Chiles of the Southwest
Desert Lil's Delicacies - A DUSA Food Feature
The two most characteristic components of Des Mex food are corn and chiles. Corn deserves a column unto its own, so for now, let's explore the bewildering variety of chile peppers and how to tell them apart.
The chile pepper has been called the world's most popular flavoring. Chile peppers are the fruit of the genus Capiscum, most of which are of the same species, annum. More than 200 known varieties of this species are grown in Mexico, but only a dozen or so are available in U.S. food markets.
We usually think of chile peppers as an ingredient included to add hot seasoning. But Mexican and Des-Mex cooks also use chiles to impart subtle flavors, rather than tongue-searing heat. Understanding the different chiles used in this cuisine helps us produce more tolerable heat levels and more complex flavors.
An oil called capsaicin is responsible for the hotness of chiles. Capsaicin is found in the interior ribs of the fruit where the seeds are attached. Remove the ribs and seeds, and you remove the hottest part of the pepper.
Although the heat in different chile varieties can be vastly different, it is usually true that smaller peppers are hotter than large ones. But heat levels can also vary greatly between peppers of the same variety, depending on climate and soil conditions where grown, as well as the palate of the taster.
In the list below, chile potency is rated on a scale from 1 to 10. The Jalapeño (which many would consider quite hot) rates only 4-5 on this scale, while the volcanic Habanero rates 10!
When handling chiles, it is important to avoid touching your face and eyes. Many people wear rubber gloves or at least, wash their hands thoroughly after handling chiles.
Chiles are used either fresh, canned, dried or ground. Many dried chiles are ground into a powder, but this should not be confused with "chili powder" sold in the spice rack of your local market, which is a combination of ground peppers and other spices like cumin and oregano.
Most dried chiles will keep indefinitely when stored in a dry cool place. They are available in the Hispanic section of well-stocked markets. Canned chiles are available in the international food section and the Hispanic section. Check fresh produce for fresh chiles.
Fresh chiles are often roasted before serving or preparing in foods. This is accomplished by placing on a grill, or by roasting on a cookie sheet in a 450° oven for 20 to 30 minutes.
Once blackened and blistered, place peppers in a closed plastic bag to sweat until cool. Then remove skin, stem and seeds under cold water. Tasty roasted chiles can be refrigerated up to 3 days.
Below are some of the varieties of chiles called for in Mexican and Des-Mex recipes. Some names of chiles may apply to several varieties, and the same chile may be called different names, especially in its fresh and dried form. Hopefully, this list will make identifying the varieties of chiles less confusing. The number following each variety indicates its relative hotness on a scale of 1 to 10.
Anaheim (2-3): Fresh - bright green, pointed, 6-inch long pepper. Processed and sold in cans as whole or diced "green chiles." When dried, they are red and often called California or New Mexico chiles. Mild to medium heat.
Ancho (3-5): Dried - red, broad, triangular chile is the dried form of the Poblano chile and is used in mole sauces. Mild to medium heat.
California (3-4): Dried - Anaheim chile by a different name. Also sometimes called the New Mexico chile.
Cascabel (4): Dried - small, red, round chile is very hot.
Cayenne (7-8): Dried - small, narrow red pepper is most often ground into "red pepper" or "cayenne pepper." Also used in Szechwan foods. Hot in flavor.
Chile de Arbol (7-8): Dried - similar to the cayenne in color, use and hotness.
Chipotle (5-6): Dried - the name of the smoked and dried red Jalapeño; it is often canned with tomato sauce and called en adobo.
Fresno (6.5): Fresh - small, bright green or red chiles originated in California and are used in place of the hotter and similar looking Jalapeño.
Guajillo (2-4): Dried - brown-orange in color and fruity hot in flavor. Called Mirabel when fresh.
Güero (6.5): Fresh - sometimes called the "blond chile" because of its yellow-pale green color. Is very hot and used in place of Jalapeños when more heat is desired.
Habanero (10): Fresh/dried - lantern-shaped chile hails from Yucatan and is the hottest chile on the scale. Sometimes called "Scotch Bonnet," use with caution if you can find it.
Jalapeño (4-5): Fresh/canned - small, medium-hot chile comes from Jalapa in Mexico. Fresh red and green are common, as are canned ones which are often served atop cheese and tortilla chips.
Mirasol (2-4): Fresh - red roundish medium-hot pepper is called Guajillo when dried.
Mulato (2-4): Similar to the Ancho, it is the dried form of a fresh green pepper scarce in the U.S.
Negro (4-6): dried - slender, black chile is 6 inches long and relatively hot. When fresh it is called the Pasilla.
New Mexico (3-5): Dried/fresh - same as Anaheim or California pepper in color and shape, although sometimes slightly hotter. Dried, it is often found in dark red wreaths or ropes called ristras.
Pasilla (4-6): fresh - thin, dark brown chile is about 6 inches long and used instead of Poblano in some recipes. When dried, it is black in color and called Chile Negro.
Pequin (8-9): Dried - small, round, red chiles are often used in place of Cayenne.
Poblano (3-5): Fresh - green, broad, triangular chile is often used in chile rellenos. When dried, it is called Ancho. Mild to medium heat.
Serrano (5-6): Fresh - dark green, slender and smaller than Jalapeños which they sometimes substitute for because they are hotter.
Tepin (8): Dried - tiny, round, very hot chiles are used in place of Cayenne and Pequin.
Yellow (1-4): Fresh/pickled - small, waxy, bright yellow chiles similar in shape and heat to Jalapeños, but sometimes larger. This group includes: Santa Fe Grande, Caribe and Banana peppers.
We'll be using these various chiles in Des-Mex recipes, including home-made salsas. Check your local market(s) for availability ahead of time. See index below for more ideas.
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