Friday, December 26, 2008

A Chile Primer

What a boring world this would be without chiles to enliven it! Our kitchen staff and most of the crew at the restaurant are chile heads and I am the chief among them. We take our heat seriously. It took me a year of solid once-a-week training to train my favorite Thai chef in Fairfax to heat it up enough for me. Here’s a brief stream-of-consciousness primer on some of our favorites. We start with the fresh chiles and then move to the dried and condiment chiles.


Before delving into the chiles and their uses, let’s spend a moment on terminology, which is as confusing as the day is long. I use the world chile to describe the fruit of any of the plants in the Capsicum genus (except that I call a Bell pepper a Bell pepper). Common names of the various chiles are terribly muddled, in part because chiles crossbreed like crazy, resulting in hundreds of named chiles (any many without any common names). Also, many of the names developed in rural and mountainous areas of Mexico, and Central and South America. In some cases, different names evolved for the same chile because of the difficulty of travel between neighboring areas. And then, there are regional differences in names, not unlike our own rockfish which is an entirely different fish from rockfish on the west coast.

I confront this nomenclature issue every time I order chiles from a new company. For example, our workhorse chile is the poblano, and yet various produce companies list it (wrongly, it turns out) as pasilla, mulato, or ancho. Pasilla is an entirely different chile. Mulato and ancho are dried forms of poblanos (mulato is the dark brown color variant and ancho is the brick red variant).

Now if the common nomenclature is muddled, taxonomy is also a bit of a work in progress. At the current state of understanding, the Capsicum genus is divided into about 26 species, five of which are domesticated. These are Capsicum annuum, including most of the common varieties such as Jalapeño and Bell; C. baccatum, including the tiny South American berry-like Aji chiles; C. chinense, including the really fiery Habañero and Scotch Bonnet varieties; C. frutescens, including the very bushy chiles such as Tabasco; and C. pubescens, including the very spicy South American Rocoto and Manzano varieties.

Fresh Chiles

Poblano. A large, deep green, heart-shaped mild chile with a touch of heat, this chile is our workhorse replacement for Bell peppers, which I don’t really care for. Extremely versatile, this chile can be roasted and stuffed whole, roasted and diced, or simply diced. We rarely use this chile raw (for salads or salsas). The spice can vary dramatically from chile to chile, so taste a bit from each one. I have created some extremely spicy dishes by accident. Also, I have received serious burns on my hands from some extremely spicy poblanos. In general, however, poblanos are very mild.

Jalapeño. We keep Jalapeños around for their rich flavor and green crispness. We use them either sliced (and unseeded) in stir-frys or finely diced to add spice to salsas. Sadly, it is hard to find jalapeños that are spicy. I believe that they are being selected for size and looks, and not for flavor. More and more, we pickle jalapeños and then stuff them. So, we keep the next two chiles in our arsenal for times when we want the heat.

Serrano. Short and bullet-shaped, these medium green chiles pack reliable heat and are almost always available in produce markets, making them a regular in our cooler. We use them for perking up salsas.

Thai Bird. These very small and short chiles start green and ripen through yellow, orange, and red (as do most chiles). They are the spiciest chiles that I regularly tangle with. Not as spicy as Habañeros, but worlds spicier than serranos, we use these when we really want intense spice, which is most of the time in our staff meals. We often slice bird chiles and cover them with fish sauce, which we then put liberally on our Thai dishes.

Piquillo. Piquillos are short, triangular, deep red sweet chiles with fairly thick walls, grown in the Ebro river valley in northern Spain. When fully ripe, they are slow roasted until their skins blister and char. Then they’re peeled and canned and shipped to market. Piquillos have the most intense and satisfying flavor of any sweet chile that I know. They are expensive and worth every penny of it.

Roasted Red (Pimientos). These big triangular red sweet peppers are roasted, peeled, and canned. The ones we use at the restaurant are locally grown in season and from Turkey otherwise. We use them in various soups (cream of red pepper), sauces (romesco), and in plenty of other dishes.

Corno di Toro. “Bull’s horn” is the name of an heirloom Italian frying pepper that we buy at the local farmer’s market. Once you see these beautiful long, curved chiles resplendent in all shades of green, yellow, orange, and red, you will understand immediately how they come by their name. Their incredibly rich flavor when sautéed makes them a fixture in our summer pastas paired with sautéed onions and grilled eggplant.

Anaheim. These long, light green, fairly thick-walled chiles have a mild chile flavor with almost no heat. We would use these in place of Poblanos if we didn't have any Poblanos in the cooler.

Pepperoncini. These short, light green peppers come to us already pickled and ready for salads. I have never seen a fresh one. Spice levels vary from one brand to the next.

