Peasant food: Spicing up your diet with chili peppers

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A couple of years back, my wife and I stumbled across a copy of Jan and Michael Stern's incredible chili cookbook, Chili Nation. As we're often in the mood for self-destructive, punishingly hot food, we decided that we would cook every recipe in the book. By the time we were finished, our daughter was eating adult food, and her favorite dish was, of course, chili.

The first lesson that Chili Nation taught us was that chili covers a wide spectrum, ranging from smooth, calming comfort food to gut-busting explosive cuisine. It can be made with beef, chicken, pork, lamb, crab, shrimp, vegetables, and pretty much anything else that can be clubbed into submission and jammed into a pot. While I won't claim that we loved (or even liked) every recipe in the Sterns' book, we were deeply impressed with the wide range of tastes and cultures that their chilies represented. And, to be honest, most of the recipes were amazing.

We also cultivated a deep appreciation of chili peppers. Although both of us had tried a pretty wide variety of peppers, we simply had no idea of the incredible range of chilies that were out there. From the relatively mild spice of Anchos to the smokiness of pasillas to the brutal heat of habañeros, we learned that chili peppers can offer a startling array of flavors.

As I further researched the chili, I discovered even more interesting things: chili peppers are actually the fruit of the capsicum plant, although they are generally treated like either a vegetable or a spice, depending on how they are prepared. They contain an impressive array of vitamins and minerals, including Vitamins A, C, D, E, and B6, as well as considerable amounts of potassium, magnesium, iron, and folic acid. Red chilies also contain lycopene, the cancer-preventing compound for which tomatoes are famous.

There are numerous health benefits associated with chilies. One of my favorites showed up in an article that I read years ago. The author noted that spicy food generally showed up in areas with hot climates, while milder food was indigenous to cooler climes. Researching it, he discovered that spices tended to kill parasites in food and in the digestive system. Thus, spicy food works as a sort of antibiotic, helping people to keep their microbial loads under control and maintaining health.

Beyond their benefit as a natural source of vitamins, minerals, and medicine, chilies are relatively cheap, non-fattening, and extremely tasty. I found that dried chilies were particularly easy to use. Nowadays, in addition to the chili powder, paprika, and red pepper that have long been staples of my cooking, I find myself regularly mixing in chipotles, anchos, pasillas, californios, and other dried chilies. They are easy to take care of and keep for a very long time, as long as they stay out of the sunlight and away from the air; ziplock bags are particularly handy. While there are many ways to add them to food, I found that the best method was to simply let them soak in boiling hot water for a half hour or so, after which I de-seed and stem them and puree them in a food processor.

One word to the wise: while chili peppers aren't all incredibly hot, many of them do pack a big punch. If you're worried about burning your mouth off, you might want to take a peek at the Scoville scale. At the lowest end of the scale, bell peppers weigh in with a zero. Mild poblano peppers come in at 1,000-1,500, jalapeños rank at 2,500-8,000, habanero chilies are in the 100,000-350,000 range, and pure capsaicin (the active ingredient in pepper spray) ranges between 15,000,000-16,000,000 scoville units. In case you're wondering, you can buy capsaicin under the brand name "Pure CAP," although many retailers make you sign a legal waiver.

If you're looking for a place to buy chili powders and chili-related spices, you might want to check out Pendery's. In addition to a truly amazing selection of chili powders and ground chilies, they also carry pretty much every dried chili pod that you could possibly want. Having ordered from them, I can say that they are reasonably priced, fill orders quickly, and are a breeze to deal with. Alternately, if there is a Latin American grocery or international market in your town, they will probably carry a decent selection of dried chilies.

Here's a good, basic chili recipe that uses dried anchos. It isn't too spicy, and offers a decent entrance into the world of chilies. Enjoy!

Basic Chili
6 dried ancho chilies
1 cup chopped onion
4 garlic cloves, chopped or pressed
1 tablespoon light olive oil
1 pound lean ground beef
1 can whole peeled tomatoes
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground oregano (Mexican, if possible)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon masa harina (optional)
Salt to taste

Place anchos in a heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Put in a heatproof plate or pan lid to ensure that the chilies stay under water. Let soak for a half hour. Remove from water, pull off the stems, and clean out all the seeds (it's a good idea to wear gloves, especially if you use contact lenses!). Put stemmed and de-seeded anchos into the carafe of a blender or food processor, along with a cup of the water that they soaked in. Puree until smooth. Set aside.

Put olive oil in a large (1-2 gallon) pot. Over medium heat, saute onions and garlic until onions become translucent. Add ground beef and saute until meat is no longer pink. Drain off any excess grease. Add the tomatoes and the juice that they came packed in, crushing by hand. Add spices, sugar, pureed chilies, and salt. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and let simmer for half an hour, stirring occasionally. If you like a thicker chili, mix masa harina with a 1/2 cup of water and add to chili. Cook over low heat for another five minutes or until thickened. Serve immediately.

As I mentioned, this is a very basic chili recipe. If you like a spicier flavor, try adding some dried chipotles to the anchos in the beginning. Alternately, you can try adding beans (as long as you don't live in Texas), chopped chilies, or numerous other ingredients. If you have a taste for accompaniments, try serving with shredded cheese, chopped scallions, sour cream, black olives, chopped pickles (no kidding, they can be seriously delicious), or anything else that strikes your fancy!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. A few months back, he had to go into chili rehab, as his taste buds were completely jaded.

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