Featured Stories

How hot is that red-hot chile pepper anyway?

Ole! Cinco de Mayo fiestas will be happening this week, with prodigue el banquete (lavish banquets) filled with zippy salsas, rich moles and the vibrant flavors common to Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisines. We can credit at least some of the cuisines flavors to chiles.

Most of us have a tale or two about unexpected encounters with chiles. Stories about dishes so hot they caused tears to roll down cheeks, smoke to billow out of ears and flames to erupt from mouths. The images are comical, but frankly, except by tasting, how can you tell how hot a chili might be?

Pharmacologist Wilber Scoville was intrigued by that very question and in 1912, he set out to determine the different heat levels of a wide variety of chiles. His experimentation led to the invention of the Scoville Organoleptic Test, the first systematic laboratory approach for measuring a chile's pungency or heat.

Scoville had human subjects taste chiles and evaluated how much sugar water it took to neutralize the heat of the chile to the point that its pungency was no longer noticeable. This dilution is called the Scoville Heat Unit.

As much as I love chiles, I don't think I would have applied to be a Scoville tester. How many chiles can one eat in a day without doing some permanent damage?

The heat in chiles is due to capsaicin and four related chemicals, collectively called capsaicinoids. When working with chiles it is advisable to wear gloves and open the chiles under running water. Discard the seeds and membranes in the garbage or compost instead of grinding them in the garbage disposal, as the capsaicinoids will become airborne, having the same effect as pepper spray.

Wash your hands carefully after working with chiles. Accidentally touching your eyes with even the slightest trace of capsaicin will be very painful.

Here's a run down of some of the more common chiles used in Mexican cuisine with their Scoville Heat Unit (SHU). As a point of reference, red, yellow and green bell peppers have a SHU of zero.

Pasilla - SHU 1,000-2,000. These chilies are usually used dried in sauces and moles. When fresh they are dark green or brown, and turn dark red in color when dried. They have a mild to medium heat with a rich flavor.

Chiltepin - SHU 60,000 to 85,000. Sometimes referred to as tepin, these chilies are bright scarlet in color and round in shape. They are used dried in salsas and other hot dishes.

De Arbol - SHU 15,000 to 30,000. These hot chilies are short, thin, tapered and bright red in color. They are used dried in soups, stews and sauces.

Habanero - These are some of the hottest chiles with SHUs starting at 150,000 for orange Habanero to 350,000 for Red Savina Habanero. Usually used fresh, they are short, oval chilies with a pointy end ranging in color from green, yellow, scarlet and deep red.

Jalapeno - SHU 2,500 to 8,000. Probably the chile with which we are most familiar, these are medium in heat. We are used to them being green; as they mature they turn red.

Poblano - SHU 1,000 to 2,000. One of my favorites, these are mild, almost sweet chilies. They are conical in shape and range in color from dark green to dark red. When dried we call them ancho chiles; you can roast and peel them to use for chile rellenos or stuffed peppers.

Serrano - SHU 8,000 to 22,000. These bullet-shaped chiles are hot and slightly sweet. They are eaten fresh in salsas, guacamole or chili.

Tobasco - SHU 30,000 to 50,000. These are very hot chilies and bright red or yellow in color. They are used to make (you guessed it) Tabasco sauce.

Today, a sophisticated laboratory process called High Performance Liquid Chroma-tography measures the amount of capsaicinoids in parts per million. This method is more costly than the Scoville test or the taste test, and much more accurate. But oddly enough, the results are converted into Scoville unit values.

Now that you know your favorite chiles' SHU, you can serve them with confidence. If the heat does sneak up on you, remember that milk, rather than water, will squelch the fire, so include sour cream with your condiments.

Bon Appetit! Ole!

Today's recipe may sound daunting, but it is actually quite simple. Invite friends to help with the preparation for a memorable fiesta.

