Fall brings us the delights of reddening leaves, chillier morns and eves, and the bounty of the harvest, but it also means that the warmth of summer starts to fade. There are, however, ways to evoke summer’s heat despite the recalcitrance of the seasons. The fruits of the chile pepper are spicy, bright and hot. I rely on those flavors to keep the feeling of summer on the table even as the days grow short and cool.
It is thought that chiles originated in Bolivia. The plant is a nightshade, a family of plants which have captivated our collective cultural imaginations, from the poison Juliet takes to fake her suicide to the tobacco in James Dean’s cigarettes. It’s a family that keeps good company including, tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant.
But it’s the alkaloid compound capsaicin found in the chile pepper’s membranes and flesh that brings the heat and captures our attention. Capsaicin stimulates the neural sensors that detect rising temperatures and in great enough quantity can cause the heart to pump faster and adrenaline to flow.
Recent science has been trying to harness that power in topical creams for keeping warm and in anesthetics that preserve motor control, but humans have long known of other health benefits like chile’s anti-microbial properties which generations of our ancestors have used to help preserve foods.
Use the chile’s fervor hold on to summer’s heat even as the days grow shorter and mornings and evenings begin to chill. Here are four great ways to add some warmth to the table:
The Mexican standard of rajas con crema starts with sautéed chiles and adds cream to help bring out the flavor—proteins in the milk neutralize the heat of the capsaicin molecules allowing more of the taste of the pepper to peak out from behind the shield of the capsaicin’s heat.
The basics of this technique are to thinly slice your chiles—in Mexico the Poblano is often used, but I would recommend the technique for any pepper that you favor. Sautée the sliced chiles over medium heat and once they have begun to brown add your preferred dairy and reduce. This technique makes for a hearty flavorful sauce, side dish or base for other fall bounty like corn and squash.
In my salsa ontology there are three distinct types: fresh, roasted and salsas with added vinegar. For all three heat can be adjusted by varying the ratio of chiles to other ingredients.
This is by far my favorite type of salsa because roasting the chiles deepens and intensifies their flavor. For my basic salsa I use roma tomatoes or green tomatillos. Whichever you choose roast them with your chile whole. You can deseed the chile once it is roasted for a less spicy salsa. The lower and slower you roast the more flavor you develop and don’t worry if they char. The char adds delicious depth and pungency. I like to roast the salsa components for an hour or more at 350 if I’ve got the time. Once the chiles and tomatoes are roasted pull out your blender, add a small clove of raw garlic and some salt to the mix and puree.
Fresh salsas are one of the fastest and easiest ways to make good use of your summer chiles. This type of salsa delivers both bite and refreshment and thus works well as either condiment or salad. Chop up a few herbs and veggies, really whatever you’ve got lying around, add a tomato or other tart fruits to the mix; peaches and cherries work well, and finish with a squeeze of citrus—limes, lemons, and oranges are all fabulous additions. My standard fresh salsa includes basil, chives, serranoes, grape tomatoes and a squeeze of lemon.
Vinegar salsas pair perfectly with rich and starchy foods because they add high notes to rich baritones like roasted meats and pots of beans. I used cooked peppers to make this type of salsa and find that it works well with every type of chile. Turn your burner to medium low, add a little neutral oil to coat the pan and sweat your peppers of choice. I also like to include onions in this process. Once your peppers and other aromatics have softened but before they begin to brown remove them from the heat and blend with vinegar and a bit of salt for a salsa that’s between condiment and sauce. I crave vinegar salsa with little green lentils or tender, slow-cooked pork shoulder.
Chiles and fruit make such an excellent combination because the heat and sweetness overwhelm the tongue with pleasurable sensations. My favored combinations include jalapenos with watermelon, serranoes with peaches, and chipotles with mangos. If you’re a dairy eater, a little bit of goat or fresh and salty cheese can round out the fruit and pepper combo, making for a snappy side dish or a savory sweet dessert.
Photo: Travis Juntara/Flickr
Pickling, an age old method of preserving summer’s bounty, works particularly well for peppers because the pickling process mellows the heat while intensifying the flavor. It’s also a great way to extend the longevity of your late summer chile harvest.
You can make a delicious quick pickle by keeping a simple ratio in mind: 4 parts vinegar to 4 parts water, 2 parts sugar to 1 part salt. Bring this mixture to a boil and briefly cook your chiles in this. The less you cook the chiles, the crunchier they will be. If you thinly slice the chiles, consider pouring the boiling pickling liquid over them (instead of tossing them in the pot).
I often make this simple quick pickle with jalapenos, but when I crave something a little different, I make a pickling liquid with a light vinegar like apple cider or white vinegar. Then I toss in a few bay leaves and black peppercorn, and add carrots, sliced habaneros, and white onion to the mix for a fruity bright pickle that reminds me of Mexico.
Photo: Lynn Ketchum/Flickr