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I Spice: Green chili peppers

If you love dumplings, then you need to run, not walk, to your closest bookstore (or mouse over to Amazon) and buy Andrea Nguyen’s “Asian Dumplings” cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2009). It is the ultimate guide for dumpling lovers.


Serrano peppers are I Spice's favorite kind of green heat. (Garden Stuff)

Its recipe for mung bean dumplings caught my eye. Naturally I had to call the author to see whether she would like to chat about her love of spices and herbs. (That is the best part of my weekly gig here at All We Can Eat.) We talked for a bit about one of the most interesting ingredients out there: green chili peppers.

Love them or hate them, you have to admit they demand and command respect for their flavor, texture and heat. What scares people most about the peppers -- or, if you’re like me, what attracts you most -- is the heat.

When you cut open a chili pepper, its tiny little white seeds are exposed. They are the culprits/heroes responsible for the heat. But heat varies depending on the type of chili and how ripe it is. Even chili peppers from the same plant can contain varying degrees of heat.

“Green chilies often aren’t used to shock the palate, just to awaken it a tad,” Nguyen said as we compared the use of green chili peppers in Vietnamese and Indian cuisines. Indian cuisine employs fresh ones, and plenty of them; she told me that central Vietnamese cooks, renowned for their love of chili heat, also use lots of green ones in their fish sauce-based dipping sauces. In both approaches, the abundant use of chili peppers is meant to meld them with the other flavors.

Chili peppers are fairly easy to cultivate. Nguyen grows half a dozen kinds in her garden. She prefers chili peppers with a “grassy sweet note and a moderate level of heat,” while I have been known, occasionally, to hunt for something a touch stronger.

My pepper of choice is the serrano. I love its taste, but I won’t go as far as the heat level of habaneros. The best places to buy chili peppers, we both agreed, are ethnic markets, because the produce seems to be restocked so often (and is fresh). Of course, farmers markets are also a wonderful hunting ground.

Nguyen thinks Indian markets have the best selection of green chili peppers. There’s usually the skinny Thai, the wiry fingerlike cayenne variety, serranos and jalapeños. The former two deliver a much more potent and complex kind of heat than the latter two, which you can use as a substitute in a pinch.

At Latin markets, Nguyen loves to explore the produce section to see whether she can find a new type of green chili to work with; chili peppers are native to the Americas. She goes to her local northern California farmers markets for green chili peppers in late summer. “Hmong farmers are masters at growing chilies,” she says.

Once you buy the peppers, store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper drawer for immediate use (within the week) or freeze them in resealable plastic food storage bag for up to a year.

When you prep chili peppers, wear gloves. Wash your hands thoroughly afterward. Be careful not to touch your eyes or other sensitive places after you’ve touched the peppers' seeds or insides, or you might never want to touch a chili again. And that would be a shame.

Nguyen gave me some wonderful ways to use chili peppers. Depending on how much heat you like, you can use different peppers.

* She loves an Indian treatment: Split them in half lengthwise, keeping the stem intact, and aromatize them in smoking hot oil during the initial “tadka” stage of cooking a dish.

* Use them to your heart’s delight to prepare Indian green chutneys. The grassy notes of the green chili peppers harmonize exceptionally well with the fresh cilantro and mint.

* An amazingly bright flavor and searing heat result when green chili peppers are pounded via mortar and pestle. Add onion, salt, avocado and lime juice for fantastic guacamole.

And I'll add these tips:

* If you like the aroma, flavor and texture but don’t like the heat, remove the seeds.

* Slit one a little and twirl it in a cocktail to add some nice warmth.

* Chop up a few and place in a jar along with some thinly sliced young ginger. Cover with lemon juice, a touch of salt and a pinch of sugar, and let it sit for a day. You have an instant pickled chili that goes great on burgers.

* Cut a few very thin crosswise slices and toss them into your favorite soup, stir-fry or rice dish for a pleasant surprise of heat.

There are so many types of chili peppers out there. Which one should you choose? I love this photo list of different chili peppers and their heat levels on Cook's Thesaurus. Gardeners who want to grow their own chilis (or sweet peppers) might want to look at some of the 380 varieties (!) listed on this varieties site.

If you want to try using green chili peppers in a quick, fresh chutney, as I suggested above, here’s a simple Mint Chutney with yogurt, or try this even zippier Mint Chutney with ginger and garlic. They provide flavor as well as heat in Basil Chicken and in this vegetarian side dish of Cauliflower, Potatoes and Peas Indian-Style.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite pepper-related stories: A friend of my father’s would go out to the market and find the hottest green chili peppers he could bear. Then he would come home, slit them in the middle and fill them with red chili peppers and a touch of salt. He would then dip them in a batter (similar to tempura) and deep-fry them. He served them with beer.

I remember being too timid to try them as a child and asking him, “Are they hot?”

“No,” he said. “They are divine. Simply divine.”

-- Monica Bhide

By The Food Section  |  October 30, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, chili peppers  
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