cucina bene; mangia bene (turn up the heat with chile)
Anyone who knows me knows that I love chile. Sauces, pastes, salsa’s, mojo’s, or fresh, I have a tendency to use them with abandon as many of my family and friends can attest to through sweat and burning tongues. It all started for me when I was a kid; my father would fry pickled banana chiles to put on his pasta. He would always offer me some to try which I always did to my great discomfort. Over time, however, my tolerance for them grew and I was able to eat more and more without running for the hose or a box of Kleenex.
After I left home and began experimenting with new cuisines, I discovered a whole world of food that was seasoned (in some cases quite liberally) with chiles. I lived in San Francisco where I could eat around the world within a 6 block radius of my apartment: Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Burmese, Indonesian, Indian, Peruvian, Mexican, Brazilian, you name it; we had it. I loved asking for the house chile sauce to accompany my meal. Most Asian or Latino restaurants don’t serve the stuff they eat to their customers, so it was always a surprise when I asked for it and finished it.
I went to New Mexico in the early 90’s with Bruce and was introduced to the new Mexican chile culture where one was asked in every restaurant if you wanted red sauce, green sauce, or Christmas on your plate with Christmas being a little of both. After visiting the Tabasco store in Louisiana, we learned how the sauce was made and how special Tabasco chiles (a strain of Cayenne) were used for to make the sauce.
Over the years, I was introduced to chipotle (smoked ripe jalapenos), habaneros, scotch bonnets, serrano, Thai bird, pasilla, ancho, and others. All these chiles have a varying degree of heat that lies in the soft placenta of the fruit (yes, a chile is technically a berry). The heat is measured in units called Scoville Heat Units (SCH). Each chile is assigned a SCH depending on how much capsaicin it contains. A jalapeno, for example, usually registers 5,000 to 8,000 SCH while a scotch bonnet or habanero can register 100,000 to 500,000 SCH. I was recently introduced to a chile, while I was in Italy, called Jolokia (from India) that has replaced the habanero as the hottest pepper known to humans. This chile registers over 1,000,000 SCH! I bought a tiny jar of Jolokia paste from a farmers’ market vendor in Parma and he warned me at least 1/2 dozen times while I was paying him for it that the stuff was REALLY HOT. I told him that I understood and took my jar back to my apartment to try it. Well the man was correct; I put WAY too much on my pasta the first night and set my head on fire! 4 hours later the fire went out and I was back to normal! I finished one jar while I was there (burning several of my classmates and coworkers along the way) and sent another home. I’ve learned since then how much to use and it isn’t a lot. I’ve figured that little jar will last the rest of my lifetime as ‘use sparingly’ is an understatement!
I like to cook with different chiles not just for heat, but also flavor. For example, I like to put a little New Mexican red chile in my pumpkin pie filling. You don’t taste or feel it until the very end and I think it compliments the sweetness of the filling. I like to use habanero with fruit salsas and sauces because the habanero itself tastes fruity and sweet. Adding Spanish smoked paprika to Mac ‘n’ Cheese gives the dish an earthy flavor and highly compliments the richness of the cheese sauce. Fresh chiles are delicious when added to a gremolata for roasted crab; not only does the chile add a beautiful red color, but the flavor of the chile goes well with the sweet crab. Chile’s don’t have to be hot for me to use them either. In September and October, I bought some beautiful sweet Italian chiles at the Newport farmers’ market that I grilled and used in a delicious romesco sauce I served with grilled albacore tuna. On another occasion, I grilled them and stuffed them with goat cheese. Sweet chiles are also a great substitute for bell peppers which I avoid due to their tendency to be repetitive. Here on the west coast chiles are available year round, but they are at their peak in flavor in late summer and early fall. An added bonus of fresh chiles is that they are full of beta carotene and Vitamin C. Next time you are feeling adventurous try cooking with chiles, or ask for that house sauce or salsa at the local ethnic restaurant; you too might surprise the server by finishing it!