Guide to Peppers: Some Like It Hot!

A recent newsletter from Ginger Rapport, Market Master of the Beaverton Farmers Market, featured this guide to the peppers that are tumbling into local farmers markets right now.

Chile versus Chili

If you like it hot, then this is your time of the year because it is chile season.

According to Chef Mark Miller, author of the The Great Chile Book, the generally accepted convention is that chile refers to the plant or pod while chili refers to the dish made from meat and chiles. The name pepper is a misnomer that has existed since Christopher Columbus saw his first capsicum and erroneously thought that he had found the plant that produces black pepper, which has no relation to capsicum. However, the name pepper is still used interchangeably with chile.

Peppers, from hot to mild, are available in abundance right now.

The chemical in chile peppers that gives them heat is capsaicin [pron. cap-SAY-uh-sin] which is technically a neurotoxin. It stimulates the adrenal glands to release hormones, which theoretically create an energy rush. The fiery sensation you feel also triggers the brain to produce endorphins, natural painkillers that promote a sense of well-being and stimulation. They can also make you sweat, which is your body’s natural air conditioner. This would explain why chiles figure prominently in cuisines in and around the tropics.

Depending upon whether you like them hot, mild, or somewhere in between, you will want to make informed decisions when purchasing chiles. The first thing that you should know is that the heat level in a chile is rated on a scale known as the Scoville Heat Index. Invented by Wilbur Scoville, it ranks chiles in order from mildest to hottest with zero being the mildest and the hottest being over a million. In general, the smaller the chile, the hotter it is.

Scoville ranking for bell peppers? Zero.

We’ve included the Scoville ranking* for each. Most of the heat is located in the seeds and white ribs inside. Removing the seeds and ribs, using only the flesh of the chile, will give you all of the flavor and less of the heat. Keep in mind that you should use gloves when handling the hottest peppers to avoid irritating your skin.  It is important that you do not touch anything, especially your face, before disposing of the gloves and washing your hands thoroughly. 

Bell Peppers: Scoville 0. Bell peppers are sweet peppers. They add flavor but no heat to your food.

Anaheim Peppers: Scoville 1000. Big and mild, perfect for stuffing. The skin is a little tough but peels easily if you roast it first.

Poblano and red bell peppers.

Poblano Peppers: Scoville 1,000-2,000. The classic chile for Chiles Rellenos. The have great flavor and enough heat to be zesty but not scorch anyone. As they mature, the skin reddens at which  point they are dried and sold as Ancho chiles.

Jalapeno Pepper: Scoville 2,000-8,000. This is the most commonly used pepper in the U.S. It is spicy but not overwhelming.

Serrano Pepper: Scoville 10,000-25,000. Similar in flavor to the Jalapeno only much hotter, Usually small, about 2” and green in color. A general rule of thumb is that the smaller the serrano, the hotter it will be.

Ayers Creek Farm cayenne peppers.

Cayenne Pepper: Scoville 25,000-50,000. When you want to add heat to food this is a good choice. Red in color, the Cayenne is usually dried and used in powdered form.

Thai Chile: Scoville 50,000-100,000. This pepper is classified as “very hot." It is a very small pepper and is commonly called for in Thai recipes.

Habanero Chile Pepper: Scoville 150,000-350,000. Of the hot peppers most commonly used, this is the hottest. Its color ranges from green to yellow to pink. It is very short but don’t let that fool you, this chile is scorching hot!

Other peppers you will find in the market:

Small, boxy padron peppers.

Padron Peppers. Originally from Spain, they are harvested young and small and they typically have no seeds. This makes them mild, perfect for eating whole. Farmers tell us that about one in every 12 will be surprisingly hot and there is no way to know which one packs the extra punch. [Tradition dictates that getting the hot pepper brings luck.] Sauté in olive oil until blistered and shower with salt. Serve hot.

Shishito. Popular in Japan, these are very similar to Padron peppers, but are more consistently sweet and mild. Serve them sautéed like Padrons, or drizzle with soy sauce and sesame oil. Very tasty in tempura.

