Printer Friendly

Hot on the chili trail: all you need to know about buying, cooking, and enjoying the fiery fruit.

All you need to know about buying, cooking, and enjoying the fiery fruit

Chilies have shaped the tastes of the West. They're the backbone of Mexican dishes we've embraced, they're integral to the foods of the Southwest, and they're essential to the global cuisines we've adopted.

More chilies are available fresh than ever before, in a rainbow of bright and glossy hues. A typical neighborhood grocery stocks three or four varieties; a trendy supermarket may showcase at least 10, often in various stages of ripeness. Add to these choices the uncommon chilies that show up fresh in farmers' markets - even in flower shops as decorative plants - and the collection grows. We picture 16 varieties here. Most chilies are available year-round; the season is May through October in the West and Florida, and November through May in Mexico.

When you buy chilies, what you're getting isn't always clear. Varieties often have several common names - and even then, they're apt to be mislabeled because their shapes, colors, and characteristics are notoriously confusing.

Botanically speaking, all chilies are members of the pepper (Capsicum) genus and bear fruit that we use like vegetables. Some capsicums - bell peppers and pimientos - are sweet and mild. But chilies, at their sassiest, have heat - gentle enough to bring a glow to the palate or sizzling enough to set it wildly on fire. A chili's pungency is a compelling and addictive essence. Some of us find euphoria in the pleasure that follows the pain. As we acclimate to each level of warmth, the more we're able to tolerate, up to a dangerous point - chilies actually can burn.

A chili's fieriness is a varietal characteristic that's significantly affected by growing conditions, such as temperature and the amount of water and sun it gets. A single plant may produce chilies with different pungency, different shapes, and different colors all at once. But behind chilies with even the most blaze, rich flavors await discovery.


Although we view chilies as Western, and grow them in large quantities, they haven't always been here. Native to South America, they traveled with traders to Europe and the Far East before they arrived in New Mexico with the Mexican-Spanish settlers of 1598. Later, chili varieties came here with Chinese, Korean, Thai, Indian, and other immigrants, who brought them to make their native dishes.

New Mexico leads the nation in chili production, but California leads in breeding commercial varieties: Santa Fe grande and its look-alike, the Fresno, were born in the Golden State. The city of Anaheim gave its name to a long, mild chili (also called California and New Mexico). Canned as immature green chilies under the Ortega label, they've been a Western staple for more than a century.

In Sunset, cooking with chilies has a long history. One reference in 1935 tells how to broil chilies in order to peel them. Another in 1951 explains how to reduce a chili's sizzle by cutting out the veins and seeds. And as early as 1954, we warned cooks to wear gloves for protection from chilies' burn.


Jean Andrews, an artist and botanist, has made chilies her career. It started with an interest in growing, painting, and cooking chilies, which she calls - with her native-Texan authority and botanical leanings - chilli peppers. Frustrated by scarce information on the Capsicum genus, she set off to find answers.

The trail took her to almost every country around the globe where chilies are grown and used. Such is Andrews's passion that she's trademarked herself the Pepper Lady. She routinely propagates chili seeds she's brought back from her travels to paint or photograph, then she eats the chilies. Her first book on the subject. Peppers: The Domesticated Capsicums (University of Texas Press, Austin. 1995: $65), is a classic reference, beautifully and accurately illustrated with her paintings of chilies.

It was the shopper's confusion that inspired her newest book, The Pepper Lady's Pocket Pepper Primer (University, of Texas Press, 1998; $17.95, 800/252-3206 or 512/471-7233). In this 184-page volume, slim enough to take to the market, she mixes wit with wisdom as she concisely explains more than you've dreamed of asking about capsicums - with and without heat. There is helpful information about nomenclature, cultivars (varieties and hybrids), family groupings, and how to choose and store peppers. Color photographs show relative sizes of 46 peppers (39 fresh) accompanied by the basics of each: multiple names, average sizes, colors, shapes, uses, and substitutes.

As Andrews pursues chilies, she also collects recipes for them, and the following come from her travels. See the list below for varieties that can be used as alternatives in these dishes.

To minimize the heat of chilies in order to savor the more complex underlying flavors, carefully cut away the stem and seeds, then slice off the veins on the interior walls.

