The flavor of chilies

Even people of an Ashkenazi background have learned to appreciate the versatility of chillies.

The flavor of chilies 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
The flavor of chilies 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Chilies used to be popular only among people who were accustomed to eating very hot food. But attitudes toward chilies have been evolving.
Today, “it’s not just about the burn,” said Robert Schueller of Melissa’s Produce, in his presentation on food trends at the recent Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit convention in Anaheim, California.
He noted that many food lovers enjoy chilies for other flavors besides pungency. Some chilies impart a sweet as well as hot sensation, while others might be herbaceous or tangy.
Chilies, also known as hot peppers or chili peppers, are used throughout much of the Old World from Africa to China, but they originated in Latin America, and cooks elsewhere had to wait until the discovery of the New World to enjoy them. Mexicans are particularly fond of chilies; a bottle of hot sauce is a fixture on Mexican tables.
Now more and more cooks in North America and Europe use chilies. Even people of an Ashkenazi background like Faye have learned to appreciate them. We add chilies to many foods and sauces to make them more enticing.
THERE ARE many kinds of chilies, and they vary in the intensity of their heat. New varieties have been developed in Thailand, India and other chili-loving lands. If you come across a kind of hot pepper that you haven’t tried, Schueller gives a rule of thumb: In general, the larger the chili, the milder it is.
Dried red chilies, some very hot and some semi-hot, are available at spice stores. You can simmer them in sauces (after soaking them in water), crush them into red chili flakes or grind them into powder.
At the convention, we could choose among chili sauces with 10 different degrees of heat to spice our tacos; we found that we could enjoy even the hottest ones if we added only a few drops. We especially liked a black bean salad in which the beans were mixed with tomatoes, mild chilies and cilantro and served with tortilla chips.
Beans, in fact, are one of the foods that make it easy to enjoy chilies.
Others are rice, potatoes and eggplant. They seem to absorb the heat well without becoming too potent from the addition of a small amount of chili.
At the booth showcasing foods from Mexico, we tasted chili-spiced fruit. The exhibitor sprinkled pineapple, mango and papaya cubes with a spice blend called chili sal limon, or powdered red chilies with salt and lime. It seemed a shame to add spice to fresh, good quality fruit – but it worked. The flavoring mixture is also very good on cucumber wedges. People generally buy the dry spice blend but you can achieve a similar flavor at home: Simply sprinkle a vegetable or fruit lightly with salt, hot or semi-hot ground red pepper and freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice, as well as finely grated zest of the citrus.
There were even delicious chocolate chip cookies flavored with chilies. They are easy to make, says our friend Nancy Eisman, who blogs at You just mix chopped, grilled, peeled chilies, either mild or hot, into cookie dough, homemade or packaged, and then bake the cookies the usual way.
Tips on using chilies: • If your skin is sensitive, wear gloves when handling chilies. This is especially important with very hot chilies.
• To reduce the heat of a chili, remove the ribs, membranes and seeds.
• Add just a small amount of chopped chilies to dishes, and taste before adding more.
• At Indian restaurants, yogurt is served with the food to calm the fire of the chilies. Cathy Thomas, author of Melissa’s Great Book of Produce, has additional remedies for mouth burn: milk, sour cream or ice cream.
Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.
Serve grilled hot peppers with beans or meats. Mix grilled chili strips with cooked rice or pasta, or add them to vinaigrette for spooning over grilled chicken breasts or fish fillets. Add them to a standard chicken salad or tuna salad for a lively new taste. You can simmer them in tomato sauce or other sauces, as they add a slightly smoky flavor that’s different from adding the hot peppers raw.
Chilies are grilled the same way as sweet peppers, but for a shorter time because they are slimmer and smaller. For even cooking, a stovetop grill is easiest to use, especially with small chilies so they won’t overcook. We often put the peppers on a foil-lined broiler rack for easy cleanup.
