Sunday, October 2, 2011


Living in South Texas and being a resolute fan of Mexican and South West cooking, I know and use many different kinds of hot peppers. My husband eats almost all his meals with the hottest bottled hot sauce he can find, well, except his breakfast – and sometimes even then, and we both enjoy eating food doused with homemade salsa several times a week. I can bet that most of my readers also like to eat tasty dishes that contain some kind of hot peppers or chili sauce. Do I recommend cooking with chilies? Of course, I do. But personally, I don’t think that they should become any kind of addiction and are best eaten in smaller, rather than larger, quantities.

To name a few of the most popular hot peppers - and the ones I use most, there are: cayenne, jalapeno, Serrano, poblano, banana, cascabel, and pasilla. Of course, I don’t buy all of them every week or cook with a bunch of them at a time! That wouldn’t be a meal but an extravaganza of smoldering distress. But different regional dishes call for different peppers, and substituting one for another just isn’t a good idea. My husband sometimes buys himself some habaneros. I won’t have anything to do with those super hot peppers. He has to prepare them himself. The closest I get is to them is to scrape the tiny seeds and veins off the plates after the meal, and even that makes me cough and sneeze. Anyway, all these different kinds of peppers are found at grocery stores all over Texas, and I suppose they’re just as common in the entire South West. If you don’t live in those areas, there are surely some specialty food stores that have chilies wherever you are.

Bring on the heat.
All peppers have a chemical called capsaicin, and the degree of capsaicin heat of each variety is measured according to the Scoville Heat Index. Among the mildest on the Scoville scale are bell peppers, Anaheim, and banana peppers. In the middle are peppers like Serrano, yellow hot wax peppers, poblanos (these vary a lot in heat), and red cayenne. Among the hottest peppers you’re likely to find in stores are the jalapenos and habaneros. Some Oriental ones are even hotter. The chipotles that you've probably seen are the same jalapenos that have been smoked, thereby increasing their heat and giving them a distinctive flavor.

Whatever their heat level, all red chilies are high in vitamin A and vitamin C as well as folic acid, potassium and antioxidants. They are low sodium and have almost no carbs. Because of their heat, they induce sweating which serves to cool the body, and they are also a digestive stimulant. Many dieters claim that chilies help increase their metabolism. That may or may not be true. Probably, what’s better established is that people tend to feel better satisfied with smaller meals when they eat foods that contain a fair amount of capsaicin.

Preparation and cooking tips
As to the culinary properties of these marvelous little plants, it’s difficult to say something flatly and still have it be the absolute truth. Just remember each chili adds a distinct flavor as well as adding heat to a dish. So, follow your recipes and buy what’s called for. Sometimes, the same chili varies in both flavor and heat, depending on the soil and the amount of rainfall in the area or other watering available. I guess the only way to have uniform outcome as far as peppers is concerned is to grow them in green houses. Recommendable as that might be, I imagine that these hardy little plants will continue to be regular crops rather than hot house products. Of course, the best way to get uniform results would be to grow them yourself - something that isn't really difficult in a small garden or even a large container.

Fresh chilies keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks if placed in a closed container and wrapped in paper towels. When choosing  chilies, select the ones that have firm and have no blemishes. When you’re ready to prepare the food, use a small knife to cut the chilies length-wise down the center and remove the seeds and membranes. Add fresh chilies or chili powder when you begin to cook. This allows the flavor to improve and lessens the heat. Don’t go overboard when you add chilies, if you’re not sure what you’re doing. You can always add a little hot sauce at the end or put a bottle of sauce on the table.

As a woman who has some kind of contact with hot peppers almost every day, I can say that great care needs to be taken when handling raw chilies. And, anyone who prepares or eats meals that include hot peppers in any form can sometimes suffer regrettable consequences. Usually, it's an immediate sting and you can calm it down by rubbing a bit of olive oil (or any cooking oil that you have on hand) on the affected area to “dilute” the hot capsaicin oil and then washing the area with hand soap and warm water to flush away  the oils.

Many people think that the seeds are the hottest part of chilies. The heat of chili peppers comes from the seeds, the veins (the thin inner membranes), and the parts nearest the veins. The oils from the seeds and veins can be very irritating to the skin and can cause painful burning of the hands, eyes, and lips. Do not touch your face while handling chilies. Wash your hands well in warm soapy water after handling. Wear rubber gloves if your skin is especially sensitive or any time, if you're handling the hottest kinds of chili peppers.

There's a difference between the heat of raw chilis and what they're like when they're cooked. The capsaicin of all red chilis burns on contact with the lips, tongue, and fingers. But the chemical reacts somewhat differently in the mouth, giving a usually pleasant heat sensation. Obviously, too much chili or too hot a chili will cause major distress in the mouth, throat and beyond in all parts of the digestive system. Beware!

For milder dishes, discard both the seeds and veins. This substantially decreases the sting. If the cooked food causes you heat distress, don’t drink water. The chemical sensation is even stronger with water, making a bad situation worse. Drinking plain milk or a few spoons of yoghurt has a soothing effect on the mouth and throat.

Baked Peppers With Cheese Recipe
Make every one happy by preparing two different peppers, one sweet and the other moderately hot, in the very same tasty way. I’m talking about stuffed green peppers, a family favorite that can be extended to include some of the hot stuff.

3 bell peppers and 3 poblanos (These look a lot different, both raw and cooked, so you'll never confuse them.)
about a 1/2 pound of fresh white (Farmers, feta, ricotta, panela, or cottage) cheese. 6 Roma (small) tomatoes or a can of stewed tomatoes
1 small onion, chopped very fine
2 Tbsp. of parsley or cilantro, chopped very fine
2 cloves garlic
4 Tbsp. of olive oil, 2 to be blended and two more to brush on the peppers
Salt and pepper to taste
Option: For a lighter dish, stuff the peppers with cooked rice along with the cheese.
Pre-heat your oven to 300 degrees. Rinse the peppers twice in cold water. Bring a large pot of water to boil, and add the whole peppers. Boil them for five minutes. That’s just enough to soften them.

Drain and rinse the peppers, then dry them off and slice them in half and deseed them. Use rubber gloves when handling poblanos and wash your hands immediately afterwards. Brush the pepper halves inside and out with olive oil. Put a little seasoned salt on them (reduced sodium kind, please).

Mix the tomatoes with the other ingredients in the blender.

Fill all pepper halves with cheese. You can use wood toothpicks to hold two halves together, and that way prevent the cheese from spilling out into the sauce.  Place them in a baking pan and pour the blended tomato mixture over them. Bake for about 50 minutes.

Related posts
Preparing vegetarian meals.

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