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Red Hot PepperHot Stuff
By Terra Brockman, The Land Connection Foundation

Try to imagine even one of these: Hungarian food without paprika, Szechwan food without fiery red peppers, or Thai food without hot Thai peppers. Can't do it? Think about this: Before Columbus ventured forth looking for the spices of the east, all those cuisines and many others were bereft of chile peppers, the common name for pungent members of the Capsicum genus.

Peppers are native to Central and South America. Ethnobotanists believe they began to be domesticated somewhere in present-day Bolivia some 10,000 years ago. Archaeologists know that by 5000 B.C., hot peppers were being cultivated as far north as Mexico's Tehuacan Valley in southeastern Puebla and northeastern Oaxaca.

By the time the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria sailed into Caribbean waters, the native islanders had been enjoying peppers for nearly seventy centuries. Although Columbus came across peppers on his first voyage, he described them in more detail on the second voyage (1493-1496): "In those islands there are also bushes like rose bushes which make a fruit as long as cinnamon full of small grains as biting as pepper; those Caribs and the Indians eat that fruit as we eat apples."

Just a few decades after Colombus's voyage, Spanish and Portuguese trading vessels took hot peppers to Africa and the Middle East, to Persia and India, to southeast Asia and China. Then, a mere hundred years later, European colonists introduced peppers into more of North America, completing the pepper pod's circumnavigation of the globe.

The reason that "those Caribs and Indians" were eating peppers like apples probably had something to do with their nutritional value. By weight, peppers contain more vitamin A than any other food plant. They are also an excellent source of vitamins C and B. Jalapenos contain at least twenty times more vitamin A and more than twice the vitamin C of fresh oranges. All the capsicums also contain significant amounts of magnesium, iron, thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin.

But people's passion for peppers doesn't come from their nutrition, it comes from the fiery kick delivered by capsaicin, a small vanilloid compound (N-Vanillyl-8-methyl-6 (E)-noneamide). Capsaicin acts directly on pain receptors and stimulates endorphins, opiate-like chemicals that produce pleasurable feelings. Capsaicin creams are now marketed as a way to temporarily relieve chronic pain conditions such as arthritis. Capsaicin is in fact the subject of many ongoing research projects. It has been used to treat acne and blood clots, as well as to repel termites and zebra mussels when molecularly bonded onto paints, stains, and plastics.

Dr. Scoville and His Units

Hot peppers vary considerably in their levels of capsaicin and consequently in their degrees of hotness. This variation is due to many factors, including the type, growing area, temperature of the growing season, time of harvest, and form of processing.

In 1912, a chemist, Dr. Wilbur Scoville, devised the Scoville Organoleptic Test to measure the heat in peppers. Dr. Scoville's test was originally a subjective taste test, but today it's done with high-pressure liquid chromatography. On this thermal Richter scale, higher Scoville units mean hotter food. Comparing Scoville units of various peppers and hot sauces is a good way to figure out which is stronger among commercial names such as Mad Dog Inferno, Blair's After Death Sauce, Habanero Peppers From Hell, Dave's Insanity Sauce, and Batch #114 Jamaican Hot Sauce, the motto of which is "Pain is good."

If you are not of the opinion that pain is good, you can still enjoy hot peppers by starting with peppers at the low end of the Scoville scale. As you get accustomed to the heat, you'll find yourself gradually increasing the dosage. Soon you'll be surprised at how bland food tastes without hot peppers. In no time at all you may find yourself munching jalapenos as if they were peanuts and splashing Tabasco sauce on everything from peanut butter sandwiches to ice cream. (Some people really do this!)

Most of the capsaicin in peppers is found in the ribs and veins that hold the seeds to the walls of the pepper. You can easily modify any recipe calling for hot peppers by including more or less of the rib portion.

Salsa Picante

This is a general term for Mexican hot sauce, including pico de gallo (rooster's beak). You can buy it in any grocery store, but if you make it yourself from ingredients that are freshly picked (or bought at a farmer's market), you'll never go back to the commercial kind.

5-6 ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 medium onion, minced
2 Tablespoons cilantro, chopped fine
juice of 1/2 lime
2-4 chiles of your choice (jalapeno and serrano are very good), minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt to taste

1. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and let stand for thirty to sixty minutes before serving.

2. Use as a dip for toasted tortilla chips, on Mexican dishes such as enchiladas, as well as on anything from eggs to hamburgers.

Garden Ratatouille

This is a great way to use a lot of end-of-summer veggies. Feel free to alter the recipe, using whatever you have in your garden or whatever looks good at the farmer's market.

Note: This freezes well. Simply let it cool to room temperature and then put into plastic freezer containers or zip-lock bags. In the middle of winter, you'll smile as the flavors of summer hit your tongue.

1 large eggplant, cut into one-inch cubes
1 medium to large zucchini, cut into one-inch cubes
1/4 cup olive oil
2 onions, chopped fine
6 ripe tomatoes, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
1-2 jalapeno or serrano peppers
1 garlic clove, minced
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Chop zucchini and boil until just tender. Drain. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until browned. Stir in the rest of the ingredients and simmer until most of the juices have evaporated. Cool. Serve the next day either hot or at room temperature.

Zhug (Jalapeno Pepper Relish)

The h in zhug is pronounced like the ch in chutzpah, which is what this relish is all about. The recipe comes from Lisa Comforty, who says that it will cure what ails you, stave off ills to come, keep you safe from vampires, ward off unwanted advances, and impart a warm glow of green fire to sandwiches, sauces, and any main course requiring a condiment. It comes from Yemen.

Warning: wear gloves - especially if you wear contact lenses! And always wash your hands, chopping board, and cooking utensils immediately after dealing with jalapenos. Otherwise you will learn painful lessons about capsaicin.

6-7 jalapeno peppers
1/2-3/4 cup garlic cloves
1/2-3/4 cup fresh cilantro
1/2-3/4 teaspoons salt (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Approximately two Tablespoons water, if needed
2 teaspoons cumin

1. In a food processor, puree the peppers (core and seed them first if you like your hot a little less hot) along with everything else. That's it.

2. Store your zhug in a glass jar in the refrigerator and trot out this lovely green fire on all occasions except dessert. Use (sparingly at first until you understand its power) on meats, in sandwiches, on pasta or rice, in salad dressings, in tomato and other sauces, for dips, and, especially, with hummus and pita bread.

Thai Dipping Sauce

3 Tablespoons lime juice
3 Tablespoons fish sauce
3 Tablespoons water
2 Tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons crushed garlic
2 Tablespoons finely chopped fresh Hot Thai peppers or Bird's Eye Chiles

Combine all the ingredients and stir until the sugar dissolves. Serve as a dipping sauce for meat or vegetables, or as a spicy salad dressing.

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