Hot Peppers: The Flouring Inferno

Want to amp up your cooking? Here's a little info about assorted hot peppers and some recipes to get you started.

| December 1998/January 1999

Everyone, it seems, has their own story about hot peppers. Maybe you've burst out of a Thai restaurant with sweat oozing from your every pore. Perhaps in your ancient past there's a hot pepper fraternity initiation. Or you might have taken revenge on your bratty little brother by poisoning his food, otherwise known as "the hot pepper pudding incident." (I never stooped to such a level; my tactics were more devious, as my brothers will testify.)

My own chili experiences consist of burning my hands, face, and eyes, and trashing my contact lenses, due to improper chili handling. I've had repeat performances, because I was in a cooking frenzy and didn't feel like wearing surgical gloves.

My son has a weird reaction if he eats a food that's too hot and spicy for him; he hiccups nonstop for about ten minutes. He's the in-house hot meter. If Matt hiccups, then Mom overdid it with Dad's garden peppers.

Before my husband's garden existed, a chili was considered a dangerously hot pepper, only to be used sparingly in Mexican food. It never occurred to us that each variety of chili has its own distinct flavor and unique hotness. So what makes a chili so damned hot? The heat comes from capsaicinoids, which act on your mouth's pain receptors, resulting in tearing eyes, runny nose, and a sweating body. A euphoric high then occurs when your brain releases endorphins in response to the pain caused by the peppers. Capsaicin (capSAY-ah-sin) is an oil found mainly in the veins, or white parts, of the chili, which can be removed for a milder flavor. It's also a good idea to remove the seeds with the veins so you won't find any floating in your salsa. The heat of a pepper is measured by Scoville units, developed in 1912 by food scientist Wilbur Scoville. For example, a bell pepper without any capsaicin would be zero, a jalapeño rates about 4,000 units, and a habanero chili scores up to 300,000 units. In general, the smaller and pointier the pepper, the hotter it tastes.

After reminiscing on our hot pepper experiences, we wonder why we'd want to continue to consume the hot stuff. Aside from flavoring the food, chilies have other benefits. They contain cancer-fighting antioxidants such as beta carotene and are high in vitamins A and C. Capsaicin helps you to bum more calories by increasing your metabolism, and it stimulates circulation in the stomach and intestine, resulting in better digestion. Cayenne pepper lowers cholesterol by lowering the LDLs (low density lipids) without affecting the HDLs (high density lipids). Research has disproved the theory that peppers cause ulcers and intestinal damage. People with existing ulcers may want to check with their doctors before eating peppers.

Growing peppers is as fun as eating them. Here are a few ideas for storing your garden chilies.

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