Red Hot Chili Peppers – from Smokin’ Sweet to Hell-fire

“From smokin’ sweet to hell-fire and damnation, chilies heat up the kitchen.”


Hatch, New Mexico, is a dry and dusty little pueblo housing four banks, a tavern and a smattering of retailers and restaurants. This mostly Hispanic town, and in particular the surrounding fertile valley, garners big kudos as the site of the world’s biggest chili crop and some of the world’s best chilies. Most famous is the green chili, the star of the Hatch Chile Festival, which draws thousands of visitors every Labour Day. I have been one of the throng and found that green chilies were indeed a sweet revelation. Once roasted and blistered, they are chopped or mashed into salsa, cheese-stuffed, battered and fried into chile rellenos or simply rolled up in a fresh tortilla. But I also cottoned on to the chili powders.


My dwindling array of Hatch fine grinds range in shades of burnt marmalade through to oxide and brick red. Although faded somewhat with transit and time, they are still vibrant. Each expresses a different degree of pungency and nuance of flavour. Some powders are smokin’ sweet. A few are nutty and mellow. Most are hell-fire and damnation. A dash of each, in equal measure (OK, a tad more of hell-fire) tossed into a pot of chili, ramped up by roasted cumin seed, a bit of cinnamon and fresh oregano delivers a profoundly rich, spicy, mellow dish. The heat builds up on your palate in an oddly pleasant sensation, rather than punching you in the face. No plastic-bottled chili can match the Hatch.


Added to my stash of Hatch chili powders is large California peppers, dried and/or smoked to a glossy or “suede” leather finish. A couple of chilies change their names when dried. Jalapeño becomes chipotle (pronounced chee-pot-lay, not chee-po-tell). Poblanos go by ancho or, incorrectly, pasilla, which in fact is dried Mexican chilaca chili. (Chipotle peppers tinned in a piquant tomato and vinegar adobo sauce are usually available in most good super markets.)


All peppers belong to the Solanaceae family, which includes tomatoes, tobacco and potatoes. The pepper clan is prolific, producing hundreds of varieties. Most hot chili peppers lay claim to the genus Capsicum, and capsaicin is the compound that causes chilies to “burn.” (Jalapeños, Anaheims and the Hatch green chilies, though, are part of the milder “annum” family.)


Etymologists lock heads as to whether “capsicum” draws from the Latin “capsa,” meaning box because the seeds are enclosed in the fruit, or the Greek word “kepto,” meaning “to bite” due to heat. As for chili’s various spellings, Canadians tend to use “chili” for all forms, while Americans refer to “chile” as the fruit and “chili” as the stew or powder. The Brits double up on the “l” and change the “e” to an “i.”


Chili hounds agree at least on the plant’s history. Cultivation hearkens back to around 2500 BC in South America. Various sources document wild chilies bobbing about Mexico as far back as 7000 BC. Centuries later Columbus brought the capsicum to Europe. It took off like wild fire especially in the Mediterranean and Balkan countries. Today we have smoked Spanish and Hungarian sweet/hot paprika (also in my cupboard), spicy Italian and chorizo sausages, and pasta spiked with red chilies and fresh basil for penne “arrabiata” (the word means angry). And I’ve read the Turks perk up their plates of seafood and steak with medium-powered Urfa and Maraş peppers.


Meanwhile back in Hatch, folks could probably care less about chili’s peripatetic nature, regional spellings or a how a poblano becomes an ancho. They, and every person within 150 miles, are too damn busy dousing pure chili flavour on huevos rancheros, tacos, enchiladas and grilled meats. Homemade fiery red sauce and its gentler green cousin are culinary pillars of the community. (Google “red and/or green chili/chile sauce” for excellent recipes.)


Since visiting New Mexico I’ve shunned commercial chili powder. Now, with my coveted stash nearly depleted and my crystal ball indicating no immediate return to Hatch, it’s high time I went about concocting my own rich coppery red chili powder—with all of the hot stuff and none of the MSG, flour and other additives found in many commercial powders. I load up on fine quality dried whole chilies when and where I can find them. (Seattle’s Pike Place Market has the wonderful Mexican Grocery, and Toronto’s Kensington Market houses dried and fresh chilies.) And any time I’m near a flame I have to blister an Anaheim or two.


Homemade Chili Powder

Adapted from The Chile Pepper Book, Dille & Belsinger, Interweave Press, 1994.


Remove the stems and seeds from 6 chipotles and 6 dried Anaheims (if only fresh are available, split them, seed them and dry in a slow—200°F—oven for several hours) as well as 8 anchos or pasillas. (Dry fresh poblanos as you would the Anaheims if you can’t find the dried versions.) Break the chilies into sizable pieces and toast over low heat in a skillet until chilies start to just throw off their fragrance. Don’t let them darken or they will turn bitter. Remove chilies to a large plate and cool.


Toast 6 tablespoons cumin seed, 6 tablespoons coriander seed and about 6 or 8 whole cloves as you would the chilies. Remove spices to a plate and cool.


Grind the toasted chilies in small batches in a spice grinder or coffee grinder. Do the same with the toasted spices, adding 6 tablespoons of dried oregano (Mexican if possible).


Mix the chilies and spices together. Regrind in small batches until pulverized to a fine powder. To kick up the heat, add 3 tablespoons good quality paprika and 1 tablespoon cayenne.


Seal tightly and store in a cool place. Use within 6 months for best flavour. Recipe can be halved—or divide the powder into little packets for great hostess gifts.




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