Chile's Angles

Gelson's Market
North Hollywood, CA - 1966, Wednesday


    1966. North Hollywood. Gelson's Market. Produce department. Wednesday.
    Having failed in my third attempt to spring Captain Crunch from the clink, my finely tuned candy radar detects a bogey at three o'clock.

MOM: I'll be right back dear.

    I didn't know whose idea it was to stack lollypops in produce, but it was sure okay by me.

SHOPPER: Hey, I'm shopping here.

    The problem? Which one. I'd never finish that big lime one before mom busted me. And cherry wasn't my favorite. But orange never failed to satisfy. [takes a habanero, we hear a bite, the bitten habanero drops to the floor, the view drops to the floor upside down]

Kroger: Alpharetta, GA - present day

    [on the floor] Of course as I lay there waiting on the ambulance, I realized that there was something in that sterno-like sear that I really dug. Sure there was some pain—heh, heh there was a lot of pain—but there was some gain in there, too. In fact, there was an indescribable fruitiness in that unforgettable fire that was as sweet as heartbreak. Now White- Bread Wonder that I was, I didn't have a clue of what to do with my new found infatuation, so for years I left these in the hands of the practitioners of Mexican, Tex-Mex and South American cuisines.
    Then came the day in 1991 when a chunky, chilied-up concoction called 'salsa' coup-ed ketchup as the top selling condiment in the country. Unwilling to shell out 5 bucks for what I knew could be made for one, I started cranking out my own salsas, mostly as an excuse to make time with chiles.
    Now it turns out, all it takes is a little know how, some simple tools, and a healthy dose of respect to turn these into good eats.


GUEST: Debbie Duchon, Fledging Anthropologist

    To the uninitiated, this can be an intimidating neighborhood. Of sure it looks friendly and festive what with all of those bright colors. But you get into this world and start moving around, first thing you notice is there aren't many road signs and what few signs you do find are often wrong. The reason? Well, a lot of folks can't even agree on what these boogers really are.

    Now take this word for instance. Now I'd love to get into what that really means, but as I've said, I am not a nutritional anthropologist.

[subscript numbers are from
the Scrabble game pieces used to
spell out the words in this scene]

C3 H4 I1 L1 L1I1

DEBBIE DUCHON: [clears throat]
AB: And neither are you. You're the daughter of a nutritional anthropologist. That doesn't count.
DD: That's actually the Aztec word meaning the fruit of a chile plant.
AB: So, Deb Junior. Where's mom? Lost in the jungle again? Ha, ha, ha.

DD: Anyway, the Spanish dropped off the second 'L' and changed the "I" to an "E".

C3 H4 I1 L1 E1

AB: Okay, so, uh, then tell me where this word came from. Pepper.
DD: That would be Christopher Columbus who, in fact, promised the Spanish crown that he was going to bring back black pepper.
AB: Mm.
DD: But when he got to the Caribbean, the only thing that came close were the pods we know as chilies. He called them peppers anyway and it stuck. At least they're both berries.

P3 E1 P3 P4 E1R1

C3 O1 L1 U1 M3B3 U1 S1

AB: Ah, but these [black peppers] are piper nigrums where these [chiles] are actually capsicums.
DD: Which means the 'the bite that bites'.
AB: Why yes it does, actually.

C3 A1 P3 S1 I1C3 U1 M3 S1

DD: Try this one on for size.
AB: Ah. Chili. Short for 'chili carn carn' [sic: chili con carne]. A strictly North American invention that often features chili powder.
DD: When a recipe calls for this chili powder it means a mixture of ground chilies and some spices like black peppers, cumin, and sometimes cinnamon.

C3 H4 I1 L1 I1

C3 H4 I1 L1 I1P3 O1 W4 D2 E1 R1

AB: Ah. When the recipe calls for that chile powder it simply means dried chilies which have been ground into a fine powder.

C3 H4 I1 L1 E1P3 O1 W4 D2 E1 R1

DD: Here's one I bet you've never even heard. It's Yucatec for 'to draw breath with puckered mouth after eating chilies."

H4 U1 U1 Y4 U1B3

AB: No. No, no. No way you get to play that word.
DD: I mostly certainly can. I win.
AB: Hey, you moved twice.

[final Scrabble arrangement]
      H     U
  C   I     Y
  A   L     U
  S   P
  C   W
  U   D
  M   E

    I don't want to play anymore with her anyway.

    Even if you don't care what they're called or what individual names they answer to, you can still choose your chilies wisely if you stick to a few simple rules, okay? When it comes to chilies, size matters. Smaller chilies are always hotter than larger chilies. Okay? Nine times out of ten, long, pointy chilies are going to be hotter than round, stubby chilies. Okay. Now since chilies use heat as a chemical weapon to protect the plant during its youth, immature or green chilies are hotter than red chilies 9 times out of 10. And here's the last rule: that 1 out of 10, heh, it's a real doozy. Witness, of course, the habanero which is small, it's round, it's red, it's even got wrinkles on it. And taste-wise? Well, it's kind of like tasting a meteorite in your mouth.

