With their wide range of flavours and heat, chillies are exciting to use in cooking. And what’s even better, they are very easy to preserve so one single harvest might last all through the year.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ySEgA899vI%5DChilehead food-porn. Spicy greetings from my fiery kitchen.
The culinary uses of hot peppers are somewhat close to infinite. They can be made into food and products to enjoy right away or to store for later.
In meals a combination of fresh pods and dried or powdered ones will oftentimes deliver some surprisingly complex and delicious results. The fresh pods will mostly add a floral and fruity flavour and a bit a of zingy edge to a dish, whereas the dried and powdered ones tend to bring in a more lasting heat and some savoury, musky, earthy or smokey notes.
Before hot peppers go into a meal, it’s a good idea to taste-sample them so one knows what types of heat and flavour to expect. Hints of anything from citrus, berries, flowers and herbs to tomato, smoke, peat and many other things can be found in all the different capsicum varieties.
They all have their own characteristic type of burn, too, which can go from harsh and stingy to tingly and prickling, and affect the entire mouth and throat or only specific parts of it. The heat of some peppers (esp. Rocotos) even seems to be moving around in the mouth after eating. So when carefully chosen to suit a dish, chillies can indeed make it taste much more frisky, deep and complex.
There really are no limits as to the kinds of food that chillies go in well, if used reasonably. They might for example be used fresh in ice-cream, salads, salsas or sandwiches, or cooked, fried or roasted into stews, sauces, pastes, curries, pizzas, rolls, pies and even chocolate, sweets or jams. The cooking process will generally take away some of the heat, but that doesn’t mean that more will necessarily be better.
While hardly ever following recipes, one rule I diligently obey is that the heat should never overtake the overall taste. I rather try to bring it right up to a level that will boost all the flavours, bring them to life and make the eating experience as a whole feel more energetic and thrilling. Heat is similar to salt in that respect – the right amount will make the flavours shine and stand out, too much of it will ruin even the finest culinary creations.
The possibilities of preserving hot pepper pods are just as unlimited as the options to use them in food. They may be dried, powdered, smoked, frozen, pickled or fermented, cooked into a sauce or worked into an extract.
While I haven’t yet tried to pickle or ferment my harvest, I have done so with pretty much all the other ways of making it last longer. Drying and powdering the pods has turned out to be the easiest and most efficient method from my experience.
In order to dry them the pods first need to be cut in half to check if they have gone bad on the inside, in which case it’s best do throw them away. Since contrary to a widespread belief the seeds themselves don’t contain any heat but rather have a bitter, unpleasant taste to them, I scrape most of them out with a sharp knife before starting the drying process. The capsaicin oil that delivers the heat is concentrated in the veins and the white tissue running along the insides of the pods, so the decision to either leave them in or to remove them altogether lets one adjust the desired heat-level.
Drying chillies is all about extracting water from the pods. This could in theory be achieved in an oven set to a very low temperature but the risk of burning the pods still would be quite high. A dehydrator on the other hand will expose them to a constant stream of warm air over a couple of hours, thereby slowly making the water evaporate without scorching the chillies.
Once they are dry enough to crumble when being crushed, the pods are ready to be stored in a dark and dry place (for example in freezer-bags or jars stored in a cupboard) or to be ground into powder. The most helpful tool for pulverising them is an electric coffee-grinder, as long as one remembers not to process anything else but dried hot peppers with it. Otherwise the next morning coffee might come as a spicy surprise.
Powders make it easier to dosage when putting them into food which is particularly important with the super- and ultrahot varieties. The drying process might also change the flavour and heat profile of a pod by concentrating it, highlighting its specific character and bringing out the more savoury and darker sides of its taste. Mixing powders made from different varieties is also a great way to create special blends that combine their individual goodness into one.
Another quick and easy way of preserving chillies is to freeze them. For the same reasons as when drying them, it is wise to cut them open and discard any pods that have gone bad. Once that’s done, they can be put into plastic bags and placed in a freezer. This will allow them to keep up for at least half a year, if not longer. On thawing up frozen pods they might be a bit soft and saggy but their taste and heat will not have changed at all.
Making sauces and extracts out of chillies can be really good creative fun. Coming up with a hotsauce of one’s own can turn out as quite a lengthy process, though. It might take some attempts to get the balance of heat, flavours, acidity, sweetness and salt just right. I rarely find the time necessary for experimentation, so the number of hotsauces that have come from my kitchen is rather small.
Extracts are far speedier to produce. The capsaicinoids and flavonoids of chilli peppers are fat- and alcohol-soluable. So I like to cut a pod open and place the halves face-down into a pot with half an inch of wine, beer or liquor. After letting it rest for an hour or two, I remove the pod and reduce the remaining liquid to a slightly thicker consistency over a low flame. The result is a concentrate that really holds all the heat and flavour of the chilli, plus the taste of the beverage used.
But cooking isn’t even needed in order to extract those qualities from a pod. Simply putting it into a bottle with oil or an alcoholic drink will do the trick if you let it sit in the fridge for one or two weeks. On straining it into a sterile sealable bottle at the end of this time it’s ready to be enjoyed.
A twig of rosemary or thyme chucked into a bottle of extra vergine olive oil along with some Piment D’Espelette pods for instance make a mildly hot additive for cooking packed with mediterranean flavours. For the possible danger of botulism, it’s advisable to use dried pods, to keep the oil well refrigerated and to consume it within one to two months.
A chilli extract based on alcohol is safer in that respect and it will keep up for a longer period of time. For those who want to be tough guys, Naga Jolokia and vodka might be the combination of choice. Not being a fan of hard liquor myself, I prefer more palatable blends like cider and Scotch Bonnet Foodorama, which is lovely when served as a well-chilled shot to start off a dinner with friends.
As I’ve pointed out above, there are far more things to do with chillies which could keep this post going on forever. But already a few simple measures are enough in order to make use of the harvest in all kinds of ways throughout the year – until there’s a new one next season that’ll bring a whole new load of flavours and burns to be explored.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jv8CB-kdE4w%5DSome more hot-food porn from my kitchen.