Red Hot Chili Peppers
Lend Rhythm to Mexican Cuisine
Chili peppers are the exclamation point in many of the most renowned Mexican cuisine stars, which is not surprising since almost all types had their genesis in Mexico. Now, they are prized, grown and used liberally all over the world. Some varieties of these little hotties can actually add mild, subtle flavor; and others go off on the palate like a firecracker. While some like them hot, other chili lovers prefer the slow smolder of milder pepper varieties. The heat stimulating chemical in chili peppers is called capsaicin. Naturally, some peppers have higher levels of capsaicin than others. Chili pepper “heat” is measured by an index called “Scoville units.” The higher the units, the hotter the pepper.
How does an operator not familiar with the different varieties make choices for different applications? First and foremost, consider your demographics. It is likely that older diners and children would not appreciate super-hot tamales. Hispanics and Asians are more used to the robust heat in their respective cuisines, and can handle their Habaneros. One of the best ways to educate yourself on chilies is to talk with the growers, whether at farmers markets or on a scheduled visit to a local farm. Or, let your fingers do the walking online.
Here are some of the basics:
This variety is likely the most familiar in the United States. Jalapeños are a bright, shiny green, and resemble a tiny closed umbrella, with a wider stem end that tapers to the tip. Some Jalapeños are quite hot, while others have been bred with less heat for salsas and for use whole as stuffed appetizers.
One of the larger and milder varieties, Poblanos are perfect for stuffing, breading and deep frying. They are a shiny dark green and some resemble hearts. While bitter when raw, roasting brings out their sweetness. Poblanos are excellent in mole sauces.
This is the name given to Jalapeño peppers that have ripened until red, dried and smoked.
When Poblanos are ripened to red and dried, they are called Ancho chilies.
Primarily grown in the Yucatan Peninsula, this variety is one of the hottest, and provides a complex flavor. It’s a good idea to start with a just a small amount, and add more until just the desired punch is achieved. Habaneros are usually the main ingredient in hot sauces.
Also known as California, New Mexico and Magdalena, Anaheim chilies are usually quite mild. They are a shiny grass green, long and narrow, and the basis for chili rellenos. They are the perfect choice for mild salsas.
Shaped like a little shiny green torpedo, and just as likely to cause an explosion, these skinny, shiny beauties are hotter than jalapeños, but have a pleasing grassy flavor undertone. Use them in guacamoles, salsas and other dishes where considerable heat is desired. Traditionally, Serranos are used in pico de gallo.
Although Pasillas are eight to ten inches long, the name means “little raisin” because of their dark wrinkled appearance. This pepper is the dried version of the chilaca pepper and compliments fruits, duck and seafood.
IMPORTANT NOTE: When working with chili peppers, it’s advisable to wear gloves to protect skin, and to wash hands immediately before touching the face and especially eyes.