Chile peppers are used around the globe to add color, flavor and spice to dishes and sauces. Some varieties of the Capsicum species are hotter than others, but all add a splash of flair to regional culinary culture. A native of the New World, the spicy plant was disseminated throughout Europe by Christopher Columbus and his crew; or at least that’s the story. There is some evidence, however, that chile fruits made it to the Old World in the 1st century BC. In any case, this member of the nightshade family (which also includes tomatoes, eggplant and ground cherries) has been under cultivation for at least 7,500 years and consists of hundreds, if not thousands, of different varieties. Many are suitable for the home garden where the satisfaction of growing them is second only to the joy of cooking with them.
Many chile peppers are best eaten green –jalapeños, serranos, poblanos, and the ‘Anaheim’ and ‘New Mexico’ cultivars – but they should be mature, with seeds fully developed, before they are picked. Others such as cayenne and sweet peppers are often eaten when completely ripe. And many chile peppers are simply harvested when ready and dried for use later. Don’t be afraid to perform a taste test on your garden peppers as the fruits begin to fill out. You might like your jalapeños a little on the red side or your cayennes a bit green.
Hot, hot, hot
The chile pepper’s fire is caused by a complex chemical called capsaicin. This compound may protect the plant and its fruit from some pests, and, even though it is an irritant to mammals, it is, in part, the capsaicin that draws us to the plant. Capsaicin is present from the beginning of fruit development until the end, and its pungency increases with maturity. Toward the end of the growing season, chile peppers turn from mild and slightly hot to hot and fiery. Dry, hot climates and climates where high temperatures hardly fluctuate at night produce chiles with the highest levels of capsaicin.
Capsaicin is concentrated in the pepper’s white membrane (often called the rib), inner walls and seeds. To tell just how hot a pepper is, cut off the stem end and run your finger over the flesh attached to it. Touch your finger to your tongue, and you will know immediately if it is hot. If it doesn't seem hot, take a cautious bite. Be aware that capsaicin is an irritant and is easily transferred from peppers to skin. Wear gloves whenever you work with chiles, and take care not to touch skin, especially sensitive areas such as eyes and face, until you have washed your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
Hurts so good
Even if you don’t like spicy food, the flavor of chiles is likely to grow on you, and they’re good for you, too. High in vitamins A and C, they also contain iron, magnesium, phosphorous and potassium. Hot peppers also contribute to our happiness by stimulating the release of endorphins, which are natural painkillers that in some situations can stimulate feelings of euphoria. We can thank capsaicin for eliciting those responses – in this case, it really does hurt so good.
If you aren’t used to hot, spicy foods, you should begin eating chiles in small amounts. Your tolerance will build up quickly.
Chiles perform well in the garden with relatively little care, and it’s easy to wind up with plenty of fruit. Luckily, there is an abundance of ways to use up the spicy bounty. Fresh salsas are a given. Roasted chiles are perfect for making sauces and for stuffing. Roast them by the grill load and freeze by the dozen in large freezer bags. The skins slip off easily when they are thawing or thawed. Chiles also work great in escabeche, jellies, ice cream, pickles and make wonderful additions to infused vinegars and liquors.
Easy to air-dry
You can dry chiles in two basic ways. You might like to make ristras – strings of the mature red chiles. Smaller peppers like cayenne, Thai and some of the ornamental varieties can be strung on florist wire or with a large needle and heavy thread. Run the wire or needle through the flesh of the chile just below the cap; if you string the chiles through the stem, the chiles will drop off as they dry. The stem ends of the larger chiles can be tied with twine or grouped with rubber bands and tied together with heavy cord. Hang your ristras in a dry place with good air circulation.
Easy to oven-dry
For the oven method (or dehydrator), lay mature chiles in single layers on baking sheets covered with foil. Set the oven temperature on the lowest setting possible; 150 to 200 degrees is good. Turn the chiles once or twice a day. Small chiles dry in 12 to 24 hours, medium in 24 to 48 hours, and larger chiles can take from five to seven days. Chiles should be dried until they are just barely pliable, almost hard, but not overdone or too brown since that will make them taste bitter. If they bend they still have too much moisture in them. If they contain moisture, they will mold when packed in glass jars. Store them away from light; they will keep for a year.
With an abundance of dried chiles, all sorts of homemade goodies and gifts are possible. Homemade chili powder is remarkable compared to store-bought and is easy to prepare; give it with your favorite recipe. Whole dried chiles can be placed in a handsome jar and given to the aficionados on your list. Use whole dried chiles to decorate wreaths and swags, and make little wreaths with small chiles to use as ornaments or to place around the neck of a bottle of chile vinegar. The act of growing and harvesting homegrown food is a gift in itself. Preserving and sharing your garden bounty with your friends and family will warm their hearts as well as nourish them.
In midsummer, chile peppers mature, begin to ripen and become more pungent. Some are fiery hot, while others are crisp, slightly sweet, full of flavor with just a hint of heat. This is the time to put up your prize-winning corn relish, pickled peppers, salsas of every kind and hot pepper chutney.
Depending on the variety, it can take a few weeks for peppers to change color from green to ripe red. Peppers can be eaten no matter what their color, but your preserved chiles will taste best if you use fruits that are all approximately the same level of maturity and color – mature green or red ripe.
Gather jalapeños and serranos while they are still green to make green pepper jelly. Along with tomatoes, tomatillos and herbs, pick an assortment of hot peppers and preserve a few batches of salsa and relish for the long winter months to come. To tell whether your green peppers are mature, slit one open and look at the seeds. They should be creamy white, big and flat. If they are brown or not fully developed, the fruit is not yet mature.
Roasting and freezing
Green chiles don’t dry well but they can be preserved whole by roasting or grilling and then freezing. (If you freeze them without grilling, the chiles will become mushy.) Large green chiles are best for this method. Most thick-fleshed peppers – New Mexico green chiles, Anaheims, anchos, mulatos and the sweet bells – have a thin, tough skin that is best removed for pleasant eating. The traditional method is to roast the peppers. The peppers may blacken a little, and the skin will blister and become loose. Once roasted, these chiles will freeze well.
You can roast chiles in three ways, depending on the number you have to prepare. In all cases, cut a small slit at the stem end of the chiles to keep them from bursting. If you only have a few chiles, roast them directly on the open flame of a gas stovetop. Watch them carefully and turn frequently with tongs.
If you want to preserve a larger number of green chiles – say, six or more – place them in a shallow baking pan, and set it about 4 inches below the broiler. Turn frequently to blister the chiles evenly. Watch them carefully so that they don’t overcook. The skin does not have to blacken to become loose; if it wrinkles when you push it with the tongs, the chile has been blistered enough.
If you have a large number of chiles to put up, outdoor grilling is an excellent method. The chiles will blister quickly and take on a smoky flavor. Roast the peppers on an open grill over hot coals, about 4 to 6 inches from the flame. Watch the chiles carefully and turn frequently. Roasting peppers usually takes about 4 to 5 minutes for each side, depending on the size of the peppers and the intensity of the heat. Larger peppers will take longer to roast and need to be turned more often. When the chiles are done, the skin should be blistered and charred all over.
As each chile is done, transfer it with tongs to a rack over a baking pan. When all the chiles have cooled to room temperature, place them on a metal pan or a cookie sheet and freeze until they are hard. Transfer to plastic freezer bags, label and date them, and store them in the freezer.
To use the frozen chiles, thaw them for about an hour. Their skins will slip off easily, and the seed membranes are also easy to cut after freezing. Chiles taste best and have a fresher texture if you eat them within the first six months. If you remove as much air as possible from the freezer bags and have a reasonably good freezer, frozen chiles are still quite tasty up to a year later.
Fresh roasted chiles
If you plan to eat your chiles fresh rather than freezing them, you can peel them by roasting and then steaming them. Put roasted chiles in a paper or heavy plastic bag, or wrap them loosely in foil to steam the skins loose. Let the peppers steam in the bag for 5 to 10 minutes. Tear open the bag and use it as your work surface so you can keep cutting boards free of chile juice, skins and seeds. Begin by loosening the skin at the stems where you made a small slit. When the skin is loosened all around the stem, scrape it down with the flat of a knife, turning the pepper as you scrape.
To prepare roasted, skinned chiles for stuffing, enlarge the slit to about 1/2 inch from the end of the chile. Cut the seed membrane free just under the stem. Parts of the membrane extend down the inner walls; run the knife under these to free the chile of membranes and seeds. Don't worry about a few seeds or blackened bits of skin, and don’t rinse your roasted chiles, as this causes them to lose flavor.