  • Small is hotter

  • Longer is hotter

  • Green is hotter

  • None of the above

    Of course, if you're not sure about those wrinkles and whether they're supposed to be on your chili or not, just feel the skin. If it feels at all dry or leathery, it's probably age, not design.
    Now back to the heat. It's kind of ... [takes a bite and falls to the floor]

The Tongue

    Are Scotch Bonnets really that hot? Nah. But it makes for a great transitional device. Of course before we can even talk about chili's flavor, we are going to have to deal with the fire that has no flame, capsaicin. Now you might think this capsaicin molecule looks a lot like vanillin, the chief flavoring of vanilla. And indeed, capsaicin and vanillin are close cousins, a family tie that we will take culinary advantage of later on.
    But what's important right now is how this [molecule] affects this, your tongue. Now the human tongue sports a pretty impressive array of sensors called 'taste buds' and each taste bud has its own receptor. And this receptor is keyed to fit a particular kind of molecule in food. When that molecule comes by—say, from a piece of asparagus, maybe some chocolate cake—it fits perfectly into the receptor on the taste bud. When that happens it completes a kind of chemical circuit and sends a message up to the brain that says, um, 'sweet', 'salty', 'sour', 'bitter', or 'savory'.
    Now the thing about capsaicin is that it doesn't care anything about locks. In fact, there hasn't been a taste bud invented that capsaicin can't pick. It just wiggles its way down into that taste bud and locks into place. And when it does, it sends a whole different kind of message to the brain, 'hot'! How hot? Well that depends on how many taste buds are affected and how much capsaicin's in your capsicum.

All true chiles are fruits of the Capsicum family,
named of course for the chemical capsaicin..

The Lab

GUEST: Paul Merchant

    Back in 1912, a researcher at Parke-Davis Pharmaceutical named Wilbur Scoville became interested in the neurological effects of capsaicin. The problem is when he tried to do controlled experiments with chilies, he was stymied by the fact that there was no scale, no way for him to know how hot one chili was compared to another one. So he decided to, uh, to kind of get his lab together and, um, make up his own capsicum heat scale. His first step, gather up a bunch of chilies. We've got a lot of chilies.
    His second step was to gather up a bunch of volunteers.

AB: Hi, Paul.

    We, uh, aren't quite as well funded as Parke-Davis so we've got one volunteer. But that will be okay.
    Here was his method. He would take a chili—say a bell pepper which really is a chili—and he would cut off a little piece of it and he would grind that up into a paste. He would then feed this paste to each of his subjects. Then he would stand by with a container of sugar syrup and he would see how many squirts it took of that syrup to cool the fire in their mouths. Based on that data, he would then assign that chili a certain rating based on scales of 100. And that scale became known as the Scoville Heat Scale.
    Now we're going to begin with Bell Pepper. Nice and simple.

AB: [to Paul] Go for it. [feeds some to Paul]
PM: [chews]
AB: [readies the sugar syrup]
PM: [waving him off] No problemo.
AB: Spit.

    No pain. No sugar syrup. Zero Scoville Rating. Now moving up we'll try, oh, how about one of these pepperoncinis here. That should provide just a little bit more bang for the buck.


AB: Give that a try.
PM: [indicates he needs a shot]
AB: One? Good.
PM: [indicates he needs another]
AB: Two? Three.
PM: [indicates he's cooled down]
AB: Spit.

    From this Scoville figured that pepperoncinis average about 300 units on the Scoville scale.

AB: Child's play, right?
PM: Right.

    The test is young.

[during the segment Alton continues to
feed Paul hotter and hotter chiles]
New Mexico          500-2,500
Poblano           1,000-1,500
Jalapeño         2,500-10,000
Serrano         10,000-20,000
Cayenne         30,000-50,000
Tabasco         30,000-50,000
Thai           50,000-100,000
Jamaican      100,000-200,000
Scotch Bonnet 100,000-250,000

AB: Well, by my calculations, uh, that last hot pepper only got us up to about 100,000 on the old Scoville Heat Scale, Paul. That leaves us but one chili.  This is a habanero, Paul. That means 'from Havana'. Hey have you noticed that the smaller the chilies get the hotter they are?



PM: Why, yes I have.
AB: And this one isn't really very big at all is it?
PM: No, I can't say that it is.
AB: [feeds some to Paul]

    The habanero averages 100,000 to 300,000 Scoville units.

