By: Mark R. Vogel
Do you like hot food? I mean really hot food? Are you a chile head? Then let's talk hot peppers. Chile peppers, of which there are almost 200 varieties, have been cultivated since 6200 B.C. All chile peppers get their fire from a compound called capsaicin, (kap-SAY-ih-sihn), the greatest deposits of which lie in the veins of the pepper.
The Scolville Scale measures chile peppers' heat in increments from 500 to 400,000. Your average jalapeno registers about 3,500-4,500 Scolville units, while the mighty habanero, the hottest pepper on earth, tips the scale at 300,000-400,000. Chiles are available in fresh and dried forms. A fresh chile's dry counterpart will be somewhat hotter since dehydration intensifies the heat of the remaining substance. Aside from the heat, chile peppers offer a distinct flavor, unequaled in the culinary world. Moreover, they are high in vitamins A and C as well as good sources of potassium, folic acid, and vitamin E.
It is advisable to wear rubber gloves while cutting them, especially the very hot ones. Capsaicin from the pepper quickly infiltrates the skin and can linger even after washing. I learned this the hard way one day when I put my contacts in after cutting up habaneros. Yes, just imagine shoving a sharp pencil into your pupil.
There are countless hot pepper sauces on the market today. I prefer Franks, (made from cayenne peppers), and the classic Tabasco, (made from tabasco peppers). Steer clear of the ultra hot sauces. You can recognize them by the small bottle, the crazy name, and the price. These super hot sauces are an intensified extract of capsaicin.
They provide dangerously high heat but a relatively low flavor yield since the heat factor is not balanced by a proportionate amount of the other elements in the chile pepper. In other words, if each drop of the super-sauce equaled one jalapeno, you would get a greater depth of flavor from including five jalapenos in your dish than from five drops of the sauce. Here's my recipe for habanero sauce, which will provide blistering heat and satisfy all but the most masochistic fire-eaters.
1 cup water
1/3 cup of red wine vinegar
1-3 fresh or dried habanero peppers, depending on how hot you like it.
1 large red bell pepper
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt
Chop up the bell and habanero peppers, (or grind the habaneros if using dried). Place all of the ingredients in a saucepan, bring to a boil, and then simmer for 8-10 minutes. Finally, puree the mixture in a blender. You can use this sauce in numerous dishes but here's my favorite: Steak Habanero.
1 pound flank steak
1 large onion
5 cloves garlic
6 roasted poblano peppers, (or bell peppers if you can't find poblanos).
½ cup chopped cilantro
1 batch of habanero sauce
salt & pepper to taste
First, roast the peppers in the broiler and then peel and remove the seeds. For those of you who have never roasted peppers, let's go through the mechanics. Place your broiler pan as close to the flame as possible and allow the broiler to get fully heated before adding the peppers. You want fast, intense heat to char the skin but not the underlying flesh. Turn the peppers as each side turns black. Then place them in a covered container to allow them to steep. When they have cooled the seeds and stems can be easily removed. Place the peppers aside and continue with the recipe.
Pound each side of the steak with a meat tenderizer and then brush with olive oil. Sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides. Sear each side in a sauté pan. The moment it's browned flip it, and then remove it as soon as the other side is browned. Set the steak aside. In the same pan add 3 tablespoons of olive oil and sauté the onions and roasted peppers. As soon as the onions and peppers get soft add the garlic. Sauté 1-2 minutes and then add the habanero sauce and half of the chopped cilantro. Simmer for a few minutes. Add the steak and continue cooking until desired doneness, (medium rare is just moments away). Add the remaining cilantro at the end. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with warm tortillas for dunking in the sauce.
Prefer chicken instead? Well, let's do Chicken Habanero.
4 whole chicken legs (thighs attached), skin on for flavor, off to reduce fat.
8 poblano chiles, roasted, skins and seeds removed.
4 jalapeno peppers, chopped.
2 large onions, chopped.
2 large tomatoes, chopped.
8 garlic cloves, chopped.
1/2 cup chopped cilantro.
2 1/2 pints chicken stock or canned chicken broth.
1 batch of habanero sauce juice of one lemon
1 teaspoon ground achiote seeds. (grind the seeds and then sift through a sieve to remove large particles).
1 teaspoon salt.
1 teaspoon cumin.
1 teaspoon paprika.
1/2 teaspoon coriander powder.
1/4 teaspoon black pepper.
1/4 teaspoon chili powder.
Add just enough olive oil to a 14" skillet to coat the bottom. If you don't have a skillet this large cut the recipe in half and make two batches. Sauté chicken for about 5 minutes on each side or until browned. Remove the chicken and sauté the onions for a few minutes. Add the chicken and all of the remaining ingredients except the poblanos and half the cilantro.
Bring to a boil and then simmer, partially covered for 20 minutes or until the chicken is done. Turn the chicken over halfway through and then add the roasted poblanos (to prevent them from being overcooked). Add the remainder of the cilantro at the very end and add extra salt if needed. Once again, serve with warm tortillas.
Finally, Chorizo Habanero.
1 lb of sliced chorizo sausage
1 large onion
2 large, sliced potatoes
1 batch of habanero sauce
6 garlic cloves salt & pepper to taste.
Sauté the onions, potatoes and sausage in a few tablespoons of olive oil until everything is almost cooked. Add the garlic and sauté one minute. Then add the sauce and simmer a few more minutes. Do I have to mention the tortillas?
If you want to try these recipes but don't want the heat, just eliminate the habaneros from the sauce mixture. You will still have a delicious red bell pepper sauce.