Eat & Drink

Are You Ready to Convert to the Church of Capsaicin?

The 'Chile Pepper Bible' will have you grabbing for holy water as you fan the flames in your mouth

Are You Ready to Convert to the Church of Capsaicin?

Science has proven that adventure seekers tend to gravitate toward spicy foods. Photo: Jeff Wasserman/Stocksy

Outside readers are a diverse bunch when it comes to food. (Just don’t get them started on high-fat versus high-carb diets.) But when it comes to lacing our food with capsaicin, the chemical compound that produces a burning sensation in the mouth, many of us can agree: if you’re not smacking the table and wiping sweat off your face after every bite, it’s not hot enough. Indeed, science has proven that adventure seekers tend to gravitate toward spicy foods.

If you’ve been confining your peppery love to dashes of hot sauce and Sriracha, you’ve been missing out. Judith Finlayson’s just-released Chile Pepper Bible ($28; Robert Rose Press) may convert you to a new cult. “Peppers are so much more than just heat,” says Finlayson. On a trip to Mexico in her 20s, she tasted mole for the first time and realized that these feisty plants could impart a range of flavors—from fruity to floral to earthy—depending on the varietal and how it was prepared.

A career food writer, Finlayson found herself looking for peppers wherever she traveled, from the Caribbean to Thailand. After 15 years of working them into other recipe books, she finally decided to devote an entire book to peppers. The result is 437 pages (plus the index!) of recipes (including desserts!), history, and profiles of different varieties.

Despite the temptation to zip to the recipe section and get to setting your face on fire, this book is best read from its beginning. The first chapters are devoted to the chile’s fascinating history, which starts in Central America. While we often think of chiles as integral to Southeast Asian or African cuisine, they didn’t exist in this part of the world until the 15th century. “They’re little world travelers,” says Finlayson about the fruits. Because chiles are so easy to grow, there are still types in the world that haven’t been discovered—and there are more varieties than ever sitting in produce aisles. Finlayson includes tasting notes for popular varieties like guajillo, pasilla, and habanero, plus suggestions for substitutions if you can’t find a type in your local market.

She swears she’s “not a chile head”—she’ll never bite into a raw Carolina Reaper (declared the hottest pepper in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records) just to annihilate her taste buds. For her, the joy of peppers is their nuance and what they add to a dish.

Still, knowing many of our readers are gluttons for punishment, we asked Finlayson for her hottest recipe. While none of the recipes in the book are built to bring complete suffering and regret, her Jamaican jerk chicken probably comes closest to the “pass the milk, please” mark.* The recipe calls for four Scotch bonnet chiles, which register from 150,000 to 350,000 Scoville heat units—a jalapeño, for comparison, measures between 3,500 and 10,000. Good luck.

Jamaican Jerk Chicken

Makes six to eight servings; gluten-free friendly.

Note from Finlayson: Pungent yet fruity, jerk marinade is a much-loved combination of flavors—beautifully hot with lovely sweet overtones from allspice, nutmeg, and cloves. This highly seasoned chicken, fresh from the grill, is one of my favorite summer dinners. This marinade is equally good with pork.

Ingredients

  • 6 green onions (white and green parts), coarsely chopped
  • 4 Scotch bonnet or habanero peppers, coarsely chopped
  • 4 sprigs fresh cilantro
  • 4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 tablespoon minced gingerroot
  • 1 tablespoon ground allspice*
  • 2 teaspoons each dried oregano and sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon each ground coriander, ground cloves, freshly grated nutmeg, and salt
  • 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (about 3 limes)
  • 2 tablespoons each soy sauce and olive oil
  • 4 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
  • Sea salt
  • Lime wedges

Preparation

  1. In food processor fitted with the metal blade, combine green onions, Scotch bonnet peppers, cilantro, garlic, thyme, gingerroot, allspice, oregano, paprika, coriander, cloves, nutmeg, and salt. Pulse until finely chopped, about 12 times, scraping down side of bowl as necessary. Add lime juice, soy sauce, and oil, and process until incorporated.
  2. Place one layer of chicken in a large nonreactive bowl or dish, and cover with some of the marinade, rubbing it into the skin. Repeat layering with chicken and marinade, and pour any remaining marinade over top when completed. Cover and refrigerate at least four hours or up to overnight.
  3. When you are ready to cook, preheat barbecue to high. Place chicken on preheated barbecue and grill, turning once, until instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh registers 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Season to taste with sea salt. Serve immediately with lime wedges.

*Tips

  • I like to freshly grind whole spices for this marinade. To make the amounts you need in the ingredient list, combine 5 teaspoons whole allspice berries, 2 teaspoons coriander seeds, 1 1/2 teaspoons whole cloves. and 1/2 whole nutmeg in a clean spice grinder. Grind until powdered, and add to marinade as directed.
  • If the weather doesn’t permit barbecuing, you can bake the marinated chicken. Place it in a large glass baking dish in a single layer; roast, uncovered, in a preheated 375 degrees Fahrenheit oven until juices run clear when chicken is pierced and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh registers 165 degrees Fahrenheit, about 35 minutes.
  • Four Scotch bonnet peppers may seem like a lot for people who aren’t heat seekers, but bear in mind that you do not actually consume the marinade. I find this quantity just right, but if you are timid about heat, feel free to reduce the number to three.
  • Finlayson confirms that milk or cheese are the best palate soothers for spicy foods. “Capsaicin binds with the nerve receptors on the tongue; that’s what causes our brains to register pain,” she says. But capsaicin dissolves in oil and fat, so whole-milk dairy will mitigate your misery.

Courtesy of The Chile Pepper Bible by Judith Finlayson © 2016 www.robertrose.ca. Reprinted with publisher permission. Available where books are sold.

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