FOOD & NUTRITION

Jalapeno: The heat is on

They are easy to grow, easy to find in stores, and easy to deal with

8/5/2013
BY DAN NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR
Pico de gallo.
Pico de gallo.

Let’s get the most important part out of the way first: If you are cutting jalapeño peppers or any other hot peppers, either use plastic or latex gloves (no one I know actually does this) or be sure to wash your hands thoroughly and carefully the moment you are through touching them.

Even if it means washing them several times during the course of making a single dish, wash them. Even if it means you don’t feel any heat on your fingertips, wash them. And by all means — by all means — wash them before you are even tempted to touch your face or before nature calls. Let’s just say I know whereof I speak.

It has been more than 25 years, and the memory is still painful. Though not nearly as painful as the event itself.

That said, it is the very thing that makes peppers so terribly uncomfortable on the tender parts of your body that makes them so attractive to many people. All peppers have a distinct flavor, but what drives many people to eat them is their heat.

That is where the Scoville Scale comes in handy. In order to determine how hot a pepper is, scientists dilute a predetermined amount of the capsaicin oil (that’s what creates the heat) in a sugar-water solution. They then have a number of testers taste the solution as it is increasingly diluted until they can no longer detect any heat.

A regular bell pepper, with no heat at all, scores a zero on the Scoville Scale. Jalapeños run anywhere from 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville Heat Units, meaning the capsaicin has to be diluted between 2,500 and 8,000 times before you cannot feel it anymore. Habaneros score between 100,000 and 350,000 on the scale, while the hottest pepper ever recorded, a Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, has hit more than 2 million on the scale.

Which is why I decided to concentrate on jalapeños. I like heat as much as the next fellow, but there is no need to go crazy about it. Besides, jalapeños are particularly plentiful right now. They are easy to grow, easy to find in stores, and easy to deal with (but seriously, don’t forget that part about washing your hands).

Unfortunately, the jalapeños I have had so far this summer have been milder than usual, though results, as always, may vary. According to Lee Richter, program assistant in urban agriculture for the Ohio State University Extension, Lucas County, “there is no way of telling [how hot a pepper is] by looking. You really have to cut it open.”

So I always sample a thin slice or a minced morsel of any pepper I cook with, especially the highly variable jalapeños, to know just how much heat I am working with. I then adjust the recipe accordingly.

Huevos rancheros
Huevos rancheros

With tomatoes coming into season, I decided to make one of my favorite summertime meals, gazpacho. This Spanish classic is always served chilled, so it cools you down, but you can also add a little bit of heat to it by way of peppers. How hot you decide to make it — as is always the case with recipes including peppers — is entirely in your hands.

I usually make my gazpacho in a traditional way (tomatoes,cucumber, garlic, green pepper, jalapeño, olive oil, vinegar, and maybe a little bread to thicken it), but then I came upon a new recipe in Bon Appétit I simply had to try. This one also includes a peach and some cherries. Not only do they bring a delicious note of sweetness to plays with the heat from the jalapeño, their fruitiness also adds a delightful new dimension to the soup.

Perhaps my favorite Tex-Mex dish is huevos rancheros, but I have always cheated by using salsa out of a jar when making it in the past. I wanted to make a real ranchero sauce, the sort that was served to the crew on Mexican ranches.

It took a lot of chopping, plenty of red and green peppers, and rather less tomato than I would have guessed. But it is worth the effort, because this sauce is cooked in several different stages, allowing the flavors to build, to ripen, and to mature. I may never open another jar again.

In some circles — usually, there is a beach involved — I am renowned for my pico de gallo. This is the simplest and freshest tasting of salsas, and you’ll know how good it is by how quickly it disappears when you serve it to friends. It goes even faster at a beach.

Although it can be served in tacos or fajitas or alongside grilled fish, it probably goes best with tortilla chips. That is certainly the easiest way to gobble them up, and the famously bright flavor does not have to compete with (or enhance) any other tastes.

Salsa
Salsa

To make pico de gallo, all you have to do is chop up tomatoes, onions (I like red onions, but sweet onions will also work), jalapeño, cilantro, and a hint of garlic, and stir it all together with salt and a few squeezes of lime. You can serve it immediately or allow the flavors to blend for a time; it comes out great either way.

A typical salsa is similar to pico de gallo, but smoother (pico is always chopped and a little bit chunky). But I wanted a salsa that is better-than-typical, so I turned to a colleague, Olivia Herrera, who is one of the best cooks I know. when she makes salsa, she said, she roasts everything first on her stove-top griddle. Cooking the vegetables until they soften and their skins start to blister imparts entire new worlds of depth to the taste.

Best of all are the three different kinds of peppers that are used, each with a distinct flavor. They blend together with unsuspected harmony, especially after becoming more mellow through roasting, and provide a rich warmth and a robust, roundly piquant taste to the sauce.

