Everything You Wanted To Know (or not) About: Jalapenos!!!

Monday, January 10, 2011

If there was ever an ingredient in my opinion that is the heart of Mexican cuisine, it's the jalapeno. Pronounced "hal-a-pen-yo," it's probably the most recognizable pepper in the United States after the bell pepper. They are small and pack a punch of heat, and can offer both crunch and flavor as well as a good measure of spiciness to any dish. They can be eaten raw, cooked, and even pickled for a really delightful salty-spicy bite. They can flavor anything from soup to stews, baked goods like breads and scones, to salads and condiments (hello salsa!), or served up just by themselves as a spicy topping such as on hot dogs, sandwiches, or even soups and stews. They are extremely versatile as you can see, very easy to find, and in most parts of the US quite easy to grow as well.

Jalapenos are named after the city of Xalapa (also spelled Jalapa), the capital of the state of Veracruz in Mexico, where they originated. The name itself (Xalapa) actually derives from the ancient Nahuatl language -- the Aztecs living in Central Mexico -- and is combined with the Spanish "eno" which roughly translates to "of" as in origin. So the name "jalapeno" actually means "from Xalapa." Although grown throughout Mexico, their cultivation is still concentrated in Veracruz even today. The United States also grows jalapenos and other peppers mostly throughout the Southwest, and Argentina in South America as well as various Central American states also grow the peppers.

As with other members of the capsicum family, the jalapeno derives its heat from the ribs and seeds. It sits relatively low on the Scoville scale for peppers -- hotter than the bell pepper, poblano, and Ahaheim chilies, but considerably less than the Scotch bonnet or Ghost pepper -- yet if picked at the right time, could offer quite a punch of heat. The heat of the peppers depend largely on the amount of sunshine they receive during growth. I learned this firsthand as last summer's colder and cloudier days until August gave me very wimpy peppers. In other words, more sun will give you a hotter pepper. So if you're growing them yourself you can gage about how spicy your peppers will be; if you're buying them from the store, they can be spicy as hell or as mild as a bell pepper. Another trick is if the stem is naturally curved, it's a spicy pepper; straight and it's mild. It's a bit of a wives's tale but it's actually accurate 90% of the time. Jalapenos are most often picked and eaten while still green, but will turn red when truly ripe. In my experience they are most spicy while still green so keep that in mind if you're looking for more heat factor than texture or color for your dish.

Jalapenos can be eaten in a variety of ways. You can slice them up raw and combine with tomatoes, onions, scallions, cilantro, salt and pepper for a fresh salsa or salsa fresca. You can remove the ribs and seeds of the jalapeno, stuff them with sharp cheddar or a milder jack cheese, close the pepper back up as if whole, bread them and deep fry them for the popular American bar food jalapeno poppers. You can chop them and add them to soups or stews for a spicy influence, or serve them sliced thinly on top of soups as they do in pho. They are a popular ingredients for guacamole to add a little heat and extra crunch for texture. You can even pickle them in a salt brine -- a popular condiment for sandwiches. For added flavor the jalapeno can be smoked and dried, and then added to adobo -- a seasoning blend -- and thus you have chipotle peppers for some serious flavor. Chipotles make an insanely good marinade for flank steaks and chicken.

Either way, some serious heat can be hidden in those seeds and ribs so take care while handling jalapenos. Here's a posting on proper handling, how to control the heat of the jalapeno by removing the seeds and ribs, and how to mince.

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