Cooking with fresh chiles

October 16th, 2019
a variety of fresh chiles
Fresh chiles add flavor to anything you’re making. Photo: Getty Images.

In our refrigerators and pantries, we let languish mustards and vinegars, salsas and pickles. Carrots grow beards; celery gets limp.

But the greatest disservice, in my view, that we do to a foodstuff is how we treat and eventually ignore the chile pepper.

Not an individual fresh one that we might buy—not usually. By and large, that chile pepper is quickly dispatched (though rarely properly), intended for a specific purpose, for a given day and dinner. As a garnish, perhaps, or for a homemade salsa.

No, first off, we buy the chile pepper in its worst forms: as hot sauce or chile powder — diverse and useful, yes, but frankly not its best showings — and both of which, in short order, we then let decline alongside its neighbors in the refrigerator, those now-forlorn pickles and mustards.

But what worlds of flavor fresh chile peppers can bring us, nearly always and for everything. If only we better honored them, knew their many and diverse secrets, understood how best to reveal those. Even ate them every day.

Cooking with fresh chiles. Wear gloves when scraping and cleaning chiles
Here’s a “VIT” or very important tip. Use gloves when you’re cooking with fresh chiles. Here, Bill St. John demonstrates how to scrape the seeds from the inside of a charred, fresh chile. Photo courtesy of Bill St. John.

I cannot tell you here about the chile pepper in its measureless entirety, about the long or short ones, the fat and thin ones, those in red, yellow, green, purple, even brown, all which colors may revise in a particular chile when dried.

And how to describe to (or warn?) you of their levels of heat? Because even, say, a short stout green one advertised to be “moderately hot” may, from one plant to the other—indeed from one stem on the same plant to the other! — contain in itself a wickedly dangerous fire.

All I can do here, in this small space, is invite and encourage you to bring more of the chile pepper into your home and onto your kitchen counter. Discover how much it can give to your cooking (your preserving, your snacking, your entertaining).

Here are some tips for unlocking their secrets:

  • Buy only those that are shiny and smooth, never ones that look tired or are wrinkled. (Some chiles sport uneven or bumpy skins; it’s not the same thing as wrinkled or drying-out.) Old chiles have lost flavor, but worse, are impossible to peel.
  • Nearly every chile (although the wee ones are hard to work this way) tastes better if charred and peeled. Charring comes about in a myriad of ways: on the grill or griddle, above a gas flame (directly on the burner or held above it by tongs), below a broiler, or at the business end of a kitchen torch. Let a number of black-brown blisters cover a good percentage of the chile’s real estate.
  • “Sweat” the charred chiles in a closed, stout plastic bag for 15-20 minutes, until they are cool enough to handle.
  • VIT (Very Important Tip): Don whatever sort of medicinal gloves that suit you (latex, plastic, neoprene, nitrile, or the like) before seeding and skinning fresh chiles. You can, of course, do those tasks barehanded, but the accident of reflexively touching your eyes (or other sensitive body bits) is devoutly to be avoided.
  • Hold a small, sharp paring knife mostly by its blade (sometimes, with small chiles, very close to the point) in order to score, seed, and peel a chile.
  • Scrape away charred skin and seeds with either the sharp or the top of the knife’s blade, whatever works better in a given instance without tearing. If stress-free to do so, also carefully slice down along the “white” of inner veins; it can reduce that chile’s fire, if desired.
  • Tear or further slice or chop the chile flesh as needed for the recipe or service
  • Chiles are now available fresh year- ‘round. Many frozen fresh chiles come pre-charred; strip them of skin and seeds when thawed. Their meat is slightly more tender than those you prepare yourself, so merely exercise a softer touch.

Notes on what wines best accompany foods with chiles:

Chile heat derives from capsaicin, a powerful alkaloid in the seeds and veins of chile peppers. Capsaicin numbs the palate (which is why some of us adore it) and makes it difficult to appreciate whatever else goes into the mouth along with it, wine included.

Capsaicin is soluble in alcohol but insoluble in water, which is why drinking water to help alleviate the burning won’t work. The reason that your mouthwash contains alcohol isn’t so that you get a buzz as a reward for caring for your teeth; it’s because ethanol is a very effective solvent. Alcohol keeps all the good things in medicines, mouthwash and the like in solution.

It also functions that way in the presence of capsaicin, spreading it out on the palate, dissolving it, and making it “hotter” than it would otherwise be alone. That’s why wines relatively low in alcohol come recommended with dishes high in chile heat.

Gonzales Steak

From “Shinin’ Times at The Fort,” Holly Arnold Kinney; makes 1

Ingredients

3 green Anaheim chiles, roasted and peeled

Salt

1 clove garlic, chopped

Pinch dried Mexican leaf oregano

10-12 ounces thick-cut New York strip, top sirloin, or tenderloin of beef or buffalo steak

1/2 teaspoon canola oil

Freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon butter, optional

Directions

Slit the chiles to remove seeds; chop 2 chiles into fine dice and mix with the salt, garlic, and oregano. (New Mexicans traditionally like to leave a few seeds in the dish. “The seeds give it life,” they say.)

With a very sharp knife, cut a horizontal pocket into the steak. Stuff the chopped chiles into the pocket. Brush the meat and the remaining chile with the oil. Grill the steak on both sides to desired doneness. If using buffalo, watch carefully so as not to overcook. Because it contains less fat than beef it cooks much faster and is best medium-rare. Salt and pepper the meat.

Grill the remaining whole-roasted chili to get a nice patterning of grid burn on it. Lay it across steak as a garnish. A teaspoon of butter on the steak as a special treat is heaven. To make brown butter, simply place the butter in a sauté pan over medium-high heat and allow to melt and turn golden brown.

Reach Bill St John at billstjohn@gmail.com

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.