Green Chile Chicken Tamales

Makes about 26

1 8-ounce package dried cornhusks

Filling:

1 pound tomatillos, husked and rinsed

4 3-inch long Serrano chiles, stemmed and chopped

4 large garlic cloves, chopped

1 ½ tablespoons olive oil

2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

4 cups (packed) coarsely shredded cooked chicken (from purchased rotisserie chicken)

2/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Dough:

1 1/3 cups lard or solid vegetable shortening

1 ½ teaspoons salt (omit if masa mixture contains salt)

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder (omit if masa mixture contains baking powder)

4 cups freshly ground masa dough (36 ounces) or 3 ½ cups masa harina mixed with 2 ¼ cups warm water

2 cups low salt chicken or beef broth

For the filling: Place husks in large pot or bowl; add water to cover. Place heavy plate on husks to keep submerged. Let stand until husks soften, turning occasionally, at least 3 hours and up to one day.

Preheat broiler. Line heavy baking sheet with foil. Arrange tomatillos on prepared sheet. Broil until tomatillos blacken in spots, turning once, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer tomatillos and any juices on sheet to processor and cool. Add chiles and garlic to processor and blend until smooth puree forms. Heat oil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add tomatillo puree and boil 5 minutes, stirring often. Add broth. Reduce heat to medium, simmer until sauce coats spoon thickly and is reduced to 1 cup, stirring occasionally, about 40 minutes. Season with salt. Mix in chicken and cilantro. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill.)

For dough: Using electric mixer, beat lard (with salt and baking powder, if using) in large bowl until fluffy. Beat in fresh masa or masa harina mixture in 4 additions. Reduce speed to low and gradually beat in 1 ½ cups broth, forming tender dough. If dough seems firm, beat in enough broth, 2 tablespoons at a time, to soften.

Fill bottom of pot with steamer insert with enough water (about 2 inches) to reach bottom of insert. Line bottom of insert with some softened cornhusks. Tear 3 large husks into ¼ inch wide strips to use as ties and set aside. Open 2 large husks on work surface. Spread ¼ cup dough in 4-inch square in center of each husk, leaving 2 to 3 inch plain border at narrow end of husk. Spoon a heaping tablespoon of filling in a strip down center of each dough square. Fold long sides of husk and dough over filling to cover. Fold up narrow end of husk. Tie folded portion with strip of husk to secure, leaving wide end of tamale open. Stand tamale in steamer basket. Repeat with more husks, dough and filling until all filling has been used. If necessary to keep tamales upright in steamer, insert pieces of crumpled foil between them.

Bring water in pot to boil. Cover pot and steam tamales until dough is firm to touch and separates easily from husk, adding more water to pot as necessary, about 45 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes. (Can be made 2 days ahead. Cool 1 hour. Cover and chill. Before serving, re-steam tamales until hot, about 35 minutes.)

Bon Appetit, May 2003

Randall welcomes your food questions and research suggestions. She can be reached at 503-635-8811 or by e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Five:30 - Soup

Editor's note: Barb Randall is adding a new tidbit to her weekly cooking column. 'Five:30' debuts today. It's focus is on quick, healthy meals that can be done at the last moment:

It's 5:30 p.m. and everyone is hungry. What can you prepare in the next half hour that is not only is easy and healthy but family pleasing delicious?

Introducing Five:30 - recipes for fast, healthy and delicious dinner entrees made with 5 ingredients (olive oil, water, salt and pepper are exempt from the count, OK?) and on the table in 30 minutes or less.

Bon Appetit!

Mexican Chicken Lime Soup

Makes 6 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil

6 garlic cloves, sliced

6 small skinless chicken breast halves, cut crosswise into half- inch wide strips

1½ teaspoons dried oregano

9 cups canned low-salt chicken broth

1/3 cup fresh lime juice

Heat oil in a heavy large pot over medium heat. Add garlic and stir 20 seconds. Add chicken and oregano to the pot; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sauté three minutes. Add broth and lime juice and bring to simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer gently until chicken in cooked through, about 8 minutes. Season soup to taste with salt and pepper and serve.

Optional condiments:

Crushed tortilla chips

Diced avocado

Chopped tomato

Sliced green onion

Chopped fresh cilantro

Minced jalapeno chilies

A drizzle of plain yogurt mixed with lime juice

Barb Randall