Under the ever-changing Sonoran Desert sky, straddling the Arizona-Mexico border, an unassuming little fruit has kept cool in the shade of cliff sides and larger plants for millennia. And while it thrives in these protected enclaves of the high desert, it packs heat matched only by the noonday sun.
Recently, doing research for my forthcoming book Chasing Chiles, I set out with co-authors Gary Nabhan and Kraig Kraft to find the people who harvest the wild chiltepin pepper, and to sample its uses among the descendants of those who first picked the tiny berries thousands of years ago. We traveled south from Sonoita, Arizona across the border at Nogales, to the tiny town of Magdalena, where the church of Santa Maria de Magdalena was holding its annual festival to celebrate the harvest. As many of these festivals have become in the States, this one has devolved over the years into a bizarre combination of the sacred and the profane. Nevertheless thousands descend upon the little village every year for the food and the spectacle surrounding an unassuming little chile.
I could have eaten a hundred tacos at this festival, from chicken to beef to shrimp or even tripe to and never found two that were exactly alike (believe me I tried), but that is the beauty of the cuisine, it is as varied as the cooks. There is no authentic, only genuine.
We met farmers there who are trying to cultivate this wild capsicum, and while they have successfully raised some very tasty, very hot chiles, they are not - strictly speaking - chiltepin. This is due in part to the promiscuous tendency of the entire capsicum genus to crossbreed when given the opportunity. They survive pure and intact in the wild because in their native habitat there are no others to contaminate the gene pool. Those that are brought down from the mountainsides to grow in the shade of the fruit orchards are also prone to diseases for which they have no natural defense.
These are among the reasons, along with its powerful punch and piquant flavor, why the chiltepin is so prized among chileheads, and also why you are unlikely to find them in the typical grocery store produce section. You will, however, find quite a few more chiles than you could have even five or ten years ago.
Where once the cook with a passion for the endorphin rush of the capsaicin (the chemical in chiles that produces the burning sensation) might find only the ubiquitous jalapeño at any grocery store, today most have five or six varieties fresh, and even more in dried form. They vary in flavor and intensity, and have their own individual best uses.
All chiles are measured for heat intensity using something called the Scoville Heat Unit scale, which measures the amount of capsaicin present in a chile. A sweet bell pepper is a zero on this scale, and at the other end sits the downright dangerous Indian chile called Bhutt Jolokia or Naga Jolokia ("death" or "ghost" pepper) at a little over one million SHU or roughly three to ten times hotter than a commercially available habañero. Our humble and elusive chiltepin? A respectable 100K SHU.
Here's a primer on some of the more readily available fresh and dried chiles on the market today.
Poblano/Ancho (500 - 2.5K SHU) These are the same pepper really, but the ancho is the ripe, dried form of the poblano. Each is famous in the two most well-known dishes of their Mexican region of origin - Puebla. The pablano is most often stuffed with cheese then battered and fried as a chile relleno, and the ancho is key (along with about two dozen other spices) in the intense sauce called mole (and yes you pronounce that last "e," this is not a small rodent)
Pasilla (1K - 2K SHU) Unlike it's cousin the pablano/ancho, the passilla is called the same thing whether fresh or dried. But like those others, it is common in moles. Available whole or powdered, they are native to Oaxaca, in Southern Mexico.
Jalapeño (2.5K-8K SHU) Easily the most ubiquitous fresh chile available in the US, the meaty, tapered jalapeño is the top of the heat level for most consumers. Above here, you have only masochists and true connoisseurs (sometimes they are one and the same). This is the chile you'll find, usually pickled and sliced, on top of your nachos at the local Mexican chain restaurant.
Serrano (10K - 23K SHU) This is the first pepper that sits on the other side of that line drawn by the jalapeño.
Chipotle (10K - 50K SHU) The smoked and dried version of the jalapeño, the regard for this one is on a steep rise in the US due in no small measure to the popularity of the chain of burrito shops of the same name. These can be found dry or packed in cans in a sauce called chile adobo.
Cayenne (30K - 50K) Most commonly available in powdered form, where it packs plenty of heat but very little discernable flavor or character, the cayenne has been spotted more and more often in the produce aisle. It gets its name from the city in French Guiana.
Habañero/Scotch Bonnet (100,000 - 350,000 SHU) These are not for amateurs. In fact even most devoted chileheads are wary when approaching these bell-shaped beauties. Hey look like miniature bell peppers and come in a variety of colors, but do mot be fooled, these are a very powerful heat source.
A note on taming the heat: There are two ways to calm a chile's intensity. First, remove the seeds - they are by far the hottest part of the chile. Second, cook it. Chiles are always hotter raw. Once your mouth is afire, many differ on the best method, but I've found that a combination of cold water and starchy food (like rice or bread) works best. Remember to always wear gloves, and wash hands after handling them. Not doing so and then touching your eyes, nose, or shall we say certain other sensitive parts, is a lesson you will need learn only once.
Iowa City Chili
Note: "Chile" is the fruit of the capsicum plant. "Chili" is a stew originating in the American Southwest
There's a chill in the air here in the Heartland, the kind of windy, rainy days that drill into your bones and create a hankerin' for a rib-sticking bowl of chili. It's also a great way to use up the last of your tomatoes and peppers, or to begin to use you new "puttin' ups" (as my grandma used to call them).
1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef (preferably grass-fed), bison, or chopped tempeh
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh-cracked black pepper
1 medium green bell pepper, diced
1 medium red bell pepper, diced
1 cup corn kernels (frozen is fine)
4 tablespoons (or to taste) hot smoked Spanish paprika
2 hot peppers of your choice, seeded and minced (consult the Scoville info above)
1/2 pound (dry weight) cooked pinto beans
1 pint canned diced tomatoes (use San Marzano brand for best flavor if you didn't can your own, but any will do)
1 pint tomato puree
12 ounces dark beer (such as bock or stout)
4 tablespoons toasted cumin seed, ground
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
In a large stockpot, cook ground beef, bison, or tempeh in olive oil over medium-high heat with onion, garlic, salt, and pepper until browned well. Break up meat/tempeh with a spoon as you cook. Add bell peppers, corn, and hot peppers. Continue to cook on low heat until peppers are tender, about 5 minutes. Stir occasionally.
Add the remaining ingredients and gently bring to a simmer. Allow to simmer for 2-3 hours, then turn off heat and allow to cool. Reheat when ready to eat. Serve with grated cheese, chopped onions, corn bread, tortilla chips, or whatever accompaniments turn you on.