FOOD HOT-PEPPERS SA

Serrano Peppers. (Fotolia)

Mike and Patty Hultquist like their food scary hot with names to match. They gravitate toward Reaper, Scorpion and Ghost. When it comes to these superhot peppers, the hotter the better.

“We’re like most chili heads,” Mike Hultquist confessed. “We have our own little bottles of pepper blends. When we go out to eat, we sprinkle a little on our food, just to give it that extra heat. It’s like carrying Tabasco, except our blends are made of superhots.”

Virtually unknown a decade ago, superhots are the hottest of hot peppers, topping 1 million on the Scoville Heat Unit scale. By comparison, a jalapeño pepper scores a mere 5,000.

The Illinois husband-and-wife team’s craving for more heat fuels their popular blog and website, Chili Pepper Madness, where they share ways to enjoy — and survive — all sorts of hot peppers.

They’re not alone. Americans have developed a deep, heated passion for really hot peppers. That’s led to an abundance of pepper varieties in markets and on menus as pepper lovers try to feed their need for intense, eye-watering, mouth-scorching heat.

“There are researchers and home gardeners (developing hotter peppers) on a daily basis,” said Danise Coon, senior research specialist for the New Mexico State University Chile Breeding Program and the Chile Pepper Institute. “The trend to get even hotter keeps growing exponentially.”

September is peak pepper season with the fresh crop featuring a wide assortment of sizes, appearances, flavors and heat levels. California now surpasses New Mexico, known to some as “the Chile State,” in hot pepper production with more than 3.1 million pounds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, although New Mexico still has more acres devoted to its signature crop.

“The most popular varieties of hot peppers are jalapeños and cayennes,” Coon said. “Cayennes make up the bulk of hot sauces.”

New Mexico prides itself on Hatch peppers, grown in Hatch Valley and coveted by cooks. These long mild peppers (only 1,000 SHU) look like their California cousin, Anaheim peppers, a favorite for stuffing and cooking.

While some pepper lovers may debate spelling, New Mexico sticks with “chile.”

“Horticulturally, it is spelled ‘chile,’” Coon explained. “A lot of people say it can’t be because Chile is a country, while chili is actually the culinary dish consisting of beans, meat, onions and chile powder.”

Interest in global cuisine has helped fuel pepper love. About one-third of people worldwide eat hot peppers every day, according to university research. And it’s about more than wanting to feel the burn. Hot peppers contain a natural anti-microbial that can preserve foods without refrigeration, an important quality in tropical climates.

Peppers get their heat from an alkaloid, capsaicin, which is concentrated in the filaments that anchor seeds inside the pepper. Our tongues react to this compound the same way it reacts to fire, but without real damage, say scientists. (That’s why we think peppers are “hot.”) It’s also believed to trigger the release of endorphins that give our brains an addictive rush.

Our taste buds gradually build up tolerance, so more heat is required to get the same reaction.

At zero on the Scoville scale, sweet bell peppers are the mildest. Poblano, another mild stuffing pepper, rates 1,000. The king of the superhots, the current world’s hottest pepper is the Carolina Reaper, which hits 2.2 million SHU. Trinidad Scorpion tops 1.4 million. Bhut jolokia, the “ghost pepper,” also tops 1 million — 400 times hotter than Tabasco.

Scotch bonnet, popular in Caribbean cooking, and habanero, a Mexican mainstay, seem tame at 250,000. Cayenne rates about 40,000. Serrano, another popular Mexican pepper, is “only” 10,000 to 20,000, depending on ripeness and growing conditions. Sriracha hot sauce uses ripe red jalapeños, a little hotter and sweeter than immature green ones.

The Hultquists make their own Sriracha-style sauce, spiked with superhots. “Always open the windows when working with peppers,” Mike Hultquist said. “Turn on the fan.”

His advice to newbie pepper lovers? “Don’t kill yourself right away. Start with low-heat peppers, but definitely explore. All peppers have something to offer. Once you get past the heat, you discover peppers can be sweet or smoky. You can follow pepper types into different cuisines. Peppers open your palate to flavors around the world.”

GREEN CHILI-ROASTED CORN SALSA

Makes about 2 cups

This easy summer salsa is great on its own or as a side.