PM: [runs around looking for relief]

    It's still a long way from the 6 million of pure capsaicin which you can't even buy without a special license but it's enough to qualify as the world's hottest pepper. Maybe this would be a good time to test some of those traditional heat reducers.

AB: You interested, Paul? How about some water?

    No luck. You see that's because capsaicin is alcohol soluble, not water soluble.

AB: Hey. Why don't you try a beer?

    Alas, beer is still mostly water. You'd have to swill pure ethyl alcohol for it to do any good.

AB: Hey. How about bread? Maybe that'll just soak that stuff out.

    See the problem is, once capsaicin is locked into those receptors, it really doesn't come out very easily. And you know, that stuff can do real nerve damage.

AB: Alright, Paul. Have some milk. But don't swallow. That could just move the
      burn down stream.
PM: Wwah, ahh, wwah ...
AB: Don't try to talk. Don't try to talk.

    No wonder capsaicin is registered with the FDA as a repellent for everything from voles to humans. By the way, you macho types should know that capsaicin overload can result in contact dermatitis of the tongue which can be fatal to your taste buds. Of course they'll grow back in a couple of weeks, so, uh, it's up to you.

Despite its mouth searing sensibilities, capsaicin is still used to treat arthritis.

The Kitchen

    Come on in. You know, how you handle your pods affects the flavor and the heat of the final application, in this case a standard tomato salsa featuring six roma tomatoes, 4 cloves of garlic, one half of a red onion, and a red bell pepper—which is actually a chili. There's also a tablespoon of olive oil, the juice of one lime, a little chili powder—or chile powder if you like—salt, pepper and some fresh herbage, scallions here but cilantro or parsley will be fine, too. Now since there's no sugar and very little fat here, I've steered clear of the more incendiary pods and settled with two jalapeños, okay?

6 roma tomatoes
4 garlic cloves
1/2 red onion
1/2 bell pepper
1 Tbsp olive oil
juice of 1 lime
chili (or chile) powder to
kosher salt
fresh ground pepper
somethin' green

    Before you poke around the pod, don protection. Capsicum is sticky stuff molecularly speaking and once it's on your tools, your cutting board, or your hands it can hang around for days. It can even resist soap and water. One day about two hours after cutting some chilies, I put in my contact lenses. Sounded something like this. [screaming] If I'd been wearing latex gloves that day, I might be able to wear contacts now. You know, I keep these around for handling raw meat, too. I buy them over the internet but you can them in just about any drug store, restaurant or laboratory supply. Buy the ambidextrous models and definitely go for the talc option or you'll spend all of your time wrestling a vicious puppet. Okay, we cut.
    Since they're technically berries, all members of the capsicum family including this red bell pepper which is really a chili share a light-bulb like anatomy with a cluster of seeds replacing the filament. There's no surprise there. Now the seed cluster is almost always attached to the side of the fruit with ribs. Now in the case of this red bell pepper, which is actually a chili, these ribs and the inner membrane don't bring anything tasty to the party, just indigestible fibers. So we remove just like that. That's going to leave you with nothing but the fruit which you can then fabricate however you choose: diced, minced, julienned, etc.
    Now if you were to remove these same pieces from a hot chili like this jalapeño, you would manipulate the heat level quite a bit. That's because capsaicin is produced—well it's easier to show you on this [bell pepper]—here in a set of glands—yes, berries have glands—and that accumulates in the inner membranes including the ribs. So, with this knowledge in mind, you definitely have some different heat options here. Start by clipping them and cutting them in half and then getting rid of the seeds. I like to just use a teaspoon for this. Just scoop them out. You don't take them out so much because they're hot, but because they are indigestible and hard and nasty. There.
    Now if you were to just chop this up fine, mince it in fact, you would have all of the heat of that inner membrane and since you would have a greater surface area, there would be more capsaicin for your taste buds to latch on to, right? Now if you prefer, say, a fruitier approach with less heat, just take this half and press it down flat on your board and then do the same thing you did to the bell pepper which is actually a chili. Just shave off that membrane. Don't turn the blade down, just press it down.
    Now this [shaved half] is a completely different animal than this [unshaved half]. And if you were chop it into slightly larger pieces, you'd have a salsa with two different effects: heat and fruit here. You want a third option? Okay. You could roast it. No roaster? Oh, believe me. You've got a roaster.
    There's one of these in every kitchen. Don't think so? Just look around. You'll find it. And if you've got one of these you have a chili roaster. Just place the pods directly in and set on your burner. Now summon forth the BTUs. Now the purpose of this? Burn 'em. Just turn and toast directly over the flame until they are black all the way around. Now if you do not have gas burners, you're going to have to do this under the broiler, but that's okay. Just reach in about once every 5 minutes and give them a quarter turn.
    While you're doing this on the cook top, though, you're going to need to turn on whatever kind of ventilation system you've got because there is going to be a little bit of smoke. Speaking of smoke.