Javanese Sambal with Grilled Shrimp

Prep and cook time: About 25 minutes Makes: 4 servings

1 cup sweetened flaked or shredded dried coconut

6 fresh serrano chilies (about 1 1/2 oz. total), stemmed, seeded, deveined, and chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons anchovy paste

2 cloves garlic

5 tablespoons lime juice

1 pound (26 to 30 per lb.) peeled, deveined shrimp

1. In a food processor, whirl coconut, chilies, anchovy paste, garlic, and lime juice until coconut and chilies are minced; scrape container sides frequently.

2. Rinse and drain shrimp. Thread onto 4 flat metal skewers (10 to 14 in.).

3. Place shrimp on a barbecue grill over a solid bed of medium-hot coals or on a gas grill set at medium-hot (you can hold your hand at grill level only 3 to 4 seconds); close lid on gas grill. Cook shrimp, turning once, until bright pink and opaque but still moist-looking in center of thickest part (cut to test), 3 to 5 minutes total.

4. Transfer shrimp to a platter. Serve with sambal paste to add to taste.

Per serving: 221 cal., 33% (73 cal.) from fat; 24 g protein; 8.1 g fat (5.7 g sat.); 12 g carbo (1.4 g fiber); 288 mg sodium; 174 mg chol.

Chicken Enchiladas with Salsa Verde

Prep and cook time: About 1 1/2 hours

Notes: Green, hulled pumpkin seeds add color to the sauce. If making sauce ahead, cover and chill up to 1 day.

Makes: 6 servings

2 pounds tomatillos, husks removed

1 pound poblano chilies

1/2 cup salted roasted or raw shelled pumpkin seeds

4 cloves garlic

1/3 cup lightly packed chopped fresh cilantro

2 cups chicken broth

2 to 4 fresh serrano chilies (1/2 to 1 oz. total), stemmed, seeded, deveined, and chopped

1 red onion (3/4 lb.)

15 corn tortillas (6 to 7 in.), cut in half

3 cups shredded skinned cooked chicken

3 cups (1 1/2 lb.) shredded jack cheese

Cilantro sprigs


Sour cream

1. Rinse tomatillos. Place tomatillos and poblanos in a 10- by 15-inch rimmed pan. Broil 4 to 6 inches from heat, turning as needed, until tomatillos and poblanos are blackened all over, about 20 minutes total. Set aside as charred. When cool enough to handle, pull off and discard poblano peels, stems, seeds, and veins.

2. In a blender or food processor, whirl (in batches if necessary) tomatillos, poblanos, pumpkin seeds, garlic, cilantro, and broth until chili sauce is smoothly pureed. Add serranos to taste and whirl to puree.

3. Meanwhile, peel onion and cut 3 or 4 thin slices from the center. Separate slices into rings and wrap airtight. Finely chop remaining onion.

4. Spread 1 cup chili sauce over the bottom of a shallow 3-quart casserole (about 10 by 12 in.). Cover sauce with 1/3 of the tortillas, overlapping them. Scatter 1/2 the chicken, 1/2 the chopped red onion, and 1 cup cheese over tortillas. Spoon 1 cup chili sauce over cheese. Cover completely with another 1/3 of the tortillas. Scatter remaining chicken, remaining onion, and 1 cup cheese over tortillas; moisten evenly with 1 cup chili sauce. Cover with remaining tortillas, then coat tortillas evenly with remaining sauce.

5. Bake in a 400 [degrees] oven until sauce is bubbling at edges of casserole, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle remaining cheese on enchiladas and bake until it melts, 2 to 3 minutes.

6. Scatter red onion rings over enchiladas and garnish with cilantro sprigs. Cut into rectangles and serve with a wide spatula. Add salt and sour cream to taste.

Per serving: 810 cal., 48% (387 cal.) from fat; 57 g protein; 43 g fat (22 g sat.); 51 g carbo (5.4 g fiber); 824 mg sodium; 183 mg chol.

Caribbean Habanero Cornbread

Prep and cook time: About 50 minutes Makes: 9 servings

1 cup yellow cornmeal 1 cup all-purpose flour 1 tablespoon sugar 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 cup salad oil 1 large egg, beaten to blend 1 can (8 1/2 oz.) cream-style corn 1/2 cup plain nonfat yogurt 1/2 cup shredded jack cheese 2 tablespoons minced fresh habanero chilies 2 tablespoons minced fresh green Anaheim chili

1. In a large bowl, stir to combine cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.

2. Add oil, egg, corn, yogurt, cheese, habaneros, and Anaheims. Stir until ingredients are evenly moistened.

3. Pour batter into an oiled 8-inch square pan. Bake in a 375 [degrees] oven until bread is golden brown and begins to pull from pan sides, 30 to 35 minutes.