Recipe courtesy Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

  • 1 cup roasted corn kernels (1 cob)
  • ½ cup roasted and chopped green chilies
  • 2 green onions, chopped
  • 8 cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • Juice of half a lime
  • Sea salt and pepper

Toss everything in a bowl; taste for seasonings. Let rest for a half-hour or so before serving.

CARIBBEAN-STYLE MANGO-HABANERO HOT SAUCE

Makes about 2 cups

This recipe comes courtesy Mike Hultquist of Chili Pepper Madness.

  • 5 habanero peppers, chopped
  • 1 mango, peeled and chopped
  • 1 white onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • ½ cup apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup water
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • ¼ teaspoon cumin
  • ½ teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ginger powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Add all ingredients to a food processor. Process until smooth.

Add to a large pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

Cool, then transfer to serving bottles.

GREEN CHILI-GOAT CHEESE SMASHED POTATOES

Serves 4

From “Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking With a French Accent”

  • 1 ½ pounds red-skinned potatoes
  • Sea salt
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons cream
  • 3 ½ ounces goat cheese
  • 4 ½ ounces roasted and chopped Hatch green chilies
  • Pepper

Put potatoes into a big pot along with a big pinch of sea salt, and cover them with water by 4 inches. Put the lid on, and turn the heat to high. When the pot boils, reduce the heat to low, and cook 10 minutes. Check to see if the potatoes are ready by puncturing them with a fork — the potatoes should be soft, but not mushy. If they’re ready, take them off the heat and drain them. If not, give them a few more minutes, and keep testing until they’re done.

After you’ve drained the water off of the potatoes, add the butter, and give it a stir with a big wooden spoon. Now, with the hand potato masher (or just the wooden spoon), mash the potatoes, so some of them are smashed and others are still in pieces — we’re not going for a smooth puree.

Stir in the cream, then gently fold in the goat cheese and green chilies — so the goat cheese will be in bits throughout rather than completely incorporated. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Serve warm.

GREEN CHILI PESTO

Makes about 1 ½ cups

This versatile pesto works with almost anything. Spread it on toast, tart bottoms or pizza crusts or toss it into pasta. Dial the heat up or down depending on whether you use a mild or hot pepper.

Recipe courtesy Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

  • 3 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
  • 1 cup roasted and chopped green chilies
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Sea salt and pepper

Put everything in a small food processor and whir until it’s a chunky pesto.

CHILI-CHEDDAR MUFFINS

Makes 36 mini muffins

Recipe from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

  • 1/3 cup bacon drippings or butter
  • 1 ½ cups cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • ½ cup roasted, chopped green chili
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, and divide the bacon drippings or butter among the mini muffin molds. Whisk together cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda and salt; set aside.

In another bowl, mix the cheese and green chilies. Go ahead and slide muffin tins into the oven. Beat the eggs with the milk, pour this over the dry ingredients, and mix well. Fold in the cheese and green chili. Pull the muffin tins out of the oven, pour the melted bacon grease or butter into the batter and give it a quick stir. Spoon the batter into the muffin molds and bake for 30 minutes or until edges brown. Serve hot.

EVERYBODY’S FAVORITE CHILI VERDE

Serves 12

Recipe from The Washington Post.

  • 8 poblano chili peppers (about 2 pounds)
  • 8 Anaheim chili peppers (about 1 pound)
  • 8 ears corn, shucked
  • 1 tablespoon grapeseed or canola oil
  • 16 tomatillos, husked and rinsed (about 3 pounds)
  • 3 large white onions, quartered (about 2 pounds), plus 1 medium white onion, coarsely chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 2 to 3 jalapeño peppers, halved with stem, then seeded
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro
  • 2 cups water
  • Three 15-ounce cans no-salt-added white beans, navy beans or cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2 pounds firm summer squash, coarsely chopped

Position an oven rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Arrange the poblano and Anaheim chilies on the baking sheet; broil for about 4 minutes or until their skins blacken and blister; use tongs to turn them over, and repeat. Leave the broiler on.

Immediately transfer the chilies to a large heatproof bowl; cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap so they will steam.

Place the shucked corn on the cob on the same baking sheet, drizzle with the oil to coat all over; broil for 3 minutes, then use tongs to rotate the corn and broil for 3 minutes or until lightly charred. Transfer the corn to a cutting board. Leave the broiler on.

