Only mildly amusing as the butt of a child's joke, chiles are serious business in many cuisines. Native to the Americas, they have managed to find their way into nearly every corner of the world mostly because of the early Spanish explorers of the New World.
First, a little on nomenclature. For our purposes chile refers to the fruit of plants from the genus Capsicum, members of the nightshade family that includes potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant. This spelling is used most often when speaking of the fruit, especially in the US. Brits and Asians favor chilli, which is an Anglicization of the Nahautl word and pretty close to how it is pronounced. Chili is also widely used in the US and Canada though that is most often specifically referring to chili con carne. Me, I use chile because I lived in New Mexico for a time and that's they way we spell it.
One last word on the language and the proliferation of chiles around the world. Christopher Columbus is credited with enjoining the word “pepper” to chiles, as the story goes, because the spicy heat reminded him of the fruit of Piper nigrum or what we call black pepper. As we know, at that time in history pepper was extremely valuable. There is no connection whatsoever between chiles and pepper. A physician by the name of Diego Alvarez Chanca brought back chile plants from Columbus' second voyage. From there the spread is mostly conjecture, but likely involves Lisbon, Portuguese traders, and the continuing voyages in the Age of Exploration. Soon, relatively speaking, chiles were making their appearance in cuisines from India, Central Asia, and the Far East.
Chiles' distinctive feature, their “heat”, is dues to the chemical compound known as 8-methyl-N-vanilyl-6-nonemanide, or capsaicin for short. In its purer forms it is used a weapon, the much discussed pepper spray. The “heat”, in fact, is a pain response leading to inceased heart rate, perspiration, and the release of endorphins. Like other endorphin-releasing phenomena such as running, sex, or skydiving tolerance develops. In other words, nothing compares to your first habanero, sadly enough. Always remember that Capsicum sp evolved this mechanism to prevent mammals from eating them (birds, not able to feel the pain, are highly effective spreaders of seed in the wild), yet eat them we do. Insert your own conclusions about humans and pain here. Some sound advice about chiles' heat and how to cope is here.
In the culinary ranges the heat goes from non-existent (bell peppers) to extremely hot (habaneros or even hotter new varieties). While there is no reliable way to distinguish the “heat” from the looks of a chile—bell peppers and jalapenos, for example, are part of the same family Capsicum anuum—there are some objective measures of relative heat. Even these must be considered only guides as fruits from the same species and even the same plant can vary considerably in their heat level. The different parts of the fruit contain varying amounts of capsaicin as well, the most being contained in the seeds, veins (whitish membrane inside the fruit), and the placenta (inside, under the stem, where the seeds are attached).
The most reliable measure of heat in chiles is the Scoville Scale. All kinds of details about how it is done and comparisons of different chiles and related chemical compounds may be found here. For our purposes, this graphic illustrates a reasonable culinary guide:
My personal favorite chile dish is the chile relleno, literally a “stuffed chile”. That stuffing is typically cheese (asedero, Oaxaca, jack, cheddar), though sometimes meats or combinations. The chile is most always a Poblano (mild and native to the Puebla region where this dish originates) though others can certainly be used. Rellenos are a pain in the ass to prepare as you can see from just this recipe (again, my opinion, though not my web page). Twenty years of ordering them at many, many restaurants and mostly being disappointed has relegated them to “white whale” or Holy Grail status with me. Here's a tease:
In the sphere of humanly achievable chile recipes I offer some Green Chile Stew and Posole to represent both the green and red chiles of my New Mexican experience. These are comfort foods writ large. Serve them with corn or wheat tortillas, perhaps some grated cheese or sour cream if you like. The recipes feature pork, but you can substitute chicken, beef, or omit meat entirely I suppose. I also use frozen chile products as fresh is very difficult to come by here in Oklahoma City. Choose your heat level. I like mine medium-hot.
Green Chile Stew
This is a slight adaptation of the recipe attributed to The Pink Adobe restaurant in Santa Fe, NM.
2 TBSP Olive Oil
2 pounds boneless pork (shoulder or “country ribs” work well) in 1-inch cubes
1 onion chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup flour
2 peeled and chopped tomatoes (1 28oz can diced is a reasonable substitute)
2 pounds of frozen green chile (Hatch, NM chile highly preferred, in any event fire roasted and chopped. If you're using fresh green chiles because you can you don't need me to tell you what to do with them)
1 chopped fresh jalapeno, if you need to
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
2 cups chicken stock or broth
2 teaspoons Mexican Oregano (my option, don't use it if you don't have it, it is NOT the same as the oregano used in Greek and Italian dishes)
In a 6 quart Dutch Oven heat the oil. Brown the pork. Add onion and garlic. When onion is softened add the flour. Cook and stir 1-2 minutes. Add tomato, green chile, and jalapenos. Add salt, pepper, and Mexican Oregano. Add stock or broth. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 1 to 1 ½ hours.
Posole is what most of us call hominy—whole kernel corn processed with lime in a process called nixtamalization. Another Nahautl word, legend says that the original posole stew was made with human flesh from the victims of ritual sacrifice and was replaced with pork when cannibalism was outlawed by the conquering Spanish. Maybe yes, maybe no. In any event this is delicious and to me represents everything I love about chile and New Mexican cooking. Yes, I confess when it comes to chile I am a “red” guy first and foremost. This dish is made in two steps, the posole step and the pork step.
1 pound frozen posole (canned is a lesser substitute, but if you use it just use a large can and skip this step and just add it to the pork step when it is time)
1 onion, quartered
1 teaspoon salt
Soak the posole overnight. Drain and rinse. Place in a large saucepan and cover with water at a 2:1 ratio. Add the onion and salt. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer, covered, until posole begins to bloom like popcorn—about 1 – 1 ½ hours. In the meantime,
2 pounds pork shoulder, bone in.
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 bay leaf
1 onion, chopped finely
1 teaspoon salt
Place pork shoulder in 6 quart Dutch Oven and cover with water. Add other ingredients. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, covered, until meat is tender and falling from bone. Remove meat from water and let cool enough to pull into small pieces. Return to pot and add:
1 14-16 oz frozen red chile puree (Bueno Foods makes a fine product. In fact, I use all of their products in these recipes)
Alternatively, you can place 8-10 large dried red chile pods in a blender and add 2 cups of the pork broth. After about 20 minutes puree until smooth. Add back to pork pot.
If you have timed it right the posole should be partially “bloomed”, but still chewy. Add the pork and chile mixture to the posole and cook an additional cook slowly another 3 to 4 hours on low heat until the posole is fully bloomed and soft.
Serve garnished with fresh cilantro and maybe some grated cheddar.
It's hard to be neutral on the subject of chile. There are so many positions you can take; red or green, hot or mild, fire-roasted or not, love or hate. This diary offers one person's experience and viewpoint. I invite you to share your chile opinions and recipes. I leave you with an image that sums up my thoughts and dreams of my days in New Mexico and to where these dishes take me back whenever I think of them.