Friday, August 20, 2010

Focus: CHILE PEPPERS - Capsicum Annuum

Today Peggy is picking peppers, but not pickling them.  We are going to learn some things about chile peppers - the fresh kind, mostly - and not dried peppers like ancho, chipotle or pasilla.

Banish blandness
We use sriracha sauce in our house a lot to add heat and flavor.
Reading about chiles might be a bit unappealing for some of you, who might think "spicy" food is not fun but is painful.   But bland is boring, so I will try to help you tiptoe ever so gingerly into spicy territory.   Come on.  Walk on the wild side.  You might even discover a taste for heat and chile flavor you didn't know you had and it will expand your culinary horizons forever.  As an average Midwesterner with above average curiosity about food, I admit that chile peppers are still not an important or basic part of my daily food life.  But I am pleased to report that I have a much stronger relationship with jalapenos and red pepper flakes than I did five years ago and I am better for it.  Habaneros still scare me but I am working on that.  Baby steps.

Mexican soul
There are thousands of varieties of chile peppers - all colors, sizes, shapes, flavors and heat levels.  They are all part of the same botanical family - capsicum.  They are eaten and enjoyed around the world in many cuisines and cultures, but most of the world's chile crop is grown and eaten in Mexico.  Some have called chiles the "soul" of Mexican cooking.  (See A Cook's Tour of Mexico by Nancy Zaslavsky)  Chiles provide heat, but they also provide flavor.  For some dishes, it is important that a certain variety of chile be used.  For others the variety does not matter so much.   If you just want some heat - red pepper flakes might be all you need.

How hot is that pepper anyway?
One general rule of thumb is that the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is.  And often red or orange chilis are hotter than green.  There are exceptions to this rule - just to keep things interesting - and frustrating -  for would be chile cooks.  It also is generally true that much of the heat is in the seeds and "veins" of the pepper - so often people remove those and use the chile flesh only.  About one square inch of chile flesh generally will yield about 1 T. minced chile.

There is a scientific method for measuring the heat in chile peppers or foods containing chiles - called Scoville units.  The Scoville test places a piece of chile in slightly sweetened water and dilutes it.  A ranking of 10,000 means you can put the chile in 10,000 times as much water and still taste the heat.
Jalapenos come in at 2,500-5,000 units.  Poblanos or anchos at 1,000 to 2,000 units.  Chipotles at 5,000-10,000.  Habaneros at 100,000 to 350,000.  That is not a typo.  See why I am scared of them?  Police grade pepper spray weighs in at 5,300,000 units.  See why I am not going to mess with cops?  Here is more on Scoville heat unit rankings if you are interested.

 For the purposes of the ordinary home cook, Scoville units don't usually come into play.  One reason is that taste and heat are unpredictable in any given pepper.  Most jalapenos are quite hot, but 1 out of 20 might be usually hot or even unusually mild.  That is why food writer and cook Mark Bittman advises tasting peppers - even a tiny taste - before deciding how much to use.  He says "You gotta taste.  Really, it is the only foolproof method."  He also has a reassuringly relaxed attitude about cooking with chile peppers - "Use what you like, what you can find, and as much as you think tastes good."  Let the Mexican food experts debate the relative merits of Chilaca, Peron, Macho, Piquin or de Agua while you play around with jalapenos (and their smoky dried version - chipotles), serranos, anaheims and poblanos.

Safety and first aid
If you somehow end up with a fiery mouth, don't go for the beer or tequila.  Go for milk or yogurt.  Or maybe a piece of bread, cucumber or some plain cooked white rice.

If you are cooking with very hot peppers, use common sense.  Some people wear gloves.  Either way, be very careful to wash your hands and equipment well after working with very hot peppers.  Avoid touching your face and especially your eyes.

Jalapeno on the left, serranos on the right.  See how smooth and shiny they are?
Storage of fresh chile peppers
Fresh peppers should keep for 1-2 weeks or even a bit longer, wrapped loosely in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.  The peppers should be firm and have smooth, shiny skins.  Because fresh chile peppers are perishable, peppers are often dried, made into pastes or canned.

Gustatory Sweating
You might never have heard this term before.  I hadn't.  But I have seen this phenomenon for sure.  My husband loves to eat super hot foods until a sweat breaks out all over his head.  Sometimes the sweat even drips down into his eyes.  This makes him happy,  that is all I can say.  I'll take my endorphins in other forms, thank you very much.  Some people say that G.S. cools you off.  I'd rather have a popsicle or run through the sprinkler.

Some common chiles - starting with the hottest - and a few recipes
Diana Kennedy is a widely recognized expert in Mexican cuisine.  For a lovely detailed discussion of thirty two fresh and dried chiles, along with color pictures, preparation tips and recipes -  see her book From My Mexican Kitchen - techniques and ingredients

Habaneros look like a teeny bell pepper.  They have a complex flavor and are Mexico's hottest pepper.  They are best fresh and never skinned or peeled.  They are often used whole as a flavoring in a sauce, pickles or an ingredient in a strong chile sauce.  Diana Kennedy says its "distinctive and appetizing flavor and aroma" is more potent when the pepper is asado (charred/roasted).  She suggests using just a tiny 1/2 inch piece the first time you cook with it.  She also says it has a "fruity" flavor which goes well in tropical fruit salsas.

Cayenne is a long, slightly gnarled and thin very hot pepper,  found in both red and green colors.

Serrano chiles are finger sized or smaller - about 2" x 1" inch, tapered.  It is an everyday chile, sometimes referred to as chile verde.  You can find it in red or green forms.
Recipe: three minute salsa

Jalapeno chiles are the most widely used fresh chiles in America and are available fresh year round.  They are considered medium hot to hot.  (I think they are just hot!)  They are used cooked and raw in salsas and other dishes.  They may be charred, peeled and seeded and stuffed with cheese, meat or fish.  When ripened to red, dried and smoked they are known as chipotle chiles.

"The chile poblano is, in my opinion, one of the most delicious foods in the world."  Thus says Diana Kennedy, the "high priestess" of Mexican cooking.  It is mild, green and fleshy, large and triangular (2 1/2" across and 4 1/2" long).  Poblanos are good roasted and skinned, stuffed or cooked and added to other dishes.  They are always cooked - not used raw in, say, salsas.  When ripened on the plant and then dried they are called ancho chiles.

California Anaheim chiles are mild and similar to poblanos.  The Chile Verde del Norte grown in northwest Mexico is probably the same or very similar. (Note: chiles can taste different depending on the soil and climate conditions in which they are grown.)
This chile is about 5 1/2 " long and 1 1/4 " wide with little tapering at the base.  Because the skin can be tough, it is often charred, skinned and deseeded and then stuffed or cut into strips or dried whole.
Here is a recipe for roasted green chile stew which uses both Anaheim and Serrano chiles.  This web site has a mother lode of chile recipes, as it is sponsored by a farm which specializes in growing chiles.

More recipes - for no cook pasta sauce with chiles.  Since I just wrote about cooking pasta, these recipes might be interesting to check out.  Italian-Mexican fusion.  I am for it.

Special update bonus - two chili sauce recipes here

No comments:

Post a Comment