After making several familiar dishes, I wanted to try something out of the ordinary. And that is how I came upon an intriguing recipe for an an avocado-lime sauce vierge, which is essentially a spicy guacamole that has been turned into a sauce.

Simply mash an avocado together with olive oil, jalapeño, minced garlic, and minced shallot, and squeeze in a good amount of lime juice. Not only is this sauce a gorgeous shade of green (for extra oomph, add chopped fresh basil and cilantro just before serving), but it makes an unbeatable accompaniment to everything from roast or grilled chicken to scrambled eggs. And because the flavor of lime is so prominent, it goes perfectly on top of grilled fish.

And really: Wash your hands.

Contact Daniel Neman at: dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.

 

 

 

RECIPES 

Olivia’s Salsa

  • 1 serrano pepper
  • 2 Anaheim peppers
  • 1 jalapeño pepper
  • 6-10 tomatoes, see cook's note
  • 3 garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • ½ large onion, sliced in rings (leave rings together)
  • Fresh cilantro, optional
  • Salt

Cook's note: Roma tomatoes are less watery than most other types. You might want to use a combination of Roma and larger tomatoes.

In a large skillet or skillets over medium heat, roast the peppers, tomatoes, garlic, and onions (you may wish to do this in batches). To roast, cook them, turning frequently, until they soften and the skin starts to blister all over. When cool enough to touch, peel the skins. If desired, remove some or all of the seeds from the peppers — the seeds are the hottest part.

Place the peppers, tomatoes, and garlic in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth or your desired texture. Pour into a large bowl. Chop the roasted onions and add, along with the optional cilantro. Season to taste with salt.

Yield: About 2 quarts; Source: Olivia Herrera

 

Avocado-Lime Sauce Vierge

  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ medium avocado, pitted, diced
  • 1 jalapeño, seeded, finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped shallot
  • 1 lime, halved
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
  • Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine oil, avocado, jalapeño, garlic, and shallot in a medium bowl. Squeeze lime into avocado mixture. Using a spoon, scrape pulp out of lime into mixture. Stir to combine. (Sauce may be made 4 days ahead. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto surface of sauce. Cover and chill. Bring sauce to room temperature before continuing.)

Stir basil and cilantro into sauce just before serving. Season with salt and pepper.

Yield: 1½ cups; Source: Bon Appétit

 

 

 

Chilled Tomato and Stone Fruit Soup

  • 2 pounds beefsteak tomatoes (about 4), quartered
  • 1 large English cucumber, peeled, seeded, cut into pieces
  • 1 large ripe peach, peeled, halved
  • ½ jalapeño, or to taste, seeded and chopped
  • ½ garlic clove
  • 1 cup fresh (or frozen, thawed) cherries, about 8 ounces, pitted
  • 2 tablespoons white balsamic or Sherry vinegar
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more
  • 1½ teaspoons kosher salt, plus more
  • Pepper
  • Sea salt

Pulse tomatoes in a blender until finely chopped and transfer to a large bowl. Pulse cucumber, peach, jalapeño, garlic, and cherries in a blender until finely chopped and add to bowl with tomatoes. Mix in vinegar, ¼ cup oil, 1½ teaspoons kosher salt, and 1 cup cold water; season with pepper. Cover and let sit at room temperature 1 hour or chill at least 12 hours.

Season soup with kosher salt, pepper, and more oil and vinegar, if desired. Serve soup drizzled with oil and seasoned with flaky sea salt and pepper.

Yield: 6 servings; Source: Bon Appétit

 

 

 

 

 

Huevos Rancheros

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 cup chopped white onions
  • ½ cup chopped red bell pepper
  • ½ cup chopped green bell pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 tablespoon minced jalapeño, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 cup chopped tomatoes and their juice
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
  • 4 large corn tortillas
  • 8 large eggs
  • ½ cup warm refried beans

 

In a medium pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and bell peppers, and cook, stirring, for 3-5 minutes. Add the cumin, salt, cayenne, jalapeño, and garlic, and cook, stirring for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and their juice and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the stock and simmer until thickened, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the cilantro. Adjust the seasoning to taste, and cover to keep warm.

Heat tortillas one at a time in a dry skillet over medium heat until soft and warm, 1-2 minutes, flipping several times. Keep prepared tortillas warm while heating the others. When done, lightly fry the eggs.

Place 1 warm tortilla on each of 4 plates and spread each with 2 tablespoons of warm refried beans. Place 2 eggs on top of each tortilla and top with the warm Ranchero Sauce. Serve immediately.

Yield: 4 servings; Source: Emeril Lagasse, via Food Network

 

 

Pico de Gallo

  • 2 large tomatoes
  • 1 cup red or sweet onion, chopped
  • ½ jalapeño, or to taste
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
  • 2-3 wedges lime, squeezed
  • Salt to taste

Mix together all ingredients.

Yield: About 6 cups; Source: Daniel Neman