Chili peppers are an incredible food.
They're fruit, actually, by botanical standards. All chilies are members of the capsicum family, which includes both sweet and hot varieties. Capsaicin is the substance found in chilies that gives them their fiery kick, and while a hot pepper's most memorable characteristic may be its spiciness, they all vary greatly in both heat and flavor.
Like many foods throughout history, chili peppers have been used as often for their health-promoting properties as they have been a flavoring. One of the most useful traits of the chili is its ability to induce perspiration. If you've ever eaten food that was spicy enough to cause a damp brow you understand this completely. It's no coincidence, then, that chilies are ubiquitous in the cuisines that are close to the equator. Sweating is, of course, the human body's way of cooling off, something that is crucial in a hot and humid climate. And it is this same function of the humble chili that promotes healthy respiratory, circulatory and digestive systems.
Another beneficial quality of the chili is its ability to not only camouflage "off flavors" in food that is past its prime, but also to act as a food preservative. Two overt examples of this are chili con carne and Jamaican jerked foods. It's well-known that chili con carne began as a staple meal prepared by chuckwagon cooks of the old Southwest, being frugal as they had to be, they boiled meat with fresh chilies to cover up its sometimes rancid flavor. And while "jerked" foods are all the rage today, the actual technique originated in Jamaica by escaped African slaves. They rubbed meat (usually pork) with spices and fresh chilies (including the fiery habeero) and cooked it over coals until it was extremely dry. This would act as a natural preservative against the hot, humid jungles in which they hid.
These same slaves are said to have rubbed their weapons with the spicy pods, thus even a minor wound would incapacitate their would-be captors. A modern version of a "pepper weapon" is the pepper spray that is often carried by mail carriers and police.
Chilies are indigenous to the Americas and, like many common American foods, were first introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus. On his second voyage to the "New World," Columbus came upon civilizations that had been consuming chilies for 10,000 years or more. Thinking they were related to black pepper, and the Aztec name for them being chilli, he dubbed them "chili pepper." The Aztecs were such chili connoisseurs that they categorized chilies' pungency into six levels, which, in their native tongue, began with coco, meaning "hot," and ending with cocopalatic, or "runaway hot." My personal favorite is cocopetztic, translating to "brilliant hot." There are more than 200 varieties of chilies and more than 100 of them are native to Mexico.
The intensity of a chili's heat is measured in what is called "Scoville units," which were developed by Wilbur L. Scoville, the gentleman who developed the Scoville Organoleptic Test in 1912. The pungency of a particular chili is measured in multiples of one hundred Scoville units. The greater number of Scoville units recorded the hotter, or spicier, the pepper. This heat range is also translatable to a numbered chart ranging from 1 to 10. A jalapeo, for example, is a number 5 and contains between 25,000 to 35,000 Scoville units, whereas a cayenne pepper is a number 8 and contains close to 50,000 Scoville units. One of the hottest chilies -- the habeero -- is definitely a number 10, and can contain as many as 300,000 Scoville units; some say the number range should be extended to 12 or even 14 just for this chili.
Generally, the smaller a pepper is the hotter it will be. Most of a chili's heat is concentrated in the seeds and ribs of the pepper. If you'd like to reduce the intensity of a particular chili, which will allow more of its natural flavor to pervade, remove the inside membrane and seeds. This, of course, should be done with great care, and, with the spicier varieties, wearing latex gloves is highly recommended -- habeero and Scotch bonnet chilies have been known to actually cause blisters on unprotected skin.
When purchasing fresh chilies, look for fruit that is firm, smooth and free from blemishes. Avoid those with any signs of shriveling or soft spots on the skin. Store them in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator for up to one week.
Red Potato Salad with Serrano Salsa
Yield: 8 servings
4 pounds small red-skinned potatoes
2 ripe plum tomatoes, seeded and
1 small shallot, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 serrano chilies, seeded and minced
1/2 cup loosely packed chopped
3 tablespoons virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon salt
Place the potatoes in soup pot and cover them with cold water to which 2 teaspoons of salt have been added. Bring the water to a boil then lower it to a simmer; cook the potatoes until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes and refrigerate them for 1/2 hour. Make the salsa by combining in a small bowl, the tomatoes, shallot, garlic, chilies, cilantro, olive oil, and salt. Stir the salsa until thoroughly combined, set aside. Remove the potatoes from the refrigerator; cut the small potatoes in half, quarter the larger ones. Combine the potatoes and the salsa in a large bowl and toss gently. Allow the salad to rest for 10 minutes prior to serving. Serve the salad as a side dish as is, or, over a bed of crisp greens as a summer entree.