Dried Chiles

Cayenne. Cayennes are long, skinny, thin-skinned red chiles with good heat. We buy them in powder form. Cayenne sees the bulk of its use in our kitchen in our Cajun spice mix, which we call “Magic Dust.” Cayenne also finds it way in very small quantities into pâtés and cream-based soups and sauces, along with white pepper, just to give a richer flavor, without adding any appreciable spiciness. We sometimes use chiles de Arbol, a shorter chile than a cayenne, with about the same flavor and spice profile.

Ancho. Anchos are dried poblanos, very dark, deeply wrinkled, and heart-shaped. Toasted and ground anchos are the primary chile in our mix for flavoring stews such as chile colorado. There is a very dark brown form of ancho called a mulato.

Pasilla. Pasilla, often called pasilla negro, is the very long, skinny, black, wrinkled, dried version of the chilaca chile. I use this mild, earthy chile to add background to moles.

Guajillo. We use the shorter smooth guajillos as an accent note in our chile dishes and moles. They have more spice and brightness than anchos and pasillas.

Pimentón. There are paprikas and then there is pimentón, a paprika that has come to be our darling spice in the kitchen. In the area around La Vera in Extremadura of Spain, they grow a wonderfully flavorful pimiento that they dry over a smoky fire before grinding. Sold in dulce (sweet), agridulce (bittersweet), and picante (spicy) forms, this paprika is a mainstay in flavoring chorizos and myriads of traditional dishes such as paella. We use a lot of the agridulce form—it is the primary flavoring in the dressing for our smoked chicken salad, for example. The brand we use, La Chinata, is available at


Sriracha. Sriracha is a fluid paste of ground red jalapeños that comes in squirt bottles. Euphemistically, we call it ketchup in the kitchen, where we squirt it on our own meals whenever we want a little zing. We also call it rooster sauce, after the rooster logo on the bottle of our favorite brand from Huy Fong Foods. The only downside to Sriracha is that it contains a good bit of sugar, so it comes off tasting sweet.

Sambal Oelek or Chile-Garlic Paste. Sambal oelek and chile-garlic paste, both also from Huy Fong, are coarsely ground sauces of red Jalapeños, without and with garlic. I love to start a dish by caramelizing a spoonful of either sauce in an extremely hot pan (don’t breathe the fumes!). We use these sauces to flavor certain soups such as Moroccan Chickpea Stew and in various marinades and sauces such as harissa.

Tabasco. We all know Tabasco and at the restaurant, we buy it in the giant bottles. I don’t make scrambled eggs without a shot of Tabasco (you don’t know it is there, but the eggs do taste richer) and our Bloody Marys wouldn’t be anywhere without a healthy dose of Tabasco. We use it to flavor anything where we don’t mind the vinegar that it’s made from. When seasoning a cream sauce, I wouldn’t want the vinegar in Tabasco, so I would use cayenne. Tabasco is always in our bean soups, though you may not be able to taste it.

Chipotles en adobo. I know that McIlhenny is trying to extend its Tabasco brand with a chipotle sauce, but still, the real deal cannot be beat. Chipotles are ripe, red jalapeños that have been smoked. They come either dried or canned in an adobo sauce (fundamentally a tomato purée). We use all the smoky adobo from the can to flavor various dishes (our black bean soup usually has a healthy dose of chipotle) and then we blend the chipotles and run them through a fine mesh to remove the seeds and bits of skin.


In our kitchen we do not use Bell peppers. I have always been of the philosophy that if you don’t like something, you have no business cooking it. Although I do like raw Bell peppers in salads from time to time, I am not a fan of that in-your-face vegetal flavor that uniquely screams Bell pepper. Also, we don’t often use Habañeros. Putting aside the fact that they are too spicy to feed to the general public, they have a really fruity (apricot, plum, and green apple) undertone that I don’t really care for in a chile, except in fruit-based salsas.

When handling chiles, especially ones of unknown spiciness, assume the worst and wear gloves. Once, I peeled a half bushel of normally mild roasted poblanos and came away with very bad burns on my hands, because I assumed the chiles were mild. Bad assumption. And remember that when you slice chiles, you are contaminating both the knife and the cutting board. Capsaicins, the family of alkaloids that provide the heat, are not particularly water soluble. I find that rubbing alcohol does a better job of cleaning capsaicins than does water.

Remember too that the capsaicins are not uniformly distributed in a chile. The seeds and the ribs (the membranes holding the seeds to the walls of the fruit) are more likely to be spicier than the flesh of the chile. And a little nibble off the tip of the chile is not necessarily a good predictor of what the rest of the chile will be like. Ask me how I know. I have found that with larger chiles, my nose can often tell me whether a chile is spicy or not.

Also, if you’re grinding dried chiles in the spice mill, wait for the dust to settle down a bit before you open the mill. I can assure you that a big snootful of ground Arbols is no picnic!

Finally, make sure that you wash your hands well. One touch to your eye with a fingertip laden with capsaicins or a visit to the restroom is enough to teach you a really valuable lesson! Yep, I learned this one too.

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