Chicken stock provides an underlying flavor in the vegetable-laden Huevos Rancheros. (Andy Morrison / Newscom)
Let’s get the most important part out of the way first.
If you are cutting jalapeno peppers or any other hot peppers, either use plastic or latex gloves (no one I know actually does this) or be sure to wash your hands thoroughly and carefully the moment you are through touching them.
Even if it means washing them several times during the course of making a single dish, wash them.
Even if it means you don’t feel any heat on your fingertips, wash them.
And by all means — by all means — wash them before you are even tempted to touch your face or before nature calls. Let’s just say I know whereof I speak.
It has been more than 25 years, and the memory is still painful. Though not nearly as painful as the event itself.
That said, it is the very thing that makes peppers so terribly uncomfortable on the tender parts of your body that makes them so attractive to many people. All peppers have a distinct flavor, but what drives many people to eat them is their heat.
Jalapenos run anywhere from 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville Heat Units — the scale commonly used to determine pepper heat — as opposed to other peppers that can go up to millions (see box).
Which is why I decided to concentrate on jalapenos. I like heat as much as the next fellow, but there is no need to go crazy about it.
According to Lee Richter, program assistant in urban agriculture for the Ohio State University Extension, Lucas County, “there is no way of telling (how hot a pepper is) by looking. You really have to cut it open.”
So I always sample a thin slice or a minced morsel of any pepper I cook with, especially the highly variable jalapenos, to know just how much heat I am working with. I then adjust the recipe accordingly.
Take gazpacho. This Spanish classic is always served chilled, so it cools you down, but you can also add a little bit of heat to it by way of peppers. How hot you decide to make it — as is always the case with recipes, including peppers — is entirely in your hands.
I usually make my gazpacho in a traditional way (tomatoes, cucumber, garlic, green pepper, jalapeno, olive oil, vinegar and maybe a little bread to thicken it), but then I came upon a new recipe in Bon Appetit I simply had to try. This one also includes a peach and some cherries. Not only do they bring a delicious note of sweetness to play with the heat from the jalapeno, their fruitiness also adds a delightful new dimension to the soup.
Perhaps my favorite Tex-Mex dish is Huevos Rancheros, but I have always cheated by using salsa out of a jar when making it in the past. I wanted to make a real ranchero sauce, the sort that was served to the crew on Mexican ranches.
It took a lot of chopping, plenty of red and green peppers, and rather less tomato than I would have guessed. But it is worth the effort, because this sauce is cooked in several different stages, allowing the flavors to build, to ripen and to mature. I may never open another jar again.
In some circles, I am renowned for my Pico de Gallo. This is the simplest and freshest-tasting of salsas, and you’ll know how good it is by how quickly it disappears when you serve it to friends. It goes even faster at a beach.
Although it can be served in tacos or fajitas or alongside grilled fish, it probably goes best with tortilla chips. That is certainly the easiest way to gobble them up, and the famously bright flavor does not have to compete with (or enhance) any other tastes.
To make Pico de Gallo, all you have to do is chop up tomatoes, onions (I like red onions, but sweet onions will also work), jalapeno, cilantro and a hint of garlic, and stir it all together with salt and a few squeezes of lime. You can serve it immediately or allow the flavors to blend for a time; it comes out great either way.
A typical salsa is similar to Pico de Gallo, but smoother (pico is always chopped and a little bit chunky). But I wanted a salsa that is better-than-typical, so I turned to a colleague, Olivia Herrera, who is one of the best cooks I know. When she makes salsa, she said, she roasts everything first on her stove-top griddle. Cooking the vegetables until they soften and their skins start to blister imparts entire new worlds of depth to the taste.
Best of all are the three different kinds of peppers that are used, each with a distinct flavor. They blend together with unsuspected harmony, especially after becoming more mellow through roasting, and provide a rich warmth and a robust, roundly piquant taste to the sauce.
After making several familiar dishes, I wanted to try something out of the ordinary. And that is how I came upon an intriguing recipe for Avocado-Lime Sauce Vierge, which is essentially a spicy guacamole that has been turned into a sauce.
Simply mash an avocado together with olive oil, jalapeno, minced garlic and minced shallot, and squeeze in a good amount of lime juice. Not only is this sauce a gorgeous shade of green (for extra oomph, add chopped fresh basil and cilantro just before serving), but it makes an unbeatable accompaniment to everything from roast or grilled chicken to scrambled eggs. And because the flavor of lime is so prominent, it goes perfectly on top of grilled fish.
And really: Wash your hands.
How hot is too hot?
Determining heat level is where the Scoville Scale comes in handy.
In order to determine how hot a pepper is, scientists dilute a predetermined amount of the capsaicin oil (that’s what creates the heat) in a sugar-water solution. They then have a number of testers taste the solution as it is increasingly diluted until they can no longer detect any heat.
A regular bell pepper, with no heat at all, scores a zero on the Scoville Scale. Jalapenos run anywhere from 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville Heat Units, meaning the capsaicin has to be diluted between 2,500 and 8,000 times before you cannot feel it anymore. Habaneros score between 100,000 and 350,000 on the scale, while the hottest pepper ever recorded, a Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, has hit more than 2 million on the scale.
