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It might still be cold outside, but the heat's turning up in the kitchen

by Bonnie Caldwell

Have you noticed those unusual-looking peppers in the produce section? Have you stared at them and wondered what should I do with them? They range in colour and size from green to red, small to large, pointed to round. But that's not all-look down the aisle and you see bags of dried chilies. Help, what's a person to do?

Chilies are usually categorized into mild, medium and hot. In general, the smallest chilies are the hottest and the difference between the green and red chilies is that the green chilies are unripe and haven't yet turned red. Usually the polios (look like dark green peppers) are relatively mild, jalapenos (small green and rounded end) and banana peppers (long and yellow) are medium hot, serranos (small red chilies) are slightly hotter, and those cute looking Scotch Bonnets are the hottest. However, the age of the chilies (those shriveled-looking ones are generally hotter than the smooth-looking ones), where they are grown, how much sun or water they receive, and where on the plant they are found, all determine their heat.

Have you wondered what causes the heat of those innocent looking chilies? A chemical compound called capsaicin is the culprit. Another tip to determine the chile's heat according to Irwin McKinnon, Executive Chef at Joseph's Restaurant, is its smell. He says, "if the chili pepper smells like a sweet green pepper then it's probably quite mild." He recommends slowly introducing hot chili peppers to your favourite recipes and says an easy way to control the heat is to add them whole for a short period of cooking time and then remove before serving.

So let's talk about dried chili peppers. They come in many varieties as well. The two most common ones in our grocery stores are the chipotle pepper, a dry, smoked, jalapeno pepper and the ancho pepper, a dried poblano pepper. To use these dried chilies you need to rehydrate them in hot water. Then you can chop them and add them to sour cream or mayonnaise for extra zip and a smoky flavour.

Now you know what these chilies are called, but do you know how to handle them properly? You must respect your chili as it can burn your skin. When handling a chili pepper, it's best to wear gloves and carefully remove the seeds and white membrane (this is where the heat is located) before chopping. Most importantly, don't rub your eyes after you've handled a chili. If you want to test the heat of your chili you can touch a small piece to your tongue, but remember to test all parts including the stem end, white membrane and seeds. You can cool your mouth with a piece of bread, yogurt or sugar.

You've conquered your fear of those funny looking chilies and you're ready to add some spice and heat to your dishes. Let's talk recipes. One of the easiest and fastest ways to add some new spice to your dishes is to make a chili paste. In a food processor, combine seeded chilies (you pick the heat level you want) with fresh cilantro, garlic, cumin seeds and grated ginger with enough oil to make a paste. You can use this as a marinade on meats or seafood. You can add it to your favourite tomato sauce, stir fry recipes or mix some with sour cream or yogurt for uses as a condiment or topping on your next bowl of chili!

Bon appetit from Bonnie Caldwell, Custom Cuisine, Personal Chef Service, 902-628-0431, http://peicustomcuisine.ca.

The Buzz welcomes Bonnie to our roster of cultural columnists.

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