"Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority ... the Constitution was made to guard against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters." - Noah Webster

"There is no worse tyranny than forcing a man to pay for what he does not want just because you think it would be good for him."
-- Robert A. Heinlein

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Spice of Life

I like bold flavors.  One of the greatest gifts HaShem gives us is the immense variety of food. Do you ever stop to think about how many different foods humans eat compared to the animal kingdom? The sheer variety of all the single foods we can eat is one thing, but then think about all the amazing combinations with herbs and spices. The permutations are nearly infinite.  Then think about all the animals who have very little variety in their diets; or none at all.  Imagine being a Koala bear and eating nothing but eucalyptus leaves all of your life.

As if that were not enough, we humans aren't satisfied with taste alone, we have to make things pleasing to the eye as well.  Think about all the celebrations you've been to.  Every social activity that people engage in HAS to involve food. It's almost like a universal, immutable law, like gravity. Births, weddings, and yes, even funerals or wakes involve food.

But, back to the bold flavor thing. I dislike - er, I strongly dislike bland food. I like flavors that tend to jump up and slap my taste buds. As a kid I always wondered why deviled eggs were called that. What's so "devilish" about these things. Then I discovered cooking around age ten and I've been grateful for the knowledge ever since.  It never gets boring.

Today's post is about chili. Nope. Not the often incorrectly made, terribly abused stew that is misnamed. I'm talking about the basic genus of fruit from the nightshade family, everything in the genus Capsicum.  Believe it or not, "chili" includes everything from bell pepper to scotch bonnet or habañeros; jalapeño, poblano, chipotle, cayenne, etc.  All are chilis.  I like all of them. Aside from the heat, they each have their own distinctive flavor.
Two Jalapeños and a Cuke

I only grew five varieties this summer, actually they are still producing fruit. It will be interesting to see how long they go. I have banana pepper, bell pepper, jalapeño, mild cayenne, and Thai. I think the banana peppers are done but I'm not sure. They didn't get planted in the straw bales and they struggled to produce only 6 fruits.  The two jalapeños produced somewhere around 120 and are still loaded with fruit. The same goes for two cayenne plants and two Thai chili plants.  The bell pepper struggled because I didn't stake them as well as I should have and they were attacked by some insects.  This is because the bell pepper produces zero amount of the compound capsaicin (the pronunciation varies; "cap-sigh-a-sin" or "cap-say-shin"), which is the stuff that creates the burning sensation.

In the second photo are two jalapeños. Yes, the middle one really is a jalapeño; not a miniature bell. That's why I took the pic. One of the great things about growing your own, is that, like the bell pepper, you can let them ripen on the bush to that glorious red color, and thus you let the natural sugars develop that give it a sweet flavor and mellow out that pungent nightshade flavor.  The same goes for bell pepper. Green and red bell pepper are the exact same pepper. Red bells in the store cost so much more because it takes them a while to ripen on the bush. It doesn't take them long to get up to picking size, but it does take a while for them to turn red.  If you pick them after they've turned about halfway, they will typically continue to ripen on the counter at room temperature.

How hot a chili is depends on the amount of capsaicin in it's flesh. The relative "hotness" of chili is measured by the Scoville Scale. If you went to that link, you've read that some of the hottest peppers of common use can be as high as 200,000 to 300,000 units.  There are some peppers in India that go over the one million unit mark. The mild cayenne that I'm growing hits around 5,000 to 8,000 units. Jalapeños are anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000. The Thai chilis that I have are somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000.
Open Jalapeño showing the pith

Depending on the size and type of pepper, you can remove some of the heat. Jalapeño works best for this example. Most of the active ingredient, capsaicin, resides in the pith or "placental" material inside the pepper where the seeds are borne.  By removing most of this white, or lighter colored material, you can cut way down on how much burn you'll get.  When I make "poppers" for a snack, I shave out all that material plus the seeds, and fill the halves with cheese and let them simmer in a covered cast iron skillet for about 30 minutes.  Yummy!  Twyla and I keep a box of latex surgical gloves under the kitchen sink for all kinds of reasons besides the obvious medical ones, but one of the most important reasons is for when we want to cook using any hot peppers.  Usually we just wear one glove and are careful to only handle the pepper with that hand.  Even then, if you are using a really hot pepper and handling it a lot or chopping it really fine, the capsaicin can seep enough through the glove to still be a problem.
Thai chilis drying for storage.  HOT!

Of course, chilis and the active ingredient capsaicin is highly medicinal.  It is a tonic for the circulatory system. It is the finest expectorant you can use.  It is highly anti-microbial/antibiotic. It is anti-fungal and anti-parisitic. It is very good for the stomach and has even been used as part of the treatment for ulcers. Contrary to common belief, most indigestion is not due to spicy food, but is, in fact, due to a failure to produce HCl in the stomach.  Antacids typically do more harm than good.  So does drinking too much liquid during a meal.  Far too many Americans consume bovine milk and it's one of the worst things an adult can consume.  But that's material for another post.

We do love our spicy food.  Not just the chilis but horseradish and other types as well.  I would hate to have to eat sushi without my wonderful wasabi paste.  Twyla makes the most delicious spicy/sweet sauce for meats called "Jezebel Sauce"  It's a real treat. The main ingredient is horseradish.

Happy cooking!

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