From Olivia Herrera
1 serrano pepper
2 Anaheim peppers
1 jalapeno pepper
6-10 tomatoes (see cook’s note)
3 garlic cloves, unpeeled
½ large onion, sliced in rings (leave rings together)
Fresh cilantro, optional
Cook’s note: Roma tomatoes are less watery than most other types. You might want to use a combination of Roma and larger tomatoes.
In a large skillet or skillets over medium heat, roast the peppers, tomatoes, garlic and onions (you may wish to do this in batches). To roast, cook them, turning frequently, until they soften and the skin starts to blister all over. When cool enough to touch, peel the skins. If desired, remove some or all of the seeds from the peppers — the seeds are the hottest part.
Place the peppers, tomatoes and garlic in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth or your desired texture. Pour into a large bowl. Chop the roasted onions and add, along with the optional cilantro. Season to taste with salt.
Yield: About 2 quarts or 32 servings.
Per serving (per ¼ cup): 12 calories; 0 g fat (0 g saturated fat; 0 percent calories from fat); 3 g carbohydrates; 0 mg cholesterol; 77 mg sodium; 0.5 g protein; 1 g fiber.
Avocado-Lime Sauce Vierge
From Bon Appetit
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ medium avocado, pitted, diced
1 jalapeno, seeded, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 teaspoon finely chopped shallot
1 lime, halved
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Combine oil, avocado, jalapeno, garlic and shallot in a medium bowl. Squeeze lime into avocado mixture. Using a spoon, scrape pulp out of lime into mixture. Stir to combine. (Sauce may be made 4 days ahead. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto surface of sauce. Cover and chill. Bring sauce to room temperature before continuing.)
Stir basil and cilantro into sauce just before serving. Season with salt and pepper.
Yield: 1 ½ cups or 12 servings.
Per serving (per 2 tablespoons): 95 calories; 10 g fat (1 g saturated fat; 95 percent calories from fat); 1 g carbohydrates; 0 mg cholesterol; 50 mg sodium; 0.2 g protein; 1 g fiber.
Chilled Tomato and Stone-Fruit Soup
From Bon Appetit
2 pounds beefsteak tomatoes (about 4), quartered
1 large English cucumber, peeled, seeded, cut into pieces
1 large ripe peach, peeled, halved
½ jalapeno, or to taste, seeded and chopped
½ garlic clove
1 cup fresh (or frozen, thawed) cherries, about 8 ounces, pitted
2 tablespoons white balsamic or sherry vinegar
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, plus more
Pulse tomatoes in a blender until finely chopped and transfer to a large bowl. Pulse cucumber, peach, jalapeno, garlic and cherries in a blender until finely chopped and add to bowl with tomatoes. Mix in vinegar, ¼ cup oil, 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt and 1 cup cold water; season with pepper. Cover and let sit at room temperature 1 hour or chill at least 12 hours.
Season soup with kosher salt, pepper and more oil and vinegar, if desired. Serve soup drizzled with oil and seasoned with flaky sea salt and pepper.
Yield: 6 servings.
Per serving: 164 calories; 10 g fat (1 g saturated fat; 55 percent calories from fat); 20 g carbohydrates; 0 mg cholesterol; 535 mg sodium; 2 g protein; 3 g fiber.
From Emeril Lagasse, via Food Network
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup chopped white onions
½ cup chopped red bell pepper
½ cup chopped green bell pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon minced jalapeno, or to taste
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 cup chopped tomatoes and their juice
1 cup chicken stock
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
4 large corn tortillas
8 large eggs
½cup warm refried beans
In a medium pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and bell peppers, and cook, stirring, for 3-5 minutes. Add the cumin, salt, cayenne, jalapeno and garlic, and cook, stirring for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and their juice and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the stock and simmer until thickened, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the cilantro. Adjust the seasoning to taste, and cover to keep warm.
Heat tortillas one at a time in a dry skillet over medium heat until soft and warm, 1-2 minutes, flipping several times. Keep prepared tortillas warm while heating the others. When done, lightly fry the eggs.
Place 1 warm tortilla on each of 4 plates and spread each with 2 tablespoons of warm refried beans. Place 2 eggs on top of each tortilla and top with the warm Ranchero Sauce. Serve immediately.
Yield: 4 servings.
Per serving: 349 calories; 16 g fat (4 g saturated fat; 41 percent calories from fat); 35 g carbohydrates; 426 mg cholesterol; 670 mg sodium; 19 g protein; 6 g fiber.
Pico de Gallo
2 large tomatoes
1 cup red or sweet onion, chopped
½ jalapeno, or to taste
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
2-3 wedges lime, squeezed
Salt to taste
Mix together all ingredients. Makes 4 servings.
Per serving: 42 calories; 0.5 g fat (0 g saturated fat; 11 percent calories from fat); 9 g carbohydrates; 0 mg cholesterol; 82 mg sodium; 2 g protein; 2 g fiber.