4. Cut bread into squares and serve hot, warm, or cool.

Per serving: 226 cal., 36% (81 cal.) from fat; 6.2 g protein; 9 g fat (2.1 g sat.); 31 g carbo (1.5 g fiber); 392 mg sodium; 31 mg chol.

Indian Spiced Potatoes

Prep and cook time: About 20 minutes Makes: 4 servings

1 tablespoon salad oil

1/4 teaspoon caraway seed

1 teaspoon cumin seed

1 cup finely chopped red onion

2 cloves garlic, minced

6 fresh serrano chilies (about 1 1/2 oz. total), stemmed, seeded, deveined, and minced

2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger

2 teaspoons ground dried turmeric

3 cups diced cooked thin-skinned potatoes

1 to 2 teaspoons minced fresh cayenne chili or ground dried cayenne

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1/4 cup chopped fresh mint leaves

2 tablespoons lime juice


1. In a 10- to 12-inch frying pan over medium-high heat, combine oil, caraway seed, and cumin seed. Stir until seed smells slightly toasted, about 2 minutes.

2. Add onion, garlic, serranos, and ginger; stir until onion is limp but not browned, about 2 minutes. Stir in turmeric and potatoes, then add cayenne to taste. Stir often until potatoes are hot, about 2 minutes.

3. Add cilantro, mint, and lime juice. Mix, then add salt to taste.

Per serving: 164 cal., 21% (35 cal.) from fat; 3.3 g protein; 3.9 g fat (0.5 g sat.); 31 g carbo (3.1 g fiber); 16 mg sodium; 0 mg chol.

Portuguese Red Pork

Prep and cook time: About 2 hours

Notes: Mild red peppers give this dish its color, and fresh jalapenos add a subtle level of heat.

Makes: 4 servings

6 fresh jalapeno chilies (4 to 6 oz. total), stemmed, seeded, deveined, and chopped

1 jar (about 8 oz.) peeled red peppers

3 pounds fat-trimmed pork shoulder chops (cut about 1 in. thick)

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 onion (about 6 oz.), finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

3/4 cup dry white wine

About 1 tablespoon chopped parsley


Fresh-ground pepper

1. In a blender or food processor, smoothly puree jalapenos and red peppers.

2. Rinse pork and pat dry.

3. Place an 11- to 12-inch nonstick frying pan with an ovenproof handle over medium-high heat. Add oil, onion, and garlic and stir often until mixture is lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Pour onion mixture from pan.

4. Add pork chops to pan without crowding and brown evenly, turning once or twice, 3 to 5 minutes per side. Add onion and pureed jalapeno mixtures and wine; stir to blend.

5. Cover frying pan tightly (with lid or foil). Bake in a 375 [degrees] oven until meat is very tender when pierced and pulls from bone easily, about 1 1/2 hours. Uncover, stir, and bake until sauce is slightly thicker, about 10 minutes.

6. Transfer chops to a platter and pour sauce over them. Sprinkle with parsley; add salt and pepper to taste.

Per serving: 496 cal., 44% (216 cal.) from fat; 57 g protein; 24 g fat (8.1 g sat.); 9.7 g carbo (1.3 g fiber); 299 mg sodium; 195 mg chol.

African Hot Sauce

Prep time: About 10 minutes

Notes: Serve this condiment as you would catsup, with everything from hamburgers to shrimp. To store, cover and chill up to 4 days; stir before using.

Makes: About 1 1/4 cups

1 can (8 oz.) tomato sauce

1/4 cup chopped onion

1 clove garlic

About 3 tablespoons lemon juice

2 to 8 fresh red jalapeno chilies (1 1/2 to 6 1/2 oz. total), stemmed, seeded, deveined, and chopped

In a blender or food processor, whirl tomato sauce, onion, garlic, and lemon juice, adding a few chilies at a time, until smoothly pureed and hot enough to suit your taste.

