Chile Peppers: Spice Your Dishes with Heat and Taste

Know Your Chiles

Many people who are new to TexMex or Southwestern cooking are intrigued by, but mystified as to the use of this most characteristic seasoning. Chiles come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. Their flavor ranges from mellow to fiery explosive. Use chiles to add healthy nutrition to your meals. Fresh chiles are high in Vitamins A and C, and the Vitamin A content remains high, even when chiles are dried.

A rule of thumb is that the larger the chile, the milder. But chiles can be inconsistent. A normally mild variety, such as a California or poblano chile, can turn out to be hotter than you expect or wish. If that is the case, reduce the number of chiles your recipe calls for, making up for the reduced volume by using sweet green peppers.

A substance called capsaicin, which is present in the veins of chiles, can be extremely irritable to the skin. When working with chiles, do not touch your face. It's not a bad idea to use rubber gloves, available at the drug store, whether or not you have particularly sensitive skin. Capsaicin is not water soluble. Contrary to popular belief, the best way to relieve a burning mouth is with dairy products such as milk, yogurt or sour cream. These foods contain casein, a protein that comes between capsaicin and the mouth's pain receptors. Water will not decrease the burn, and if the sting is on your skin, water may spread it. Use a little shortening on the area, then wash off with soap.

Of the many varieties and hybrids of varieties of chiles, these are commonly used in TexMex and Southwestern cooking:

Anchos are dried poblano peppers. Wide and dark with a "raisiny" aroma.
A potent Mexican chili pepper that's also known as bird's beak chile. The peppers begin life colored green, turning a bright red as they mature.
California or Anaheim Chiles
Mild, long green chiles; available fresh and dried, but usually bought as canned chiles.
Distinctive smoky flavor. Can be purchased dried or canned in a marinade called adobo. These chiles are actually smoked jalapenos
Reddish-brown in color, these beauties are moderately hot, smooth and spicy. They should be soaked in water longer than other chiles because of their tough skin.
Reputed to be one of the world's hottest. Lantern shaped, red or orange. Said to have a unique, fruity aroma (I wouldn't know); use with caution.
Named for Jalapa, the capital of Veracruz, in Mexico. Widely available, fresh, canned, pickled. Mild to hot. A staple in TexMex cooking.
New Mexico
Sweet, earthy flavor. Mild enough to add lots of flavor to a recipe without too much heat. When dried, they are identical in appearance to California chiles, but are hotter. Dark red, dried New Mexico chiles are the ones you see in wreaths and strings.
Poblano or Pasilla
Dark green, rather mild to medium-hot chiles, commonly used in chili, tamales or stuffed in Chiles Rellenos.
Small (1- to 1-1/2" long), dark green and very hot. Available more and more in supermarkets.

Many chile fans belong to the "hotter the better" school. Those persons should seek out the truly fiery dried chiles such as the arbol, chiltepin, tepn, pequin and japons.

How to Peel Fresh Chiles

It is often necessary to peel the chile for cooking. Make a small slit in each chile near the stem so that steam can escape. Place chiles on a baking sheet under the broiler 3 to 5 inches from heat source. Broil, turning chiles with tongs, until they are evenly blistered, blackened even, on all sides. Remove, and place in a plastic or paper bag. Allow to steam in the bag for about 15 minutes. Peel from the stem end downward.

Another method (you can see what you are doing better, I think) is to use your stovetop. Place a wire rack over a burner, and roast the chiles, turning with tongs, until they are evenly blistered. Peel as directed above.

It is possible to reduce the heat in chiles by soaking peeled roasted chiles in salted water for several hours. Rinse chiles thoroughly before using. However, do not place roasted chiles in ice water, unless you don't mind it if they get soggy.

Chiles may be frozen for up to one year. It is a real efficiency to prepare a large quantity of roasted chiles and freeze them in individual packages. Chiles that have been roasted and then frozen are much more easily peeled. Whole, fresh chiles freeze very well, however. Wash, dry and place them in a single layer on a flat plate or cookie sheet. After freezing, place in plastic bags for freezer storage.

Dried chiles are usually soaked until soft, then pureed. To soften dried chiles, place them in a pan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Remove pan from heat and allow chiles to soak until softened (the skin may still feel papery and tough, but the pulp will be tender). Before pureeing, remove stems and seeds. Process chiles in a blender or food processor with only enough liquid to make a paste. Paste can be refined further by pressing it through a sieve.

Chile purists scorn the use of so-called Chili Powder found in the supermarket spice section. It is dark brown in color and may contain garlic powder, oregano, cumin and salt. Pure ground chile is deep red in color and imparts a far sweeter and more full-bodied taste to foods.

As you become more experienced in cooking with chiles, you will be able to substitute not only one variety for another, but dried for fresh, fresh for canned, and so forth, depending upon what is available. You may substitute chile powder for whole dried chiles in dishes calling for pureed chiles. Allow about one tablespoon of powder for each large chile.

Try these fresh salsas from Grandma's Cookbook: