Thursday, 8 October 2009

A beginners guide to chillies

Chillies are at the heart of Mexican cuisine and over a hundred vareties grow in Mexico, eaching having it's own distinctive colour, taste and of course, heat. With regards to spelling, chilli pepper, chilli, chillie, chili, and chile are all acceptable although the latter is the Spanish word so arguably, the most 'authentic'.
Unless you buy chillies from a specialist stockist, it's hard to know exactly what variety you are buying from the supermarket. While habaneros are becoming more readily available, if you want other fresh chillies typical of Mexican cuisine, you will have to order them online.


So what type of chillies can you find at the supermarket? There are two main types:
- small, thin chillies which are extrememly hot and used in Asian cuisine.
- slightly larger chillies, usually imported from Kenyan - these are a little less hot but can vary wildly (as experience has taught me)
The latter are more suited to Mexican dishes and you can always introduce some of the hotter variety for that extra kick. The hottest part are the seeds and vein so be careful when preparing them for cooking and wash you hands well after wards. To keep them as fresh as possible, remove the stems and place in a paper bag inside a plastic bag in the fridge where they will keep for about 2 weeks.

Many Mexican dishes use dried chillies (such as ancho, guajillo, cascabel, pasilla) and there are several stockists in the UK where you can buy these. Stored in a cool place, they will keep for a long time and make a great storecupboard standby. One increasingly common chilli sold in this form is the chipotle, a smoked and dried jalapeño. This can also be bought as  powder or en adobo (in a sauce in a can), which is another great base for many dishes.

Some guajillo chilles

Here are a few of my favourite chillies that you find in Mexican cooking:
Ancho - a dried poblano chilli, dark brown with a red hue, often sold as a powder. Scoville rating of 1,000-2,000. 
Chipotle - the trendiest of the chillies currently available (see above), often has a little more kick than a fresh jalapeño.
Guajillo - a larger and milder chilli, which makes a rich, flavourful red sauce. Between 2,500 and 5,000 on the Scoville scale. 
Jalapeño- the most famous of Mexican chillies, a jalapeño measures 2,500 - 10,000 Scoville units (the habanero measures between 80,00 to 150,000) 
Pasilla - a dried chliaca chilli which is little hotter than ancho and often comes in a powder. 
Poblano - a larger chilli, suitable for stuffing or roasted and peeled before cooking. Has a mellow flavour and similar heat rating to ancho.
Serrano - hotter and smaller than a jalapeño, these chaps often come pickled (en escabeche).

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