Per tablespoon: 5.2 cal., 0% (0 cal.) from fat; 0.2 g protein; 0 g fat; 1.2 g carbo (0.2 g fiber); 69 mg sodium; 0 mg chol.

At the market

These chilies, shown on pages 144 and 145, are a sampling from Western markets and Jean Andrews's book. Her facts, plus our panel's tasting notes, will help you select the chilies you want. Immature chilies have a more vegetal or herbaceous flavor, and ripe chilies have a mellower, richer flavor. Each chili has a pungency rating from 0 (no heat) to 10+ (hottest, which is equivalent to the maximum Scoville units, 100,000+).

* Aji flor (Arawak-Spanish for flower-shaped chili), also known as aji orchid or orchid pepper, and often mislabeled rocotillo. Yellow-green, ripens to golden yellow or orange-red; 1 1/2 to 2 in. long, 1 to 2 1/2 in. wide. Flavor: sweet, with grassy to honeylike tones. Substitutes: red bell pepper, pimiento. Heat rating: 0 to 3.

* Anaheim/New Mexico (named for where it grows), also known as California long green chili, chilacate, chile college, chile colorado, chile de ristra, chile verde, Chimayo, Hatch, long green/red chili, New Mexico 6-4, New Mexico No. 9, or pasado. Bright green, ripens to red; 7 to 10 in. long, 1 to 1 3/4 in. wide. Flavor: juicy, herbaceous to vegetal and sweet. Substitute: poblano. Heat rating: 3 to 5.

* Cayenne (possibly a French colonial name from Africa or South America). Because this was one of the first chilies transported, and the most widely grown, it has different names in every country. Dark green, ripens to red or yellow; 5 to 6 in. long, 1/2 to 3/4 in. wide. Flavor: vegetal, mellow and sweet at first, hot later. Substitutes: jalapeno, serrano, Thai. Heat rating: 7 to 9.

* Chilaca (Nahuatl for old chili - it's wrinkled and bent), called a pasilla when dried. Dark green-black, ripens to dark brown; 6 to 12 in. long, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 in. wide. Flavor: vegetal to sweet. Substitute: poblano. Heat rating: 3 to 5.

* Chilpequin (Nahuatl for small chili), also known as amash, amomo, bird, bravo, chilillo, chilipiquin, chilpaya, chiltipiquin, del monte, huarahuao, max, or piquen. Green, ripens to red, some nearly black; 1/2 to 3/4 in. long, about 1/4 in. wide. Flavor: fruity, floral, and mellow if you can separate the thin flesh from the fiery veins. Substitutes: cayenne, Thai, tabasco. Heat rating: 10+.

* Chiltepin (Nahuatl for flea chili). Like chilpequin in every respect except size and flavor. About 1/4 in. long, 3/4 in. wide. Flavor: mainly potent heat.

* Datil (Spanish for date - it's tiny and wrinkled), also known as Mindoran or Minorcan. Yellow-green, ripens to golden yellow; about 2 in. long, 3/4 in. wide. Flavor: grassy to fruity. Substitute: habanero. Heat rating: 10.

* De arbol (Spanish for from the tree), also known as alfilerillo, bravo, cola de rata, cuauhchilli, ginnie pepper, or pico de pajaro. Green, ripens to red; about 3 in. long, 3/8 in. wide. Flavor: grassy to sweet-hot, with delayed heat. Substitutes: serrano, green Thai, green cayenne. Heat rating: 7.

* Habanero (Spanish for from Havana), also known as Congo, honda man jacques, bonnie, ginnie pepper, guinea pepper, pimenta do chiero, siete caldos, Scotch bonnet, and pimienta do cheiro (in Brazil). Green, ripens to yellow-orange, orange, or orange-red; 1 to 2 1/2 in. long, about 1 in. wide. Flavor: medicinally sour to florally sweet and hot. Substitutes: jalapeno or datil (for heat), Scotch bonnet or rocoto (for flavor). Heat rating: 10+.

* Jalapeno (Spanish for from Jalapa), also known as acorchado, bola, bolita, candelaria, cuaresmeno, gorda, huachinango, jarocho, mora, or morita. Bright green or deep greenblack, ripens to red or yellow; about 3 in. long, 1 1/2 in. wide. Flavor: herbaceous to sweet. Substitutes: caloro, caribe. Fresno, Santa Fe grande, serrano. Heat rating: 4 to 8.

