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If you think that a chile pepper's only quality is defoliating heat, think again. Like wine grapes, chile peppers have an enormous range of flavors and textures and yes, they also have heat. For example, the habañero, one of the hottest chiles on earth, has intense tropical flavors of tangerine, passion fruit and guava. Poblanos have a green bean, herbal quality. And the chipotle, the chile of the moment, has an earthy smokiness.
In cooking with chile peppers (also just called chiles and spelled with an "e" at the end instead of an "i," which is reserved for the meat stew), I found them remarkably versatile as well.
I used recipes from Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen, by the famed chef of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo restaurants in Chicago. A guajillo-spiked marinade worked wonders on a grilled steak. Scrambled eggs reached new heights with a serrano-tomatillo salsa. And ancho chiles, cinnamon and orange juice provided a delicious glaze for roasted sweet potatoes. At Vida, in Manhattan, chef Rafael Palomino even puts chiles into his cajeta (a Mexican caramel sauce) and chocolate ice cream. "It adds little sparks on the palate," he says.
"Chiles have gone into the mainstream of American cooking and eating," says Dave DeWitt, author of The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia and founder of the annual National Fiery Foods Show in Albuquerque, N.M. "Twenty years ago, there were just a few pockets of hot and spicy food, mostly the Southwest and Louisiana. Now it's pretty much ubiquitous."
Botanically speaking, chiles (genus Capsicum) are fruits, not vegetables, and shouldn't even be called peppers. It was Columbus who, while searching for spices such as black pepper (Piper nigrum), gave chiles the pepper moniker. Fresh chiles give a grassy, herbal fragrance, and have a more vibrant fruit flavor and more acidity than peppers do. That's why they are frequently used in raw salsas. When dried, the acid diminishes but the sweetness and heat intensify, and the fruit becomes more concentrated (like with raisins or figs). They can even exhibit the occasional chocolate note. When left on the vine, green chiles normally turn red, which also increases sweetness. Once rehydrated, dried chiles are more commonly used in cooked sauces.
The heat in chiles is usually measured by their Scoville Units (SU). In 1912, pharmacologist Wilbur Scoville dissolved chiles in alcohol, then diluted this extract in increasing amounts of water until the tongue could detect no heat. A Scoville rating of 1,000, for instance, refers to 1,000 parts water per one part chile extract. The more water needed, the hotter the pepper and the higher the Scoville rating.
Here's a look at some of the more widely available chiles, listed from mildest to hottest.
Anaheim (500-1,000 SU). More commonly called a New Mexican pepper, this long narrow chile roasts wonderfully and often comes roasted and peeled in cans. It has a mild, green chile flavor and gentle heat.
Pasilla (1,000-1,500 SU). Long and narrow, tapering to a blunt end, this dark, almost black, dried chile is sometimes called chile negro. Though low in heat, it has bold and woodsy flavors that accommodate rich meats like lamb and duck, as well as mushrooms. When fresh, it is called chilaca.
Poblano (1,000-3,000 SU). Dark green and heart-shaped, it has broad shoulders and thick walls that make it ideal for stuffing, as in chile rellenos. The poblano can also be used in a variety of dishes from soups to salads. Anaheims can be substituted for poblanos, though they are not as robust. An ancho is a dried poblano; it is fruity-tasting, with currant, raisin and tobacco notes.
Guajillo (2,500-5,000 SU). Dark cherry red in color, it almost always comes dried. It has a deep, rich flavor, and notes of sweet tomato and cranberry. Ancho peppers are an acceptable substitute.
Jalapeño (2,500-5,000 SU). Many Jalapeños have had some heat bred out of them, leaving them with a flavor that's more similar to a green bell pepper's. Bayless suggests that small Jalapeños, which are easier to find in Latin American markets, can have a more authentic bite. Larger, milder Jalapeños are good for stuffing as an hors d'oeuvre. Medium- to deep-green, sometimes with a purplish tinge, this is a conical or bullet-shaped chile, and occasionally has streaks. The term "chipotle" refers to a smoked Jalapeño. Available in dried form or en adobo, canned in a piquant tomato sauce, chipotles tend to be more pungent than fresh Jalapeños.
Serrano (10,000-23,000 SU). Small (the size of a pinky finger or smaller) and bright green, this chile is widely available. Because it maintains its spicy integrity so well, it is Bayless' workhorse chile. Like the Jalapeño, it's commonly used in fresh salsas. It is also frequently pickled.
Cayenne (30,000-50,000 SU). This thin, wrinkled and curved red chile is more often seen dried, where it is ground into powder or put into hot sauces, especially for Latin American, Cajun and creole cooking.
Thai (50,000-100,000 SU). There is no single Thai chile, though the ones so labeled are usually slender and range from green to bright red when mature. Dried Thai chiles are sometimes called bird chiles. Use them (sparingly) in salads, stir-frys and noodle soups.
Habañero (100,000-500,000 SU). This orange, lantern-shaped chile from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico is the most common of the chinense species, the world's hottest chiles. Despite its heat, the habañero is very fruity and floral. Very little is used in any one dish (start with just half of one for two cups of tomato salsa), but you can freeze this chile whole for up to three months without losing any flavor.
Scotch Bonnet (100,000-500,000 SU). A relative of the habañero (in the chinense species), this Jamaica-grown pepper has an even more aggressive flavor than the habañero.
Large, fresh chiles are often roasted, which makes them more digestible, tames overly grassy flavors and gives some smokiness. Roasting can be done on an outdoor grill, over the gas flame of a stove or under an oven broiler. Once evenly blackened and blistered (don't overdo it), put the roasted chiles in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap until cooled, then peel off the skin. Small chiles such as serranos can be roasted in a skillet and are not usually peeled.
Toasting dried chiles on a heavy skillet also adds a flavor dimension. First, stem, seed and flatten them. Then toast for a minute or two on each side over medium heat. To rehydrate dried chiles, put them in hot water for about 30 minutes, until softened. Since most of the heat in chiles resides in the membranes and seeds, removing those parts will bring down the Scoville count. With very hot varieties, you can leave a halved pepper in a sauce for a few hours, then remove it before serving, which minimizes the heat while still adding flavor. When working with chiles, it's a good idea to wear rubber gloves. You wouldn't want to rub your eye after handling a Scotch bonnet.
In tasting wines with different chile-based dishes, I found that whites often work better with fresh chiles and reds with dried, assuming that one keeps the heat reasonably in check. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, with its fruit, grassiness and structure, was my favorite white with dishes like broiled catfish topped with a stew of fresh poblanos. As for reds, I preferred ones with a meaty, smoky quality, such as those from the Southern Rhône or southern Italy, though I also liked a fruity California Pinot Noir. Beer is also a good choice because it refreshes, and its low alcohol keeps you from burning out on hot chiles.
Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock (Chronicle Books).
How to Get It
Chile Today-Hot Tamale Melissa's Frieda's The CMC Co.
(800) 468-7377; www.chiletoday.com
(800) 588-0151; www.melissas.com
Los Alamitos, Calif.
(800) 241-1771; www.friedas.com
(800) 262-2780, www.thecmccompany.com
How to Get It
Chile Today-Hot Tamale
The CMC Co.