers

Generally, the smaller the pepper, the hotter it will be. The compound that produces the chili's heat, called capsaicin, is concentrated primarily in the seeds and the white tissue surrounding the seeds, so removing these is virtually the only way to reduce the fieriness of a pepper.

The capsaicin in hot peppers is a skin irritant, so wash your hands thoroughly after handling them, wear thin plastic gloves if your skin is already irritated or cut, and be sure not to rub your eyes or nose while preparing them. If while eating a pepper-laced dish you encounter a hotter mouthful than you anticipated, dairy products or starches are the best way to relieve your burning palate. Alcohol escalates the fiery effects of the capsaicin, so have a forkful of rice instead of reaching for that margarita.

Fresh large peppers, both hot and sweet, have a tough outer skin that should be removed; this is easiest to accomplish by roasting them, which makes the crisp, crunchy flesh soft and smoky-tasting. Place peppers directly on the trivet of a gas-stove burner over high heat or on the grill. Just as each section turns puffy and black, turn the pepper with tongs until the skin is blackened all over. (You can also place peppers on a rimmed baking sheet and broil them in the oven, turning them as they become charred.)

Transfer the blackened peppers to a bowl, cover immediately with plastic wrap and let them stand for 15 minutes. Then peel off the blackened skin, and remove the stem and seeds.

Serve the peppers as antipasto, in salads, stuffed or in salsas and quesadillas. Or make a paste by blending roasted peppers with water or stock; add the paste to stews, salsas or sauces for smoky flavor.

Pepper varieties

Here are some peppers to look for in stores or grow in your own garden.

- Sweet bell peppers are the most familiar and widely grown variety. Gardeners and cooks have made the colorful bell peppers popular, so now you can find chocolate, orange, purple and yellow peppers in addition to the ubiquitous green bell.

- Hot, pungent cayenne pepper is a familiar seasoning in its dried, powdered form, but many varieties of the fresh pepper are available as well, with fruits from 3 to 8 inches long.

- Chiltepin is the name for the undomesticated wild pepper, the closest thing to the original wild pepper that exists today. Smoky and hot, it is the world's most expensive spice, after saffron, costing up to $128 a pound.

- Habanero peppers are extremely hot. They originated in the Yucatan and are shaped like a small, flattened bell.

- Jalapenos are probably the most common hot pepper. They come in a range of sizes and are moderately hot to hot in flavor. The jalapeno holds up well for roasting and frying and is also good in fresh salsas and salads.

- Pimiento peppers, used for stuffing olives, have very sweet flesh. There are mild-tasting to very hot varieties.

- Poblano is the fresh form of a pepper that when dried is called ancho. Large and mild, the peppers are often served stuffed with cheese, rice or other grains.

- Serranos are one of the best peppers for fresh salsa, particularly the chunky, fresh pico de gallo.

- The Tabasco pepper is very hot - and the primary ingredient in the famed Tabasco hot sauce from Louisiana.

Growing peppers

If you love eating peppers, consider growing them yourself. Peppers are pe-ren-nials in tropical regions, though they must be treated as annuals in most areas of the United States.

In general, peppers thrive in a warm, sunny spot, in well-drained soil with a pH value between 6.0 and 8.0 (6.7 to 7.3 is optimum).

Peppers require six to eight weeks indoors to start from seed and should not be transplanted into a garden until nighttime temperatures stabilize above 55 degrees.Since peppers like phosphorus, an old trick is to bury a few unburned match-sticks in a hole beneath the seedlings' roots.

Many of the hotter pepper varieties require a long growing season. To find varieties that will grow well in your climate, contact Johnny's Selected Seeds (207-437-9294; free catalog) and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (804-973-4703; catalog $2).