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Friday, June 16, 2006


My introduction to spicy food happened in 1979 when Mr. L Smart's dad took us to San Loco in the Village. This was the old San Loco, not the new one that is developing into a chain with two locations in the East Village and one opening soon in the Far East Village, or Williamsburg as it's more well known. I can't remember exactly where the old San Loco was, but I remember it specialized in chili which came in a variety of heat, from 'Tame' to 'Nuclear'. Mr. L Smart and his dad ordered the 'Nuclear' and sat down to sweat through the meal. I learned a few things that day. Most importantly, don't stop! Once you dig into something seriously spicy, it's best to keep eating. If you stop, you'll have to douse the fire, and then start over again. Bread things, beer, and milk things will help the dousing, but the burn, and the sweat, are inevitable, but given time, very enjoyable. Chili spice is addictive. The pain becomes a bittersweet endeavor that is cherished as well as endured.
The Chile Pepper Institute photo

I have become a chili fanatic. Though I can handle the heat, the pain, and the sweat to a large degree, I rarely temp fate, and when offered multi levels of spice, I usually go for the second from the hottest. Once at Nice Guy Eddie's, in a fit of drunken bravado, I ordered the hottest wings available, and I managed maybe three before admitting defeat. They were jus too damn hot.

For me, there's hot and tasty, and then there's just plain hot. I am after a flavorful burn. Heat for the sake of heat is a waste of time, and taste buds. To that end, when I'm cooking with chilis these days, I usually smoke or roast them before introducing them into the dish. The roasting process mellows the heat a bit and brings out the natural smoky flavors of the pepper.

Chilis are a passion, and a pastime. I love produce sections, and will spend more time looking over the various peppers than I do picking out cuts of meat. Peppers add color and zest to otherwise boring meals.

The University of New Mexico's Chili Pepper Institute is a great source of information for chili fanatics.

Here's a quick reference:

Habnero/Scotch Bonnet/Jamaican Hot - These puppies are serious hot. You don't want to mess around with these guys unless you are a seasoned pro. Mostly used in sauces, Habaneros and their island cousins pack some damage potential. I watched Hazmat eat one once, and he can handle the hottest of hot. It was not pleasant to watch.

Thai - these are the guys you find in your Generals Chicken and so forth. They can pack a mean punch, but when used to flavor dishes without ingesting, they are wonderful. Just push 'em to the side.

Serrano and Wax (L to R) - Great for roasting, or dicing up for a pico de gallo or salsa. Not too hot, but can induce a healthy sweat.

Jalapeno - You know this guy. Boring. All heat, no flavor, though I do enjoy them pickled on occasion, like you'll find on your plate of pub variety nachos.

Poblano - My all time favorite pepper. Used in dishes like Chile Rellenos, this superlative pepper is a staple in Mexico. Smoky flavor, not too spicy. Simply perfection in a pepper.

New Mexico - A slightly sweeter, but still spicy version of the Serrano, this guy does well in just about anything.

It is my belief that strong flavors are beneficial and promote longevity. In fact, evidence has shown that peppers may have some beneficial properties. Capsaicin - the predominant capsaicinoid, which is found in chili peppers - has been found to work as an anticoagulant, thus possibly helping prevent heart attacks or strokes caused by blood clot. Small amounts of capsaicin can produce numbing of the skin and have a slight anti-inflammatory effect. In some countries, peppers are used in salves.

And they are yummy too.

Ah, thanks for mentioning me. And I've seen what happens that people who try and eat habaneros out of ego, but don't know what they're in for. It's not a pretty sight. But you can't say we don't warn them.

I really like pickled habaneros. I don't love the fruity flavor of them, and I think pickling them changes that a bit, but keeps the hotness. Eric is into pickling.
Awesome post Jackson... I can vouch for your cooking with peppers expertise. I'm encouraged about the heat being a health benefit. You've witnessed me chow some serious Thai hot stuff. I am a complete addict to hot Thai dishes. Perhpas this particular jones may help stave off a ticker skip somewhere down the road.
Thankyou for the informative and colorful post. Perhaps I will print it for my next trip to the farmer's market.
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