A Note on Chile Peppers

This week continues to be challenging. I didn’t make it home until around 9:00 last night, by which time I was ravenous. I keep corn tortillas on hand for just such a situation. A few tortillas, half a tablespoon of olive oil, a red onion, a sweet red pepper, a jalapeño, some feta and the less brown half of an abandoned avocado became my dinner in about 15 minutes.

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The tacos were tasty but, in my haste, I forgot a few key tips for working with chile peppers.

  1. Cut off the tip and taste to assess hotness. Each pepper is unique. I’ve had jalapeños as mild as a green bell pepper. I’ve had jalapeños that were scorching. Let’s just say that my lower lip is looking a little bee stung today.
  2. If the pepper is hot, minimize skin contact. When you cut a pepper, you release capsaicin, the chemical that creates that delicious hot feeling. The more you cut it, the more you release. Some folks recommend wearing plastic gloves. I used to think this was ridiculous–until I met some seriously hot habaneros while making black bean dip. My hands stung for about 24 hours and were tingly for a few days after that. I tried milk. I tried oil. I tried vinegar. I tried harsh detergents. Nothing but time worked. I have yet to buy gloves, but I do make an effort to only touch the outside of the pepper and let my knife do most of the work.
  3. If your hands do absorb the heat, BE VERY CAREFUL what you touch. You can generally gauge whether one of your fingers is tainted it by sucking on it a bit. You could also gauge this by removing your contacts or by touching some mucus membranes (think soft, fleshy pink parts), but I DO NOT recommend this technique.
  4. If you want to minimize the heat, remove the ribs (the white part on the inside) and the seeds. If you are in a hurry and do not bother with this, you may end up with some very zesty tacos. Obviously, if you really want to amp your dish up, go for the whole thing.
  5. Using multiple sources of heat will yield a more complex flavor. In the case of these quick weeknight tacos, I stuck to the jalapeño and some fresh-ground black pepper. But, when I’m making chili or some other slow-cooked dish with layers of flavor, I generally go with a combination of fresh and dried chiles, chile powder, and/or hot sauce.
  6. Use caution when cooking chile seeds. If you’ve got a soup or a stew or some kind of braise going on, no worries. If you’ve got a hot cast iron pan with minimal oil, you may end up burning the seeds. If you live in a small one-bedroom apartment with no cross ventilation, this could be rather unpleasant. Boys and girls, can you say “pepper spray”?

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