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There's a blustering, chilling wind outside my window this morning. Makes me glad I'm all snug inside in front of my PC. Cold, Canada and March (the month in which I'm writing this) are all synonyms in my book. It's the time of year you actively search out comforting, warming, rib-sticking fare.
At the centre of my most warming "comfort foods" is a berry that some find truly heavenly and others find intolerable in the extreme. Your nose runs, your eyes water, there's steam coming from your ears . . . as close to heaven as you'll ever get right here on earth!
Several readers have asked that I highlight chili peppers, and, since I number myself soon-to-be among the card-carrying ChileHead class I was more than happy to oblige!
Chilis originate in Latin America and they belong to the same branch of the plant family as tomatoes, eggplant and potatoes. There are so many different kinds of chili pepper that classification and description can sometimes defy our most valiant efforts! (There are over 100 varieties in Mexico alone!) They do, however, share some similarities: the shrub grows to between 2 and 4 feet in height, with some as high as 6 feet. The berries are what will become the spice and are smooth, shiny and taut skinned with hollow insides that have several fleshy ribs and numerous tiny white seeds. This is where the similarities end, though. The berries themselves vary greatly in size, shape, colour and strength. They can be anywhere from 5 mm to 30 cm in length; they can be round, squarish, flattened, long, short, wide and/or narrow; they can vary in colour from the unripe bright green to the mature red, yellow, purple, brown, black or creamy white. As for their heat, well, that too is as variable as their appearance. Pungency can range from relatively mild to "blow your mouth off" ferocity. Generally -- and like every rule, there are the odd exceptions -- the smaller, narrower and darker the chili, the hotter the fire it imparts. Unripe chilis are generally less hot than fully ripened ones and fresh chilis in turn are less hot than dried.
Chilis are widely available and most supermarkets carry several varieties. Chilis can be found fresh, dried whole, dried and flaked, ground, or as chili powders and seasonings. The best known of the ground chilis are Cayenne and Paprika but gaining a following are powders made from Anchos, Chipotles and Jalapenos. Chili powder contains ground chili as well as salt, garlic, cumin, oregano and other dried herbs. Chilis can also be found pickled, in oil and in various forms of sauce including Tabasco.
For the uninitiated, I recommend using gloves when handling chilis, there's nothing worse than rubbing your eye after having handled hot peppers; the memory outlasts the feeling.
It is said that the seed is where the majority of the heat resides and some people prefer to discard these. Personally, I like to use the seeds and vary my heat by varying the amount as well as the type of pepper I use.
I don't know of anything that doesn't benefit from the addition of chili in some form. From fried eggs, to salads, to main courses, to appetizers, to soups and pastas, and even -- thanks to my ChileHead friends -- in desserts; food is just that much better for the addition of a little capsicum. Try it -- I'm sure you'll agree!
Following is a list of a few of the chilis available out there and some of their characteristics. Go to your local market -- if you're lucky enough to live in an area with a Mexican or Latin population that's your best source, and the Oriental markets are brimming over with specimens too! -- and experiment with the varieties. It's a whole new world!
Sanaam Chili Peppers Thin, flat 3" - 5" long, deep red pods, not too hot; can be chopped and added to curries and such.
Tien Tsin Chili 1" - 2" long, very hot, bright red; add whole to soups, stirfrys, remove before serving.
Dundicut Peppers Similar in flavour and appearance to scotch bonnets; very hot, nice flavour.
Arbol Chili 3" - 5", curved bright red pepper; similar to cayenne in heat and flavour; add to barbecue sauce, curry or chili; use for flavoured oil or vinegar.
Chili Piquin Small, red, fiery hot chilis, also known as bird's eye peppers; add to moles and sauces, stews and vegetables, pozole and hot and sour soup.
Ancho Chili Peppers Large, dark purple; chop and add to red chili, tamales, stews, beans and rice; cover with water to rehydrate, slice open, stuff and cook to make awesome Chiles Rellenos.
Chipotle Peppers Ripe jalapenos that have been wood smoked, also called moritas, can be added to almost anything, including barbecue sauces, soups and salsa.