Handling the heat

Habanero peppers are so hot that some even wear gloves when they handle them.

June 6, 2013 16:18
The flavor of chilies

The flavor of chilies 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

I have always been afraid to use habanero chilies. Until quite recently, they were considered the hottest peppers in the world.

Several weeks ago I received some habanero peppers at a party. I decided it was time to get over my fear of this pepper, which is popular in the Caribbean, Mexico, California and other parts of the southwestern US. In Israel habanero peppers are grown in Moshav Ein Yahav in the northern Arava.At a produce market I happened to meet a woman from Belize, and asked her whether she uses habanero peppers. She enthusiastically replied that she makes habanero sauce regularly using a formula from her native land – she mixes finely chopped habanero peppers, red onion and tomato, puts the mixture in a jar, adds salt and covers the mixture with vinegar; before using the sauce, she shakes the jar.

Although some wear gloves when they handle habaneros, she doesn’t; she just cuts around the seeds to avoid touching them. The seeds and membranes are the most fiery parts of hot peppers, and she advised removing them from the habaneros before using the peppers.

Used sparingly, I found that habanero sauce is a good addition to my chunky vegetable soups, to egg dishes like shakshuka, and to tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce and cooked potatoes.

Using hot peppers in the form of a sauce is convenient because I can gradually add the sauce to my taste, in small amounts. Doing this is easier than chopping a bit of hot pepper each time I want a touch of heat in our food.

In Belize habanero peppers are used in all sorts of sauces, both raw and cooked.

Creole pepper sauce is a popular one, used in cooking and as a table condiment.

Shelley Bowen Stonesifer, editor of Flavors of Belize, makes it by pureeing several habanero peppers with carrots, onion, garlic, vinegar and salt. She uses a touch of creole pepper sauce to flavor the cooking sauce for fish fillets, which is made of sweet peppers and onions sauteed in olive oil and heated with garlic, curry powder and tomato salsa; the fish fillets are cooked in this sauce and served in warm tortillas.

Cooked hot pepper sauces are perfect for enlivening plain dishes like Belizean boil-up, made of poached meat, cabbage, potatoes, sweet potatoes, other root vegetables and hard-boiled eggs. To make such a sauce, Stonesifer briefly sautes diced onions, diced tomatoes, garlic and habanero peppers in oil, purees the mixture and seasons it with salt and pepper.

Like Yemenite beef soup served with s’hug, Belizean cow’s foot soup, which is flavored with onion, garlic, allspice and tomato paste, is served with a habanero radish sauce made of pureed habanero peppers and green onions combined with strips of radish, sliced onion, minced cilantro, lime juice, vinegar and salt.

According to Maricel E. Presilla, author of Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America, the ability of Latin American table sauces to wake up other foods is due to a combination of heat and acidity. In the original native ones, heat came from hot peppers and acidity from tomatoes or tart fruits. “The Spanish conquerors eventually added other forms of heat (black pepper) and acidity (vinegar or citrus juice), along with different garlic-onion relatives, making more nuances possible.” They also added Mediterranean herbs – cilantro, parsley and oregano.

The best-known Latin American table sauce is chunky tomato salsa, also called salsa cruda or pico de gallo (“rooster’s beak”). (See recipe.) “Some version of this simple sauce appears on every table in Mexico and in most of Central America,” wrote Presilla.

The basic ingredients are ripe tomatoes, onions, fresh chili peppers and cilantro. To vary the flavor, she advises adding other ingredients, such as vinegar, orange juice, oil, oregano or cumin, one at a time.

Colombian hot sauce is very different.

“It looks like Argentinean chimichurri, but with lots more onion rather than garlic and a strong note of sweetness,” commented Presilla. Hers is made from finely chopped small hot peppers mixed with white vinegar, orange juice, lime juice and vegetable or olive oil. After the mixture stands overnight, it can be strained so it won’t be as hot. The sauce is then finished with finely chopped green and yellow onions, cilantro, salt, pepper and brown sugar.

