|By Lee Franzel
The capsicum clan kinda snuck up on me. We all learned about jalapeños as kids and played tricks on each other, “Try that pickle,” laughing our tails off at the distress of the unsuspecting friend — Mexican food in those days being something foreign to many. Nowadays, hot peppers are commonplace and becoming more and more integrated into the American kitchen, showing up in everything from chocolate to raspberry jam. Most Texas cooks have stuffed a poblano or New Mexican Hatch chiles to make rellenos. Many of us have purchased dried ancho, pasilla and guajillo peppers, and ground our own custom chili powder and rehydrated dried ones for personalized salsas. Our climate is great for growing the heat-loving genus in our home plots.
As a long-time Texas gardener, I have grown and pickled banana peppers. I learned there were big differences between varieties. Hungarian wax pepper is quite hot, so I quickly learned to look for “sweet banana pepper” when buying transplants in the spring.
My many business trips to El Paso and Albuquerque led to a love affair with the Hatch chili. After years of Tex-Mex style, many Texans (myself included) discovered the green chili taste and called it a “whole ’nuther type of Mexican food.” Nowadays, I have a note on the calendar to obtain a stash of roasted Hatch chiles for the freezer every August for later consumption. After acquiring the taste, green enchiladas with a tomatillo sauce are OK, but made with Hatch chiles, heavenly.
My veggie plot in South-Central Texas produced a big crop of poblanos this past season as well as Anaheim, jalapeño and ‘Holy Molé,’ a mild variety of pasilla. What to do with a bumper crop of peppers? Besides freezing and pickling, I gave dehydration a shot. My poor-boy approach was, at first, to try oven and air drying methods, but I have a dehydrator on my wish list now.
Alton Brown, the TV chief, was speaking a foreign language 18 years ago when I first heard the words capsicum and capsaicin. They now easily roll off my tongue. It became clear that there was a lot more to learn when it came to cooking with peppers, a pronounced international influence. How about sautéing some chicken tenders in olive oil with a dash of smoked paprika, an unexpected taste thrill from Spain. Likewise the popularity of tapas led me to the padrón. Thai recipes specified those pointy fire bombs. What type of peppers shall we use in an authentic Sichuan stir fry?
Capsicums were unknown in Europe and Asia until Columbus. Many mysteries and paradoxes surround the genus. First off, it got misnamed “pepper” due to its piquant similarity to black pepper. It’s not at all related to Piper nigrum. A new type of chile pepper is always viewed with suspicion, a well-earned respect for a food that might be pleasingly zesty, but then, might also make us scream. The capsicum genus evolved armed with sharp pungency as a defense system for avoiding being eaten by animals (although birds consume them readily). If the flavor is packed with a powerful repellant, why are we so drawn to it to add excitement in our kitchens? It’s a mystery that we would want to eat a food that can hurt us. Food scientists postulate that endorphins released as a response to the burn result in a sense of pleasure.
After reading a newspaper review of Peppers of the Americas: The Remarkable Capsicums That Forever Changed Flavor by Maricel E. Presilla, I had to get my hands on a copy and check it out for myself. I was truly amazed by this exhaustive treasure, a comprehensive new resource for exploring and widening our knowledge of the genus capsicum.
The need for having some kind of measurement of hotness was obvious by 1912, when Wilbur Scoville came up with the Scoville Heat Unit scale (SHU). Bell peppers have zero SHU. Poblanos range from 500 to 1,000. Mild Hatch chiles come in at about 500-1,000. Jalapeños have about 2,500, although the ‘TAM’ cultivar from Texas A&M is milder. (The jalapeño is so well-known, it is used as the standard for comparison. What we once thought was fiery is now listed with the “moderately hot” group). A habanero may register 25,000, a Thai chile from 50,000 to 100,000 and there are much more powerful ones for “chiliheads” of questionable sanity. Please don’t even mention ‘Trinidad Scorpion’ or ‘Carolina Reaper.’
For this article, I voluntarily became a martyr for Texas Gardener readers. I needed a couple of habanero peppers to show in the photographs, so in the interest of “walking the walk,” I decided I’d gingerly try one out. I crushed and added about an eighth of the pepper without veins or seeds to a skillet of scrambled eggs. I can’t remember what it tasted like, but it felt like I had placed a nest full of red hornets in my mouth. Ouch! That is one that won’t make my veggie plot this year!
However, a gentler find on the supermarket shelf was Pepper Toppers, one flavor of which uses ají amarillo, a C. baccatum that grows throughout Bolivia and Peru. Hot enough to get my attention, but best described as a slow burn without a bite. Being a sauce, it could be meted out as much as desired by a friend at a cookout, a sure-fire conversation starter. I found some seeds from an online source in Australia. Twenty days later I added them to the ones being germinated indoors on a heated pad in mid-winter for spring planting. We’ll see how that goes.
The hottest part of a pepper is found in the placenta where the seeds are formed. Look for the white veins that extend down along the inside of the pepper. Removing those veins and seeds will greatly reduce the bite of a hot pepper.
If you consume one that is too hot to handle, don’t reach for water or beer because the compound that makes peppers hot is not water soluble. Try something like milk or yogurt that contains fat. This is why many recipes with peppers also include cheese, to enjoy some pungency while taming the burn.
Capasiacin has long been the term, but food scientists now talk of capsaicinoids — a collection of five different and measurable component compounds. Peppers also contain flavors that are not hot called capsinoids — that’s the fruity flavor and aroma of a bell pepper. We desire peppers with lots of flavor, but with amounts of heat to suit each person. “Pleasantly hot” is an ideal, but that varies considerably in individuals. It’s easy to understand the need for large food companies to accurately predict heat levels for proper labeling. With modern technology, researchers in labs such as The Chili Institute at New Mexico State University (just down the road from Hatch, N.M.) now can utilize instruments to measure hotness. Those include high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) and mass spectroscopy.
NMSU horticulturists have found a way to enjoy the habanero fruitiness with only about 700 SHU instead of the 25,000 of the standard habanero. They recently released two cultivars of C. chinense, a red and an orange ‘NuMex Suave’ with 800 SHU. My seed order included one this year. Those who visit the Caribbean may know another mild C. chinense named ají dulce, also called the Puerto Rican No Burn pepper with 1,000 SHU.
Researchers find the first mention of red chili, the “National Dish of Texas,” in about 1880 in San Antonio. A chili stand was a feature of the World’s Fair in Chicago 1893 and the legend began to spread outside Texas. A precursor may have been chuck-wagon food on the cattle drives up the Chisholm Trail after the Civil War. They had plenty of beef, a chuck wagon with onions and maybe a sack of dried beans, and it was easy to bring along a bag of dried chiltepíns for some zest — they are commonly found at the trailheads south of San Antonio. Today’s chili cook-off entrants can grind their own blends of powders or rehydrate dried peppers for an infinite variety of possibilities. Drying jalapeños slowly in a smoker produces the trendy chipotle at home.