The Dozen Spiciest Cuisines

Chiles play a prominent role in the dishes of many countries. According to Eater.com, the dozen spiciest world cuisines are: Chinese (Sichan), Ethiopian, Ghanaian, Liberian, Nigerian, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Peruvian, Senegalese, Southern Italian and Sicilian, Tibetan and, last but not least, Thai.

Creamed Collard Greens with Peanut Butter and Chiles.

If you are looking to spice up your life, make sure to look beyond Mexican food. While we love the spicy south of the border cuisine, chiles traditionally pack a punch in curries, stir-fries, rice and noodle dishes, salads and condiments from all over the world.

We love a good comfort dish like Chinese-American General Tso's Chicken and this West African one-pot favorite, Creamed Collard Greens with Peanut Butter and Chiles

Roasting Red Pepper Primer

Many recipes call for roasting your peppers and roasted red peppers are a great addition as a condiment to sandwiches or added to hummus. We found two foolproof methods for roasting and skinning your red peppers, no matter your kitchen setup. 

Our favorite method is charring over a gas burner. It's quick and easy with very little cleanup. If you have an electric stove, the next best option is to roast the peppers in the oven under the broiler.

* Scoville rankings are often given in a range because varieties and growing conditions vary.

Got Beans? Make a Pot of Chili!

Unlike the mysterious run on toilet paper—no pun intended there—when folks found out that they may have to "shelter in place" for several weeks due to the coronavirus, it made sense to stock up on dried goods that can last in the pantry for at least that long. As local food missionaries Katherine Deumling of Cook With What You Have and Jim Dixon of Real Good Food have preached from their respective pulpits, you can cook up a pot of beans at the beginning of the week and use the beans in several different dishes, or whip up a big batch of one dish to divide and freeze for later.

My recipe for chili takes a middle road, cooking the beans separately from the meat and chile sauce. The beans versus no-beans in chili seems to depend on whether you hail from north of the Mason Dixon or to its south, but there are also cultural elements at play, not to mention the most important indicator: how your mom made it. Me, I grew up with beans in chili, but because I'm a natural contrarian, sometimes I just feel like keeping the two unsullied until they consummate their union in my bowl, showered with the happy blessings of chopped sweet onion and grated cheese.

I'm also not doctrinaire when it comes to the type of beans to use. I've even been known, in straitened moments, to use canned kidney beans, but my preferences run to heritage varieties like cranberry or scarlet runner, or organic Borlotto Gaston from Ayers Creek Farm. The night before, put three-quarters of a pound of beans in a pot, cover with water by one inch, put a lid on the pot and leave on the counter to soak. The next day, drain them, put them in a pot, cover them with fresh water and cook on the stove until tender, or you Northerners can drain the soaking water and add them to the chile sauce to simmer with the meat.

Beef Chili

For the chile sauce:
6 dried ancho chiles, seeded and torn into pieces
2 dried cayenne chiles, seeded and torn into pieces (optional)
3 1/2 c. boiling water
1 Tbsp. cumin seeds, toasted (see below)
2 Tbsp. (6-8) garlic cloves
4 tsp. oregano
1 Tbsp. smoked Spanish pimenton
2 Tbsp. paprika
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. salt

For the chili:
1 large onion, chopped in 1/2" cubes
2 Tbsp. flour
3-4 lbs. chuck roast, cut in 3/4" cubes (pork shoulder also works)
2 bay leaves
1 qt. roasted tomatoes, or 28-oz. can whole tomatoes
Salt

In a small, dry frying pan over medium heat, toast the cumin seeds briefly, stirring constantly, until they release their aroma.

Place the torn chile pieces in a heat-proof bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Soak for 30 min. until they are soft and pliable. Drain them, reserving the soaking water, and place them in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Add remaining ingredients (including the toasted cumin seeds) and 1/2 c. soaking liquid and process till smooth, gradually adding the remaining soaking water.

Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium high heat. When it shimmers, add the chopped onion and sauté until tender. Add flour and stir continuously for up to 2 minutes until the flour loses its raw taste. Add meat, chile sauce, tomatoes and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Stir occasionally, adding water if it seems too dry. Add salt to taste.

Serve with cooked beans and rice on the side, along with finely chopped sweet onion and grated cheese to sprinkle on top.