A fiery fiesta of flavor.
There are chiles to suit almost any palate. The following are some of the most popular and useful of peppers, some of them mild, some scorching.
Here’s a trio of salsa recipes that you may find rather addictive. Swap ingredients to use what you have on hand or to create your own. A large part of the fun of salsa making is in the individual touches. Whatever your touch is, make your salsa fresh and hot!
What is it about chile peppers that inspires such passion among so many peoples around the world? Some people love them at first bite; for some they’re an acquired passion. But we’ve found that to know them well is to love them more.
Peppers belong to one of the premier food families of the plant kingdom, the Solanaceae, and count among their cousins such universal favorites as potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants. Their genus (Capsicum) stands out, though, for its large number of species and varieties, its many shapes and sizes, its profusion of glossy and attractive colors, and its range of flavor. The diversity of pepper flavors is remarkable: sweet to searingly pungent, hot and sweet at the same time, green and vegetal, earthy, and fruity.
Peppers are New World plants of considerable antiquity. Remains of peppers have been carbon-dated to 7000 b.c. at archaeological sites in southeastern Mexico. Fossilized pepper fruits that are larger than indigenous wild varieties have been dated to 2500 b.c. in northern Peru, suggesting that they were cultivated.
During the fifteenth century, Columbus was one of several European explorers who sought to find sea routes to India, home of black pepper (Piper nigrum), then the most expensive spice in the world. Though disappointed that he had not reached India, where he could have filled his holds with the highly profitable spice, he recognized the pungent qualities of the chile peppers he did find. Chiles were totally new plants for the Europeans.
The taxonomy of peppers has its own history, and the genus has been classified and reclassified as Pimenta, Piper, and Capsicum several times. Peppers themselves contribute to the confusion, being prolific and hybridizing easily. Further, chile peppers have many regional and local common names in their native and adopted lands.
Even the spelling of the word “chile” has yet to be codified. In fact, it has stirred heated debate and was the subject of a formal declaration read into the Congressional Record in 1983 by Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico. New Mexico, which accounts for more chile pepper production than any other state, prefers “chile” (the Spanish form of chilli, from the language of the Aztecs). “Chili” is an American spelling that refers to the popular stew or the powdered chile-and-spice blend that is used to flavor it.
Another reason for their multitudes of names is chiles’ virtually instantaneous acceptance around the world after their discovery by European explorers.
With their flavor, the brightness they contributed to bland diets, their ease of cultivation, and the inexpensive alternative they afforded to spices, peppers quickly conquered palates.
In the United States today, chile power is on the rise. An increasing interest in ethnic cuisines has meant that there are far more kinds of chiles, fresh and dried, and chile preparations available in more markets than even five years ago. Consumers can choose Thai and other Asian peppers; chipotles, de árbols, guajillos from Mexico; and habanero, Scotch bonnet, and other peppers from Yucatán and the Caribbean. Commercial salsas have overtaken ketchup as the most common American condiment.
Peppers are the only foodstuff that can provoke both intense pleasure and pain. The compound responsible for these reactions is capsaicin, a complex of about a dozen vanillyl amides. Capsaicin is extremely powerful; it can be detected by the human tongue in a solution of a million parts of base liquid to one part capsaicin.
Moreover, peppers can be addictive, not only for humans, but for chimpanzees, rats, moose, goats, dogs, and chickens, as shown in laboratory experiments and by observation. Tests using humans show that they become tolerant of capsaicin and are unable to distinguish its intensity after a few tests. This tolerance is part of the puzzle of pleasure, pain, and pepper addiction. Eating hot peppers triggers a dramatic response in most people—tears, sweating, and other signs of distress—yet millions choose to repeat the experience daily. How to explain it?
One theory is that when capsaicin touches nerve endings in the mouth, pain messages are transmitted to the brain just as they would be in an actual burn. These signal the brain to secrete endorphins, natural painkillers which, in excess, produce euphoria. Each bite of pepper sends another message of pain, provoking another jolt of endorphins. The overall effect is a pleasurable sensation that pepper devotees come to crave.
