Friday, May 13, 2011

The Spice of Life.... Ahhhh, chiles!

What do you think of when you hear "chile"? A hot & spicy ingredient that occupies a principal place within Latin cuisines and is beloved by many "chili heads" around the world? You bet! Even if you can't take a lot of heat, you don't have to because there are so many chiles out there that you can adjust the spiciness of your dishes to suit your taste just by choosing different chiles or even by handling them differently. Did you know that chiles are addictive? I should say the effect they have on people's bodies is the addictive part and duplicates the effects given by drugs, sex and other addictive actions on our pain and pleasure centers.... interesting isn't it? Chiles are also a great antioxidant that can bring health benefits to you as well, so flavor, spice, pleasure and pain are not the only benefits you can get from chiles. Lately studies have also shown that chilies help people loose weight, since it requires more energy to balance you out while eating hot foods and that helps in loosing weight.

But let's talk about what "chiles" are, how they are used and how to impart extra flavor into dishes with these amazing elements, shall we?

Chili peppers have been a part of the human diet in the Americas since at least 7500 BC. There is archaeological evidence at sites that chili peppers were domesticated more than 6000 years ago, and is one of the first cultivated crops in the Americas that is self-pollinating.

Christopher Columb
us was one of the first Europeans to encounter them and called them "peppers" because they, like black and white pepper of the Piper genus known in Europe, have a spicy hot taste unlike other foodstuffs. Upon their introduction into Europe chilies were grown as botanical curio
sities in the gardens of Spanish and Portuguese monasteries. But
the monks experimented with the chilies' culinary potential and discovered that their pungency offered a substitute for black peppercorns, which at the time were so costly that they were used as legal currency in some countries.

Chilies were cultivated around the globe after Columbus. From Mexico, at the time the Spanish colony that controlled commerce with Asia, chili peppers spread rapidly into the Philippines and then to India,China,Indonesia, Korea and Japan and became incorporated into the local cuisines.
How many kids of chilies are there? From the 5 basic families of
the Capsicum Cultivars there are hundreds of different type
s of chilies around the world. Chilies are measured by their heat on the Scoville Scale but for most, it's either mild, medium or hot.

Chili pepper pods are berries, are used fresh or dried and so are a fruit. Chiles are often dried or smoked to preserve them for long periods of time. Preserving may also be done by pickling fresh chilies. Dried chilies are often ground to powders, although some Mexican dishes may use
whole reconstituted chilies, and others may reconstitute dried chilies before grinding to a paste. Chilies may be dried using smoke, such as the chipotle, which is the smoked, sweetened yet dried form of the jalapeno. Many fresh chilies such as poblano have a tough outer skin which does not break down on cooking. For recipes where chilies are used whole or in large slices, roasting, or other means of blistering or charring the skin are usually performed so as not to entirely cook the flesh beneath. When cooled, the skins will usually slip off easily. Dried chilies are soaked or reconstituted in liquid before using to make them more flavorful and easier to handle.

Chili pepper plant leaves, mildly bitter but not nearly as hot as the fruits that come from the same plant, are cooked as greens in Filipino cuisine. In Korean cuisine, the leaves may be used in"Kimchi". In Japanese cuisine, the leaves are cooked as greens too, and also cooked in a style for preservation. We all know about Sichuan cooking and their spicy dishes and in India the spicy Curries are beloved as well.

Chili is the most important fruit in Bhutan, in fresh and dried form and is an important ingredient in almost all curries and food recipes in the country. Even in Italy where chilies are not usually found, the use of hot pepper flakes is common. The Middle East has "harissa", Japan has "la yu" and Thailand the ever present "sriracha". Now, you can find chilies in almost every corner of the world.

Since there are too many chilies to name, we'll deal with the most prevalent and the easiest to
find in your local A&P, we'll touch on the different names for each depending on their preparation and give you an easy reference, ok?

Chile Poblano.- Called this when fresh. (on the left) Used for Chiles Rellenos (we don't use Anaheims at all). In it's dried form it's called Pasilla or Ancho and it develops sweet flavors that make excellent pastes and sauces. (on the right) Good for stuffing, making "rajas" (dried or fresh) and topping soups, quesadillas or anything else.

Jalapenos.- Very well known, used in salsas, can be pickled easily, stuffed or roasted too. In its dried state it becomes a Chipotle, although it would get processed with piloncillo and then smoked. (left side)

Serranos.- Another favorite found all over. Smaller and hotter than the jalapeno, it can also give you plenty of flexibility on its uses and can be left to "redden" for a milder flavor. Can also be smoked or dried. (on the right).

Chilaca.- A favorite in Zacatecas, with great flavor and used roasted. When dried then it turns into a Pasilla looking chile that's not very hot at all. (left side).

Guajillo.- This is the dried version of the Mirasol pepper
which is hard to find in this country, but the dried Guajillo is the major chile to use as a paste for sauces. Great flavor and texture, Zacatecas is known for them and we use them often. (right hand side).

Habanero.- From the Mayans comes one of the hottest peppers around, yet its flavor is amazing. Used for pepper spray so you know it's deadly, chili heads adore it! In Merida, it was THE chile for all things spicy. You can find it dried or smoked too. Hottest when green colored, then it becomes yellow and then orange which are slightly less hot but use with care. (left side)

Chile de Arbol.- Can be fresh or dried, more prevalent in its dried form when it becomes "red pepper flakes" and usually paired with vinegar in hot sauces. Hot & spicy with great flavor. (right side)

Chile Ixcatic.- Found in Yucatan, this medium hot, wonderfully flavored chile is perfect for the Mayan dishes. Used fresh and stuffed or sometimes made into a velvety sauce, it's just amazing!
(here on the left)

Chile Guero.- Easily available and preferred for use in seafood soups and stocks where it lends just the right touch. Mild and interesting, can be used like a jalapeno in many preparations. (on the right)

There are others that are frequently used, like" Mulato, Negro, Puya (used in moles for extra dimension), Cascabel, Mortia and the non-spicy ones mainly used for cooking, like: red/green/orange bell peppers, Manzano and others and while you can find some at the market, you'd need to visit one of our famous Mexican regional markets to get a good appreciation of the varieties available as many aren't exported.

Now with so many gourmet food vendors, retail and online, it's possible to find these and more easily shipped to you. They also carry the dried forms of these in ground or even paste form which make them even easier to use. Try D'Allesandro Gourmet Ingredients and see if they're in your area.....

I realize that most people think it's crazy to roast, peel, de-seed, de-stem and grind chiles to a paste just so you can make a basic sauce, but to us it's the only way to obtain true and authentic flavors that will make a difference in whatever dish is being prepared. It DOES make a difference and the satisfaction derived from these time-tested preparations is amazing. Truly makes a meal into an event, believe me.

I hope you will consider trying some of the chiles I've mentioned and making your own traditional dishes. Look for recipes on this blog and try to change the ingredients in recipes for others so you can discover how changes affect a dish. Cooking is an art and a voyage of discovery. There is no better way to get to know a culture than through its food.... plus the results are incredible! Enjoy.....

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