* Poblano (Spanish for from Pueblo), also known as ancho, chile pata rellenar, joto, Mexican, or mulato, and often mislabeled pasilla (a dried chilaca). Dark green, ripens to red or brown; about 4 in. long, 2 1/2 in. wide. Flavor: mild, mellow, slightly vegetal. Substitutes: Mexi-bell, Anaheim/New Mexico. Heat rating: 3 to 7.

* Rocotillo (Spanish for little Rocoto), also known as pimiento. Green, ripens to deep red; 1 1/2 to 2 in. long, 1 1/2 to 2 in. wide. Flavor: sweet and fruity. Substitute: red bell pepper with a dash of ground dried cayenne. Heat rating: 1 to 3.

* Rocoto (a South American name), also known as caballo, canario, manzana, peron, or jalapeno. Green, ripens to red or golden yellow; 1 to 1 1/2 in. long, 1 to 1 1/2 in. wide. Has black seeds. Flavor: sweet and fruity, with a heat that builds slowly but irrevocably. Substitutes: habanero, jalapeno. Heat rating: 9 to 10.

* Santa Fe grande, also known as caloro, caribe, cera, or guero. Pale green-yellow, ripens to orange, then red; about 3 in. long, 1 1/2 in. wide. Has squarer shoulders than a jalapeno. Flavor: grassy to sweet. Substitutes: any pungent yellow pepper (cascabella, floral gem, Hungarian wax). Heat rating: 5 to 7.

* Serrano (Spanish for from the foothills or mountains), also known as balin, chile verde, cora, morita, serranito, or tipico. Green, ripens to red; about 2 1/4 in. long, 1/2 in. wide. Flavor: herbaceous. Substitutes: chiltepin, Fresno, jalapeno, Thai. Heat rating: 6 to 8.

* West Indian hot (named for where it grows). Green, ripens to red; 1 to 2 1/2 in. long, about 1 in. wide. Flavor: tropical fruit, with mellow heat. Substitutes: datil, habanero. Heat rating: 10+.

* Other chilies you are apt to find in Western markets include cascabella; cherry (hot cherry, Hungarian cherry, sweet cherry); Fresno; Hungarian wax (Hungarian yellow wax); pepperoncini; peter pepper (penis pepper); romesco; tabasco; Thai/hang prik; tomato pepper (paprika, Spanish paprika, squash pepper).

The name game

Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492 seeking spices, including black pepper. Convinced that the hot pods the native Arawaks called aji were a form of pepper, he called them pimientos, after the Spanish word for pepper. The name aji is still used in parts of the Caribbean and South America.

When Hernan Cortes set foot in Mexico in 1518, he was introduced to the local Nahuatl word, chilli, which later became the Spanish chile. Today aficionados, grudgingly, use chile and chili interchangeably, while botanists prefer chili or chilli peppers.

The popularity of chilies has cursed them with confusion. Their proliferation and inclination to cross-pollinate mean new chilies are always on the horizon - perhaps in your own garden. Add to this the myriad shapes, colors, and names by which many varieties are known and you have a recipe for a spicy etymological mystery.

Fire controls

A chili's taste-temperature comes from capsaicin (cap-say-i-sin), a compound found primarily in its veins. Other hot spots are where the seeds and flesh touch the veins. As chilies ripen and develop more flavor, they may seem smoother or sweeter, but they're still hot. Approach with caution.

* When handling chilies (fresh or dried), don't let them touch your skin. Wear rubber gloves or hold chilies with the tines of a fork, then trim with a small, sharp knife.

* If chilies burn your skin, rinse the area with rubbing alcohol. If juice sprays into your eyes or you touch your eyes with capsaicin-coated hands, rinse eyes well with water.

* Chopping lots of fresh hot chilies? Work in a ventilated area. Otherwise your chest may tighten or you'll cough.

* To soothe a burning tongue, try ice cream, milk, or yogurt. All lower the surface temperature of your tongue and contain casein, which washes away the capsaicin.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:includes related articles and recipes
Author:Baker, Andrew
Date:Apr 1, 1998
Previous Article:The West's best dude ranches.
Next Article:Recaptured front yards: four remodels show how to add a private courtyard to the front of your house.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters