Chile Peppers Add Spice and Flavor to Recipes

From hot to sweet, chile peppers are good to eat.

| September/October 2009

Growing Chile Peppers From North to South 

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. 

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