There is no explaining the love of a really hot chile pepper to someone who doesn’t love chile peppers. By the way, chile is the correct spelling for the pepper; chili is the spelling for the southwestern dish made with chile peppers.
There are some real chile nuts out there who spend a lot of time daring each other to try one explosive chile or another, but most of us are pretty happy to just eat the ones that are fairly safe, such as the tried-and-true jalapeno. The mark of a good chile pepper, even one as hot as a habanero, is flavor, something that will make you want to taste it again.
Peppers all have alkaloids called capsaicin that give them their burn. When this compound comes into contact with the nerve endings in your mouth, it sends neurotransmitters to your brain, informing it of the pain. The brain then makes the heart beat faster and cells begin releasing the painkillers called endorphins. This is accompanied by turning on the body’s watering system — salivation, nose running and sweating. The secret that chile lovers all know is that endorphins give you a rush. Intense pain brings on a buzz, as they say.
The heat of chiles is measured in Scoville Units. Each pepper is given a range so you can make your choices based on the amount of heat you can tolerate.
With chile popularity increasing, it’s possible to find all kinds of varieties at the market. If you are growing your own, remember that all peppers need warm soil, plenty of sun and a well-drained spot with average fertility. Right now is the time to give them a mid-season side-dressing of compost or composted manure and plenty of water to help out while the peppers are ripening. Harvest peppers by snipping the stem when the peppers are fully colored.
When using chiles in the kitchen:
Always wear gloves when cutting them up, even the mildest of chiles. The oils will remain on your skin and can make you miserable if you touch your eyes or other tender parts of the body.
If you want less heat, remove the membranes and seeds where the oils are concentrated.
Dry only the thin-skinned varieties like cayenne — fleshy types tend to rot. Peppers dry well when hung in paper bags in a warm, airy spot.
When grinding dried chiles, use a coffee grinder that you use for nothing else or a blender that can go in the dishwasher.
Freeze chiles by washing, stemming and putting in freezer containers or bags — no need to blanch them. When ready to use them, chop them while still frozen.
Keep fresh peppers up to two weeks in the refrigerator. Store dried chiles in a cool dry place or in the freezer to keep them fresh.
To minimize the pain in your mouth, try milk, yogurt, banana, rice, potato or bread. Eating a lot of chiles actually does help you build up resistance to the heat. Chile aficionados just say to eat another, and another ...
Kate Jerome, a Kenosha writer and teacher, holds a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin and is the former Urban Farm director
at Gateway Technical College. She is the owner of the consulting business Kate Jerome’s Garden to Kitchen. Her website is www.kjerome.com.