“While table salsas belong on the table, as the crowning touch that will be added according to each person’s taste, they are also invaluable cooking resources...” wrote Presilla.

The writer is the author of the award-winning Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.


Adjust the hotness of this Mexican “salsa cruda” to your taste by leaving some or all of the seeds in the jalapeno peppers – the more you leave in, the hotter it is. In Belize a habanero pepper might be added to this salsa; if you’re using one, remove the seeds.

Wear gloves when handling hot peppers; after handling the peppers, wash your hands thoroughly and avoid rubbing your eyes.

Serve this salsa with cooked beans and rice, with cooked vegetables, or with grilled meat or chicken, as in the next recipe. You can keep the salsa up to two days in the refrigerator.

Makes about 2 1⁄2 cups, enough for 4 to 6 servings

2 fresh jalapeno peppers, seeds removed, minced, or other hot peppers
1⁄2 to 1 habanero pepper, seeds removed (optional)
350 gr. (3⁄4 pound) ripe tomatoes, chopped
1⁄2 cup chopped cilantro
2 large green onions, chopped, or
1⁄2 cup minced white onions
1⁄4 tsp. salt, or to taste Freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil (optional) If using canned jalapeno peppers, chop them into finer dice.

Combine tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, cilantro, and onions in bowl.

Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Add olive oil if desired. Add water by tablespoons if the salsa mixture is dry; it should have a chunky, sauce-like consistency.

Serve at room temperature.


The chicken benefits from being left to marinate with its spice rub of cumin, oregano and olive oil for 30 to 60 minutes before being cooked. Serve the chicken with green beans or zucchini and with rice or warm tortillas.

Makes 4 servings

Chunky Tomato Salsa (see recipe)

4 boneless chicken breasts, skin on (total 570 to 700 gr. or 11⁄4 to 11⁄2 pounds) 2 Tbsp. olive oil Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. dried leaf oregano, crumbled

Prepare salsa. Let stand at room temperature while preparing chicken. Rub chicken breasts with olive oil and sprinkle them on both sides with salt, pepper, cumin and oregano. Rub spices into chicken.

Grill chicken on oiled rack about 13 to 15 cm. (5 or 6 inches) above glowing coals, or broil about 10 cm. (4 inches) from flame, about 6 or 7 minutes per side, or until color is no longer pink; cut in thickest part to check.

Serve hot, with salsa.


This recipe is adapted from Gran Cocina Latina. Author Maricel E. Presilla makes the sauce by adding hot peppers – enough to provide a lively but not overpowering kick – to a Puerto Rican cooking sauce base made from cilantro, garlic, tomatoes and mild sweet peppers, and flavors it with capers, cumin and oregano.

“It is a perfect table condiment for roasted root vegetables, empanadas and tamales,” she writes. She likes to add a couple of spoonfuls to red beans, and to use it as a marinade for fish or chicken. The salsa keeps for three to four days in a tightly covered glass jar in the refrigerator.

Makes about 3 cups

2 ripe medium tomatoes (about 370 gr. or 13 ounces)
1 medium-size sweet green pepper (about 170 gr. or 6 ounces)
1 pale green pepper or semi-hot green pepper
1⁄2 habanero pepper or other small hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped
7 garlic cloves
1 tsp. capers, drained
1 cup cilantro (fresh coriander) leaves
1⁄2 tsp. dried oregano
1⁄4 tsp. ground cumin
1⁄2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1⁄3 cup tomato puree
1⁄4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Heat a griddle or heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the tomatoes and sweet pepper and roast, turning occasionally with tongs, until dark and blistered on all sides. Transfer to a plate and let cool slightly.

Scrape the blackened bits of skin from the tomatoes and coarsely chop. Peel, core and seed the pepper.

Place the tomatoes and pepper in a food processor or blender along with the rest of the ingredients and process to a smooth puree.

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