The Lab

    Many of the chilies that are commonly sold fresh in this country have dried and/or smoked and/or canned alter egos living a secret life in the ethnic food aisle. Now they can be kind of tough to spot, though, because their names have often been changed to protect the innocent. For instance, these Anchos used to be Poblanos in another life. These, uh, Chipotles here began as Jalapeños. They're almost always canned, by the way. And, uh, these New Mexico chilies were originally Anaheims. Now I like to keep a few bags of these around the pantry because, well, besides the fact that they bring a lot of flavor to the party, they just about keep forever. [sniffs] Smell that?

Ancho       Poblano
Chipotle   Jalapeño
New Mexico   Anaheim

SCENE 8 The Kitchen

    Now that's a nice char. You know, I think we're going to need dental records to identify this one.
    All right, move this to the sink. Please use tongs. It's awfully hot. We're going to use the heat that is still in the peppers. Just put a bowl right on top and in about 5 minutes the steam is going to loosen the skin which is going to just make them easier to peel.

You can also remove the peel by blanching chiles in boiling water for 30 seconds, then moving them to ice water until cool. The peel will rub right off.

SCENE 9 The Kitchen

    The texture of dried chilies ranges from crispy-crunchy to lifeboat leathery like this New Mexico chili, and it's very tough to work on these with a knife which is why I use scissors. To get rid of the seeds just snip off the end, which makes sense, and turn them upside down and give them a shake. Everything will generally rattle right out. You might have to do a little massaging. There. I'm going to cut off that membrane. Now just give everything a shake and then snip into long strips. Now some chilies you might only get a couple of strips, some you might get 8 to 10. It's almost like julienning except with a pair of scissors. The smaller you get these, the more easily the flavor is going to integrate.
    Okay, just bundle that up into a little bouquet. It's tricky with the gloves but trust me, you'll be glad. And then I just snip them right into the salsa. Be very, very thin with them and just ... there. Now there are chili experts out there who will tell you that you should hydrate these or soak them first. But the way I figure it, there's already a lot of moisture in the salsa and there's no reason not to let that work on the chilies. That way all of the flavor is going to stay in the bowl and not in the soak water.
    Now give this at least an hour to hydrate before you serve. Of course you really ought to do that anyway because it really takes time for the chilies to get to know the other flavors in the bowl. Okay. Roaster's ready.
    There we go. Ooo, nice and soft. Now to get the charred skin off, either rub these between a couple of layers of paper towel or just wash it off which is what I do. Now besides softening the meat and sweetening the flavor, skinning cuts down on the grassy flavor that younger green chilies bring to the party. Now once you've got most of it off, basically just tear off the end and open it up. That way you can get most of the seeds out. Now you can't really separate the membrane from the meat. You can take off the ribs but the membrane is going to stay. So these are going to be hotter than they would be if we had actually cut them raw and skinned them out. There.
    Now you can mash this or you can mince it up, grind it into a paste, whatever you want to do. I like to just chop it up roughly. That way you get different levels of flavor. And straight into the salsa.
    Of course the other really nice thing about roasting is that roasting does create sugar and sugar, of course, is going to help to kind of cool off the chemical fire. Speaking of, how many chilies do I have in this? It'll be fine.
    So what we have here is a single salsa featuring 4 distinct strata or layers of chili heat and flavor. Okay we've got the high heat of the minced chili that was raw, membrane on. Then we've got the fruiter, chopped, raw chili that had the membrane removed. Then we've got the roasted chili and the dry chili which has re-hydrated very nicely. Of course you should feel free to mix and match your pods at will as well as how you treat them. You're going to have to experiment. [bites into chip with salsa] Mmm. Yeeha! Maybe I should have counted those chilies a little, a little bit better. Mmm.
    I hope we've inspired you to add a little heat to your kitchen day.
    Of course, chilies aren't just about heat. As we said, there are many layers of flavor tucked away in these little pods. Whatever you do, don't restrict yourself to the obvious applications. Salsa is fine but, hey, this is dessert and those are indeed chilies.

    Simmer a can of canned pineapple bits with a finely chopped habanero chili and a few sprigs of fresh mint for about 5 minutes. Cool thoroughly then remove the mint. Meanwhile, fry up some tortilla wedges in corn oil until crisp and puffy, drain and dust liberally with sugar. Then dig in. Oh, and you can have some ice cream on the side if you like.

  • 1 can pineapple bits
  • 1 habañero, minced
  • 2-3 sprigs fresh mint, bruised

    [takes a bite] Mmm. Mmm. The sugar and the habanero get together, cancels out some of the heat. All you get is fruit. Mmm. That's what I call ... ah, you know. See you next time.

Proofreading help from Jon Loonin and Sue Libretti

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010