Touching capsaicin-rich membranes or juice when handling chiles can also cause pain in the fingertips, where many nerve endings are located. We experienced a memorable chile burn once while preparing two pounds of habaneros for jelly, even though we were wearing thin surgical gloves. Always wear rubber gloves when working with chiles. The mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, and lips can also be affected, so avoid touching your face until you have removed the gloves and washed your hands.
However painful they can be, it is a certainty that peppers bring pleasure to about one-fourth of the world’s people. That’s 1,300,000,000 happy chile consumers. Peppers are one of a handful of foods—along with garlic, onions, and other members of the genus Allium—whose ancient dietary use is proving the wisdom of the ages.
The best way to ensure a fresh chile supply is to grow your own if you can. Dry, hot climates like that of the southwestern United States, where temperatures hardly drop at night, produce the hottest chiles. They seem to grow best and be most pungent in loamy soil with plenty of nitrogen, potash, and calcium. The plants benefit greatly when organic matter such as compost or aged manure is worked into the soil. Chiles need full sunlight and good drainage.
Set young plants out in early spring when the weather is warm and stable, in rows 2 to 3 feet apart with 18 to 30 inches between plants, depending on their expected size at maturity. Set the plants so that the soil level is about 2 inches below the lowest set of leaves, then water and feed with a soluble fertilizer high in calcium nitrate. Two to 3 inches of water a week will provide enough moisture to keep plants vigorous. Fertilize regularly. The larger varieties usually need staking.
A number of pests and diseases can afflict chile peppers. Inspect plants regularly, and hand-pick or water-spray insects from plants. Mosaics present the biggest threat; remove and dispose of diseased plants. Do not plant peppers near cantaloupes, cucumbers, or tomatoes, as they are also susceptible to tobacco mosaic. If you’re a smoker, don’t smoke near pepper plants, and wash your hands before tending plants or harvesting peppers.
Fresh chiles—gleaming gold, neon orange, scarlet and crimson, chartreuse and forest green, eggplant and lavender purple; round, oblong, arrow- and heart-shaped, large and small—look as if they ought to contribute to our happiness and health, and they do. Not only do they tingle our tongues, they contain large amounts of vitamins C and A. By weight, fresh peppers have about three times as much vitamin C as oranges, limes, and lemons; fresh red chiles have as much vitamin A as carrots. Peppers also contain vitamins E and P and potassium.
Though nutritive value is roughly the same for all capsicums, from the hottest habanero to the mildest bell, they vary greatly in flavor and heat. Because the varietal names are used so inconsistently, the best way to distinguish chiles is by their shape, color, and flavor. The best time to sample chiles is August through October, when pepper harvests are in progress throughout the country. In other months, most peppers in the market are imported, and you’ll have to pick through them to find the freshest. Flavor and pungency, as well as vitamin content, diminish as peppers are kept in storage.
There are some rules of thumb about pepper pungency. In general, the smaller a pepper, the hotter it is. (The main exception to this is the habanero, the hottest pepper known, which is quite large when compared to a tiny tabasco or tepín.) When cooked, fresh chiles tend to lose some heat, whereas dried peppers intensify in heat.
Many people grow chiles according to the dishes they like to make with them. Large varieties can be eaten green—stuffed, in sauces and stews—or allowed to ripen to red, then dried. In the green stage, their thin skins are removed by roasting and peeling. Medium-sized chiles are eaten fresh in salsas and salads, cooked briefly in stir-fried dishes, sautés, or sauces, and pickled. Small chiles are occasionally eaten fresh in salsas and commonly dried for decorative and kitchen use.
Herbs are excellent chile companions, in the garden and in the kitchen. Basil, coriander, epazote, garlic, garlic chives, mint, marjoram, oregano, and sage are herbs that enhance the flavor of chiles.
Carolyn Dille and Susan Belsinger, respectively from San Jose, California, and Brookeville, Maryland, are expert cooks and food developers. This article is adapted from their most recent collaboration, The Chile Pepper Book, published in 1994 by Interweave Press.
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