The Charm of the Chilli
In spectrum-spanning shades of acid yellow to deep green, flaming orange to vibrant red and even chocolate brown or purple, there are literally thousands of chilli varieties. They have eclectic names such as ‘Rooster Spur’, ‘Cherry Bomb’ and ‘Scotch Bonnet’ that offer clues to their shape and size. Some are hot and some are not, even within the same variety.
Relatively few varieties find their way into the shops, but here in the southwest we are fortunate to have an increasing number of chilli farms from which you can buy direct. The joy of buying from a specialist is that you can choose a named variety suitable for the dish you intend to cook. Like potatoes, chillies vary in texture and flavour, and this in turn affects the success of the finished dish.
Though mainly known for their heat, there is so much more to chillies than curry and chile con carne. Used judiciously, they add pleasing warmth to bland dishes. A small amount finely chopped perks up couscous or mildly flavoured root vegetables, or add with garlic to a simple dish of pasta dressed with olive oil, parmesan and lemon zest. Chillies are also great for livening up white fish – chop a little into a marinade of lime juice, salt and olive oil, and brush the fish with this while grilling.
For Chinese stir-fries, sizzle small whole chillies with garlic and ginger for a few seconds, then remove from the pan. The flavour will permeate the oil, adding zest to the dish but without making it unbearably hot.
Provided they are unbroken, chillies make soups and casseroles glow rather than burn. Just add two or three to the pot and fish them out at the end. Chillies can even be added to sweet dishes such as ice cream or a syrup for a fruit salad.
One of my favourites is Apricot, with its beautiful pale orange flesh and crisp texture. They are mildly hot with thin juicy flesh and a hint of apricot in the flavour. Try them in my recipe for Avocado-Stuffed Baby Chillies.
It’s a good idea to wear rubber gloves when you’re preparing chillies. Otherwise you run the risk of long-lasting chilli burn if you rub your eyes or other sensitive areas!
Varieties to look for
- ‘Anaheim’, elongated, green turning to red, thin-skinned, mildly hot. Ideal for stews and salsas.
- ‘Cherry Bomb’, small round, bright red, tough skin, thick flesh, super-hot. Excellent roasted, peeled and stuffed.
- ‘Jalapeño’, torpedo-shaped, deep grassy green turning to red, fleshy, medium heat. Good roasted or barbecued, or in breads and jam.
- ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’, elongated, brilliant yellow, thin skin, medium-thick flesh, mild heat. Use in salads and stir-fries.
- ‘Habanero’, puckered lantern shape, orange, thin skin and flesh, extremely hot, fruity tropical flavour. Use with care in any dish. Good in syrups, chocolate desserts and ice cream.
- ‘Poblano’, elongated, dark green turning to reddish brown, thick-fleshed, mild to medium-hot. Rich complex flavour. Good in soups, stews or stuffed.
- ‘Scotch Bonnet’, flattened tam o’shanter shape, red when mature, thin skin and flesh, extremely hot, fruity flavour. Prized in Caribbean cookery. Use with care in any dish.
© Christine McFadden, August 2013