Arrange the tomatillos, the 3 white onions and garlic cloves on the same baking sheet. Broil for 3 minutes, then use tongs to turn the pieces over and broil for 3 to 4 minutes or until they all have a bit of char on the edges. Let cool.

Wear gloves to peel and discard the chilies’ loosened skins, stems, seeds and ribs. Cut off the corn kernels, reserving the spent cobs for another use, if desired. Coarsely chop the tomatillos, onions and garlic; together is OK.

Transfer the tomatillos, onions and garlic to a high-powered blender or a large food processor; purée until fairly smooth. Add the peeled Anaheim and poblano peppers, then add the jalapeños, one half-pepper at a time, pureeing and tasting for heat after each addition (to taste). Adjust for heat, adding more jalapeño until the chili is spicy enough. Add the chopped cilantro; purée until smooth.

Pour the green mixture into a 5-quart heavy Dutch oven. Add the water and bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium. Add the beans, smashing about half of them with the back of a fork to add texture. Add the Mexican oregano, salt and cumin, stirring to incorporate. Once the mixture returns to bubbling at the edges, cover and cook for 35 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid scorching.

(At this point, if you plan to freeze the chili verde, do not add the squash, the corn or the remaining onion.)

Stir in the squash and the remaining chopped onion; cook (medium heat, uncovered) for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the squash is tender.

Stir in the corn kernels. Cook (uncovered), stirring occasionally; once the chili verde begins to bubble again, turn off the heat. Taste; add salt as needed. Once the chili verde is fully heated through, it’s ready to serve.

SUPER GREEN STIR-FRY

Serves 6

Heat up this veggie stir-fry with your choice of pepper. Just one can go a long way. Recipe from The Washington Post.

  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 1 tablespoon peeled, shredded/grated fresh ginger root
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 2 bunches asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces (18 ounces total)
  • 2 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
  • 8 ounces sugar snap peas, stringed and some cut in half on the diagonal
  • 2 tablespoons black bean garlic sauce or chili garlic paste
  • 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons water
  • 1 cup shelled fresh edamame (may substitute frozen/defrosted edamame)
  • 1 packed cup baby spinach leaves
  • 8 ounces brown rice vermicelli (mai fun), cooked and drained
  • 1 small red chili pepper, seeded and cut into very thin rounds
  • Spicy microgreens, for garnish
  • Cilantro sprigs, for garnish

Heat the oil in a wok (or large nonstick skillet) over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the ginger and garlic; stir-fry for 30 seconds, then add the asparagus, scallions and sugar snap peas; stir-fry for 1 minute.

Add the black bean garlic sauce or chili garlic paste, soy sauce and water; stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes, then add the edamame, spinach and noodles; stir-fry for 1 minute or until the noodles are just warmed through.

Divide among individual wide, shallow bowls; top with the red chili pepper, the spicy microgreens and the cilantro. Serve right away.

GHOST PEPPER-PEAR JAM

Makes 2 half-pints

Note: Wear gloves while chopping the pepper. Do not touch your face. Recipe courtesy Washington Post

  • 2½ cups pears, chopped fine
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon bhut jolokia (ghost pepper), finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons low-sugar pectin
  • 2/3 cup sugar

Sterilize 2 half-pint jars and lids according to manufacturer’s recommendations. Keep in warm water until ready to use.

Combine the pear, water, lemon juice and bhut jolokia (ghost pepper) in a large saucepan over medium heat. Gradually stir in the pectin; increase the temperature to high. Bring the mixture to a hard boil, stirring constantly.

Add the sugar and return the mixture to a boil. Keep stirring for a full minute at a hard boil, then remove the saucepan from the heat. Skim off foam as necessary.

Ladle the hot jam into the warm sterilized jars, leaving ¼ inch of air space at the top, and let the jam cool to room temperature. Serve immediately, or cover and refrigerate.

To preserve the jam, fill a large stock pot with enough water to cover the jars by 2 inches and bring it to a boil. Add the jam to the jars, leaving ¼ inch of air space at the top. Wipe the jars clean of any spilled jam. Affix the lids and tightened the bands securely, but not too tightly. Use tongs to transfer the filled jars to the boiling water.

Cover the pot and boil for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove the pot lid and let the jars sit for at least 5 minutes. If the jam has been properly preserved, the lids should not move when pressed.

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