If you're running out of ways to keep those light summer meals satisfying, turn to the chile pepper, whose heat, flavor and nutrients can't be beat. Originally cultivated in what is now known as Mexico, the chile pepper has become the most popular flavoring throughout the world. More than 100 varieties of chile are grown in Mexico alone, and several other varieties thrive in the American Southwest, Southeast Asia, China, India, North Africa, Spain and South America.
Finding Your Preferred Form
While the tongue-searing heat of chiles plays a starring role in Tex-Mex salads, Thai nam prik sauce, Szechuan dishes, Indian curries, Tunisian harissa, Spanish tapas and a variety of South American dishes, chiles also offer a rich store of nutrients that the rest of your body will thank you for: lots of vitamin C (more than bell peppers), vitamin A, folic acid, vitamin E and potassium. And some research suggests that eating hot foods such as chiles may even help to keep the good ol' metabolism healthfully high. In any case, chiles provide good nutrition as well as good flavor, so feel free to experiment with the varieties in your cooking and get ready to enjoy their heat.
If you're looking to spiff up a meal, a touch of chile can really brighten up a dish in a healthful, flavorful way. Here are some tips to help you select the form and variety of chile you want, and to brush up on how to handle chiles safely.
Fresh chiles: Fresh chiles can be found in the fresh produce area of a grocery store. When selecting fresh chiles, make sure they are firm, smooth and glossy with no signs of splitting. Refrigerate them in a plastic bag for up to three days. When handling fresh chiles, it is best to protect your hands with thin rubber gloves and avoid touching your face or eyes.
Dried chiles: Dried chiles are often located near the spices in ethnic and gourmet markets, but most other grocery stores will also carry them. Most dried chiles will keep indefinitely if stored in a cool, dry place.
Canned chiles: Canned chiles can be found in your grocer's Mexican or ethnic foods section. After opening, refrigerate in an airtight container for up to five days.
Chiles come in a variety of flavors, shapes and colors--and names. Although one name can refer to several different chiles and one chile may go by several different names, don't be discouraged. Feel free to ask your grocer about his or her chiles.
- Anaheim: Also called California fresh chiles or long green chiles, these large chiles are pointed, 6 to 7 inches long, bright green and mild to medium-hot in flavor. They are available fresh, dried and canned.
- Ancho: A dried form of the poblano chile, this is dark red to purple in color. It's also the sweetest of the dried chiles.
- Cayenne: Bright red and fiery hot, this small thin chile is most commonly used in dried form in commercially ground powder, known as ground red pepper or cayenne pepper.
- Chipotle: A dried, smoked form of the red jalapeño chile, these dried chiles are dark brown, and impart a smoky, chocolaty flavor to stews and sauces. They also come canned, usually in adobo sauce.
- Habañero: Small and lantern-shaped, habañero chiles are the hottest-known chile and range in color from light green to bright orange. They are used sparingly, in both fresh and dried forms, most commonly in sauces.
- Jalapeño: Small, dark green, medium-hot and juicy, jalapeños are available fresh, canned and dried (as chipotle chiles). These are easy to find and are one of the most popular chile varieties. They are used in a variety of sauces and are often stuffed.
- Pasilla: In its fresh form, this chile is called chilaca. But this chile is most commonly dried. Medium-hot in flavor, pasillas are thin, 5 to 7 inches long and almost black. They are usually ground and used for sauces. These chiles are also known as chile negro.
- Poblano: Often described as fruity and earthy, this dark green chile is mild to medium-hot in flavor. When fresh, its triangular shape is perfect for stuffing, as in chiles rellenos. It is often used in mole sauces. Dried poblanos are called ancho chiles.
- Serrano: Fresh serranos are more slender and hotter than a jalapeño, but less juicy. They are often used interchangeably with jalapeños.
Avoiding the "Scoville Scorch"
As eager as you may be to get your chile fix, take some care when handling any hot pepper.
- A chile's heat is rated in Scoville heat units, ranging from 1 to 300,000 (mild to extremely hot). The common jalapeño, which most people believe is very hot, rates only at 5000 units, whereas a habañero can get right up there at 300,000 units!
- Although chile heat varies greatly, smaller varieties are generally hotter than larger ones. But heat levels may also differ within the same variety, depending on climate and soil conditions where the chiles were grown.
- When you're ready to use any fresh chile, be careful and consider using thin rubber gloves. And, again, avoid touching your face or eyes.
- By removing the seeds and the white spongy ribs that they're attached to, you can reduce the heat of the chile. This is because a chile's volatile oil, called capsaicin, is concentrated in the ribs.