Preheat broiler with rack 5 cm. to 10 cm. (2 inches to 4 in.) from heat source, or far enough so peppers just fit; or heat grill. Broil or grill the chilies until their skins are blistered and charred, but do not let them burn.
If you don’t want the peppers to soften too much, grill them until only slightly charred but still firm. Mild or semi-hot chilies usually take about 10 minutes. Small hot chilies may need only 5 minutes.
During broiling, turn peppers often with tongs so another side faces flame – turn mild chilies every 3 minutes, small hot chilies every minute.
Transfer chilies to a bowl and cover the bowl; or put them in a paper or plastic bag and close bag. Let stand for 10 minutes. Peel peppers using paring knife, wearing gloves if your skin is sensitive. Discard seeds and ribs. Do not rinse; this would make peppers lose flavor.
We enjoyed this dish of chicken with a flavorful tomato sauce at a restaurant in the Mexican coastal town of Ensanada, south of the California border. Serve the chicken with green beans or peas and with rice or warmed tortillas.
4 Tbsp. olive oil 1 or 2 jalapeno peppers or other hot peppers, seeds discarded if desired, minced 2 garlic cloves, minced 900 gr. (2 lbs.) ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped, or an 800-gr. (28-oz.) can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped 1 bay leaf salt and freshly ground pepper 4 boneless chicken breast halves, skinned (170 gr. to 200 gr. or 6 oz. to 7 oz. each) 1⁄4 cup flour 1⁄3 cup chicken broth 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh oregano or 1 tsp.dried oregano pinch of sugar (optional)
Heat 1 Tbsp. oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add hot peppers and garlic and saute 1⁄2 minute. Add tomatoes, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until sauce is thick, about 20 minutes.
Discard bay leaf. Puree sauce in a food processor or blender until very smooth.
Pound each chicken piece between 2 pieces of plastic wrap or waxed paper until 6 mm. (1⁄4 in.) thick, using a flat meat pounder or rolling pin. Do not pound too forcefully or meat may tear. Carefully peel off wrap or paper.
Spread flour on a plate. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper on both sides. Lightly coat 2 chicken pieces with flour on both sides. Tap them to remove excess flour and arrange them side by side on a plate.
Heat remaining oil in a heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add coated chicken.
Saute until browned on bottom, about 2 minutes. Using 2 wide spatulas, turn chicken over carefully. Saute second side until browned and chicken is tender when pierced with a small sharp knife, about 2 minutes.
Transfer chicken to platter, arrange pieces side by side, and keep warm in low oven.
Flour and saute remaining chicken. If oil in pan turns brown, reduce heat.
Discard oil from skillet. Add broth and oregano and bring to a boil, stirring and scraping to dissolve any brown bits in pan.
Add tomato sauce and simmer, stirring, until sauce absorbs the broth, about 2 minutes.
Taste, and add salt and pepper if needed; if sauce is too acidic, add a pinch of sugar.
To serve, spoon a little sauce on each of 4 plates and set chicken breasts on top, letting sauce show. Serve remaining sauce separately.
Makes 4 servings
This recipe is from The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet. Author Nava Atlas makes it with pinto beans or pink beans, but you can use any kind of beans you like. To finish the dish, you can drizzle it with olive oil and sprinkle it with chopped cilantro (fresh coriander). A salad or a green vegetable makes a good accompaniment. Atlas also recommends serving the beans with a simple grain dish.
Two 454-gr. (16-oz.) cans beans, drained and rinsed, or 4 cups cooked beans (from about 12⁄3 cups raw) 2 cups cooked fresh corn kernels (from 3 medium ears) or frozen corn, thawed 1 400-gr. to 454-gr. (14-oz. to 16-oz.) can tomatoes, chopped, with their liquid 1 jalapeno pepper or other hot pepper, seeded and minced 1 tsp. ground cumin
Combine all the ingredients in a large saucepan, a steep-sided stir-fry pan or a deep saute pan and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer gently over low heat for 15 minutes.
Serve in shallow bowls.
Makes 4 to 6 or more servings