If you are not stuffing the chiles, it is easier to simply cut the seed membrane and stem together, though you lose a little chile flesh. If you simply cut out the pithiest part of the membrane, which holds the seeds, you will not lose much pungency.
Now the chiles are ready for any number of preparations. They can be stuffed, diced, cut into strips, made into salsa or canned. Since the chiles already have been partially cooked, they need little further cooking. For the best flavor, 15 to 20 minutes of cooking is enough for most dishes.
Grinding chile for spices
Pure ground red chile is made from dried chiles and nothing else. This is an essential ingredient in Southwestern and Mexican cooking; it is used in making red sauce for enchiladas, burritos and huevos rancheros, among other dishes.
To prepare ground red chile, toast the peppers lightly (although tiny chiles like chiltepins and piquins don’t need to be toasted). Use a a regular griddle,a heavy frying pan or a comal – a large iron griddle for making tortillas – and toast the chiles over medium heat until they just start to release some fragrance, only about 30 to 60 seconds. Do not over-toast them, or they will taste bitter. Stem and seed chiles, and tear the pods into big pieces. Grind the pieces, about 1/2 cup at a time, in a food processor or blender. Do the fine grinding in small batches using a spice grinder, coffee mill, or mortar and pestle. Store the ground chile in tightly closed jars away from heat and sunlight. You can also freeze it for up to one year.
Chili powder is different from ground red chile. This American mixture was created in Texas in the late 1800s. Dried chiles are the main ingredient, enhanced by spices and herbs – mainly cumin and oregano, occasionally black pepper, dehydrated garlic and onions. The original chili powders were pure, without the salt, anti-caking agents or flour that characterize many modern blends.
It’s easy to roast your own chiles, grind them for red chile, and experiment with herbs and spices to make your own version of chili powder.
Homemade chili powder will keep in a tightly sealed jar out of direct sunlight for six months.
Small chiles and ornamentals
Ornamental peppers delight the eye as well as the palate. They add a fiery pungency in cooking and are especially lovely on miniature herb wreaths, kitchen swags, or threaded and hung in miniature garlands. Look for them in seed catalogues under such entertaining names as ‘Candlelight,’ ‘Fiesta,’ ‘Fips,’ ‘Fireworks,’ ‘Holiday Cheer,’ Holiday Flame,’ ‘Inferno Mixed,’ ‘Jigsaw,’ ‘Midnight Special,’ ‘Pequin,’ ‘Tepin’ and ‘Treasure Red.’
You can use these small chiles fresh or, when they ripen to red, you can dry them in baskets and store in glass jars for future use. Harvesting will stimulate new growth.
All of these little peppers are hot; most of them are fiery. Novices should beware the pungency of these incendiary little peppers. Because they are so hot, they are most often used whole – simmered in soups or stews, briefly sautéed in stir-fries or soaked in a marinade – and then removed.
Vinegars and infusions
If you have a surplus of the smaller hot peppers, you can pickle them or, to add new flavors to cuisine, infuse them in vinegar, vodka, tequila or sherry. Choose fresh, unblemished chiles or small, bright-colored, dried ones. You can use any type of chile in an infusion, but you are sure to succeed with the traditional varieties: serrano, cayenne, jalapeño, ‘Santa Fe Grande,’ red hot cherry, Tabasco, Thai and the ornamentals. Both liquor and vinegar infusions keep for at least one year.
Wash the fresh chiles and make a lengthwise slit in each pepper, fresh or dried, with a sharp paring knife (otherwise they will float like a cork). Cutting the fresh chiles in halves or quarters will give more heat to the infusion.
To make a liquor infusion, halve or quarter the chiles and push them down into the neck of the bottle. (You may have to pour out a little bit of the liquor if the bottle is full.) Use two chiles to a half dozen, depending on their heat. I generally use two or three habañeros to a liter bottle of good tequila. Two or three green jalapeños are good for flavoring a bottle of sherry, but I like to put five or six red cayennes or serranos in a bottle of vodka. Do not heat the alcohol. The chiles will float at first, but eventually sink. Allow the infusion to stand for 3 to 4 weeks before using; this makes a lovely, wicked libation.
Vinegars add zest to salads, sautés and marinades, and they are essential in making escabeche, pickled dishes made with vinegar or lime juice. Hot pepper vinegars are made in basically the same way as liquor infusions, except the vinegar is generally heated.