It is the season of gold and scarlet in New Mexico. While summer lingers on here in South Florida the aspen trees are gleaming with golden leaves whispering in the wind as it whips across the hills and mountains of this enchanted land. Indian summer surrenders and a wild and wonderful promise permeates the atmosphere with contemplation of the coming winter.
Punctuating the landscape with crimson are the chili peppers, freshly harvested and now strung in the brilliant sunlight to dry out. The air is redolent with the roasting chili peppers in immense rotating boilers and women working on long tables sorting the red hot cylinders of flavor. There are chili festivals and all sorts of celebrations for the chili peppers, the largest cash crop in New Mexico.
Chilis (genus Capsicum) are used in cookery not only in Mexico, the American Southwest, the Caribbean, and most points south, but also in the Far East, Africa, the Balkans and the Mediterranean. The Capsicum pepper has gone international and is an important part of a healthier cuisine. This superpod, after salt, is the most frequently used seasoning agent and condiment in the world as well as being an important green vegetable throughout the temperate zones.
Earlier this week when we celebrated Columbus Day we should have given an extra salute to old Chris, for it was he who discovered the hot cylinders of fire on January 1, 1493. It was on Hispaniola, during his first voyage but it was not until his second trip that he described them: “In those islands there are 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.”
Chili quickly made its way into historical records. In 1493, Peter Martyr wrote that Columbus brought home with him “pepper more pungent than that from the Caucasus.” Twenty-five years later it was described in detail by other Spanish explorers, and by 1548 chiles were to be found in England and Central Europe. By 1550 chiles were commonly included in cookery throughout much of Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
Chili is the Americanized spelling for the Spanish Chile, an adaptation of chilli, the Aztec name for the plant. The term now includes varieties of Capsicum Frutescens. Because of its pungency Columbus called it “pepper,” although it is unrelated to Piper nigrum, the shrub that produces black pepper. Chili actually belongs to the night-shade family, which includes tomatoes and potatoes.
There are 2,000 varieties of chili peppers throughout the world each contributing a different flavor influenced by the growing conditions and climate. Chili easily cross-pollinates producing more than one type and piquancy on a single plant.
A New Mexico legend about chili holds “it protects against colds and malaria, it aids digestion, it clarifies the blood, it develops robustness and resistance to the elements and even acts as an aphrodisiac”. Native Americans and early settlers knew chiles to be a food preservative and an herbal medicine. They are high in vitamin A and C. The difference in red chilis and the green is they have been left on the plant longer and turn red as they ripen.
If you want to add spice and zest to your culinary offerings but have trouble discerning which pepper is which, here is a guide to help:
* Anaheim: Long, green chilis ranging from mild to barely hot. When dried, it is known as chili Colorado or chili verde.
* Ancho: A long, very dark brown variety that is mildly hot but turns sweet when dried. When fresh and dark green this variety is also known as poblano. Toast before using. Sometimes called chili negro or mulatto.
* Banana: A mild, yellow chili that is always used fresh. When very mature it is bright red.
* Cayenne: This very long, thin chili is usually used dry. Cayenne is also the name used generically for all commercially prepared ground, dried, hot red peppers.
* Chipotle: This is a dried, smoked jalapeno chili. It is very hot and rich and is often used in salsa combined with tomatoes, onions, vinegar and spices.
* Fresno: A medium, fairly mild, triangular-shaped chili pepper. Green when immature and turns yellow or red when mature.
* Guajillo: A long, thin, dark red chili when dried. It is extremely hot and is used mostly in East Indian cooking. When it is fresh it is known as mirasol.
* Habanero: Get out the fire extinguisher. This is the hottest of the hot and very popular. It is a small, ridged, round chili and is generally sold immature when it is green. Also called Scotch bonnet. When mature it is yellow, orange red and sometimes white.
* Jalapeno: A small, triangular-shaped, green, hot chili. Bright red when mature. Commonly found canned.
* Mirasol: Another long, dark red chili that is used extensively in East Indian cooking. When dried it is known as guajillo.
* New Mexico: A fairly large, mildly hot, red or green chili. It is used both fresh and dried.
* Pasilla: A long, thin, medium hot chili usually dried.
* Serrano: A small, red or green chili that is very, very hot. This variety is used fresh.
This is a terrific party dish, since much of the preparation can be done ahead. You can make the sauce early in the day, then reheat it and cook the shrimp just before serving.
¼ cup virgin olive oil
2 large white onions thinly sliced, separated into rings
2 large green bell peppers, cut crosswise in thin rings
2 cups peeled, quartered red-ripe tomatoes or 2 cups canned whole tomatoes
3 or more fresh jalapeno chilis, finely minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ cup butter
1⁄3 cup virgin olive oil
8 to 10 large cloves garlic, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
3 pounds jumbo shrimp, shelled, deveined, butterflied
½ cup dry white wine
1 ripe avocado
Hot cooked rice, if desired
2 tablespoons minced parsley
Heat ¼ cup oil in a large skillet. Add onions and bell peppers; cook until onions are clear but not browned. Add tomatoes and cook only until they are warm and beginning to release their juice. Add jalapenos, salt and pepper and simmer briefly; just long enough to blend flavors, but not so long that tomatoes, onions and bell peppers become overly soft and shapeless. Set aside.
* Melt butter in 1⁄3 cup olive oil in a large, shallow skillet. When butter is melted and hot, add garlic and cook until slightly golden.
* Add shrimp; cook quickly, turning as needed, just until shrimp turn pink. Stir in the tomato-pepper sauce.
* When sauce is heated, stir in wine and simmer briefly, just long enough to marry flavors.
* Meanwhile, pit, peel and slice avocado. Spoon shrimp mixture into center of rice ring or over rice, if desired; or serve as is. Arrange avocado slices around edge of shrimp mixture and sprinkle parsley over top.
Serves 6 to 8.
Question: I am planning a barbecue for Halloween and, although I have fixed ribs many times in different ways, I would like to prepare them in the Chinese style. Please print a recipe for the sauce. — Eric Johnston, Naples
Answer: This is a simple marinade. The secret is marinating the ribs for at least 12 to 36 hours and basting frequently.
½ cup soy sauce
½ cup dry sherry
6 tablespoons honey
Salt and pepper to taste
2 teaspoons ground ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
4 pounds pork spareribs
* Combine all ingredients except the ribs. Pour the marinade over spareribs.
* Cover and marinate in refrigerator overnight or longer; turning the meat in the sauce frequently.
* Remove ribs from marinade and place in a baking pan.
* Place in preheated 350 degree oven for 1½ to 2 hours until ribs are tender and browned.
* While ribs are roasting, bring marinade to a boil and while hot baste the ribs frequently. Makes 6 servings.
Doris Reynolds is the author of “Let’s Talk Food” and “When Peacocks Were Roasted and Mullet was Fried.” They are available for sale in the lobby of the Naples Daily News. Also for sale is a 4-part DVD, “A Walk Down Memory Lane With Doris Reynolds.” For information and comments on today’s column, e-mail Doris Reynolds at email@example.com