Chilies are so hot they're turning up in coffee, fudge, popcorn and jelly beans

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Some chilies add a little spice to your food. Other chilies make you cry, take your breath away.

When chili-lover Rudy Roberson ate his first habanero -- one of the world's hottest chilies -- the heat was so intense he nearly fainted.

Most people would avoid such incendiary peppers. Others crave the heat. Pepper fiends like Mr. Roberson don't even flinch at jalapenos. He's addicted to the big guns.

"I especially like the Scotch bonnet," says Mr. Roberson, whose Louisiana-born mother gave him an early taste of spicy food.

"I tend to splurge with hot peppers," he says. He carries bottled hot sauces with him, adding them to everything he eats.

The Scotch bonnet is a close cousin to the habanero. The two sit atop the Scoville scale, a system that rates peppers based on capsaicin, the compound that makes chilies hot.

At the bottom of the Scoville scale is the green bell pepper, with 0 Scoville Heat Units, or "H.U." The jalapeno registers at 2,500 to 5,000 H.U.

The habanero and Scotch bonnet fall into the 100,000 to 300,000 H.U. range. Other super-hot chilies include the Thai, rated at 50,000 to 100,000 H.U. and the pequin, cayenne and Tabasco peppers, 30,000 to 50,000 H.U. The chili de Arbol has 15,000 to 30,000 H.U.

Surprisingly, hot chili lovers are able to eat the habanero straight, according to Robert Spiegel, publisher of Chile Pepper magazine.

"You take very small bites," he says. Mr. Spiegel suggests using the super-hot chilies the same way you'd use jalapenos: pickled, cooked, sprinkled on food. They're just a lot hotter than more common peppers, he says.

The rising popularity of hot, spicy ethnic foods has brought chilies into the limelight. Restaurant consultant Nancy Beckham remembers her early struggles to acquire chilies.

"I used to have to smuggle them in from Mexico," she says. "Six years ago, I made good friends with a Chichen Itzan farmer who sent me habanero seeds. Then, a couple of years ago, I managed to procure Scotch bonnets from Jamaica."

Now, the super-hot chilies are a lot easier to come by.

For real heat, look to cuisines from hot climates:

Caribbean: The persistent presence of the fiery Scotch bonnet makes Jamaican/Caribbean cuisine one of the hottest there is. The only food that comes close is Thai.

Thai: Generous use of chilies makes Thai food a close runner-up for the world's hottest cuisine.

Tiny Thai chilies registering at 50,000 to 100,000 H.U. are available almost year-round in Asian markets.

Called "finger-hot," Thai chilies are second in rank to the habanero -- still hot enough to sear your mouth.

Indian: Indian cuisine is another scorcher, although Indian cooks in this country tend to tone it down. Chilies appear in curries and masalas, as an ingredient in chutneys and as a meat marinade.

Fresh vs. dried

Like any produce item, fresh chilies are seasonal. They're harvested from the middle of summer through early fall. Super-hot peppers used to be a find at farmers markets and at upscale supermarkets. Now, they're more common.

Dried chilies packaged by companies such as Mojave Spice Co. have supplied the ethnic market since the early '70s.

When chilies are unavailable fresh or dried, chili sauces make a reasonable substitute.

Mail order

The Old Southwest Trading Co. was one of the first companies to produce a hot-food catalog. It carries a full line of chili-related products, from cookbooks and magnets to fresh peppers in season. Call: (505) 836-0168.

Mo Hotta Mo Betta is devoted to serious heat in its line of sauces, salsas and pickles. The catalog is the master of understatement when it describes sauces such as Peppa-Po -- made of pure Scotch bonnets that are chopped and cooked -- as "very hot." P.O. Box 4136, San Luis Obispo, Calif. 93403; (800) 462-3220.

Le Saucier, a company from Boston that specializes in sauces, includes hot stuff in its catalog, too. Call: (617) 227-9649.

Sweet on hot

Peppers turn up in the strangest places.

Oh sure, you expect to see hot peppers in chili con carne or picante sauce. But "gummi" chili chews? Jalapeno jelly beans? Jalapeno-flavored beer?

The most unexpected pairing, and one that's showing up more and more: hot and sweet.

Unique hot candy can be obtained via mail order. The Fudge Farm in Paso Robles, Calif., sells Fudge on Fire -- fudge with chili -- for $9 a pound plus shipping: call (805) 238-5110.

Two companies make jalapeno peanut brittle: Magnum Enterprises in New Mexico, (800) 748-2403, and Texas Heat in San Antonio, (210) 656-HEAT.

Popcorn is a favorite new target for the hot-pepper treatment. The Mo Hotta Mo Betta catalog carries a jalapeno-and-cheese popcorn. The Popcorn Factory from California offers a jalapeno popcorn and a Cajun spice popcorn.

TTC Southwest Specialty Food in Arizona has two new spicy-hot coffee drinks, Chili Head Coffee and Jack Rabbit Java Coffee, both flavored with habanero. Southwest is a fountain of heat, with a line that includes corn bread, corn chips and beef jerky, all "shocked" with a dose of habanero pepper. All products are available through mail-order; call (800) 536-3131 for a free catalog.

Roasted, dryed, pickled

Fresh chilies bite. They also tend to grow "fur" -- mold -- in just a few days.

Handle fresh chilies with care; the truly hot peppers can blister skin. Wear rubber gloves, and be careful not to touch eyes with contaminated hands.

Here are some techniques for dealing with fresh chili peppers.

Roasting: Roasting peppers removes the skin and mellows the flavor. This technique is from "The Whole Chile Pepper Book" by Dave DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach (Little, Brown and Co., $16.95).

Cut a small slit in the chili close to the stem to let steam escape. Place the chile on a baking sheet directly under the broiler or on a splatter screen over a gas or electric burner. Rotate the chili over the heat. When the skin darkens and blisters, remove the chili from the heat and place in a plastic bag for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the bag and peel away skin. If you're not going to use roasted peppers right away, they'll keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks in a closed container, up to a month if covered with oil.

Drying: The traditional Mexican way to dry whole chilies is to string them into "ristras," which look like bouquets of chilies. Clusters of chilies are tied together at the stem, then attached to baling wire or heavy twine and hung from a rafter or door.

Chilies can be sun-dried, air-dried, or dehydrated in a home dehydrator or oven. Drying preserves chilies, and intensifies the flavor. These techniques are from the Dallas County office of the Texas Agricultural Extension Service.

To sun-dry, you need temperatures of 85 to 90 degrees or higher. Cut large chilies in half and remove seeds, stems and membranes. Small chilies can be dried whole but should be slit with a knife to speed drying. Expose the chilies to full sun in a well-ventilated place. Chilies are dried when brittle; it will take at least a week.

To air-dry, slit peppers with a knife. Run a heavy thread through the stems and hang the string in a well-ventilated room. This method may take three to four weeks.

Store dried peppers in moisture/vapor-proof packaging in a cool, dry, dark place.

To turn dried chilies into powder, break the chilies into small pieces and grind them in a food processor or grinder. It's wise to cover your mouth and nose when grinding.

The powder can be combined with other spices to make chili powders and pastes.

Pickling: Any type of pepper can be pickled. Choose chilies that are firm, fresh and free of blemishes. Pack chilies into jars, cover with a brine and then process in a hot water bath.

- Universal Press Syndicate

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