There are times during the year when your senses get the best of you: the sight of the first snow, the sound of coyotes while camping or the taste of fruit picked right from the tree.
On a recent morning, as I woke from my morning slumber on the south side of Durango, I could smell roasting green chiles. The kids don’t like it. But for me, and I’ve said this before, if you could bottle that aroma – rich with fire, a hint of sweet and traces of vinegar – I would be smitten. I would spray it into the air during the spring when the freezer has run out of quart bags of Capsicum annuum.
I just got done peeling the first two bushels of roasted green chiles – “Big Jims” from Hatch County, N.M., a location that has become the epicenter of green chile production (and marketing). I will most likely get two more bushels, one from Sutherland Farms in Aztec and perhaps try to find some from the Pueblo area of Colorado (another burgeoning hot spot for production, pardon the pun).
I’m not a green chile fanatic, like my father, who likes them hotter than Hades. I enjoy the burn, but I really don’t enjoy pain. I don’t ever see myself eating any of the hotter peppers, like habaneros, Scotch Bonnet or the ridiculously hot Trinidad Scorpion (really, I will probably never eat any food with the word “scorpion” attached to it).
These are always toward the top of the Scoville scale for a pepper’s heat, whereas the green chile tends to be closer to the bottom. For comparison, the Big Jim typically runs around 2,500 heat units but can reach 6,000; other green chile varieties can climb up and over 10,000 heat units. The ever-popular jalapeno can be upward of 8,000. But then, it just gets silly how hot peppers can be: habanero peppers can range from 150,000 to 577,000 heat units; the ghost pepper (again with the scary naming of plants!) up over 1,000,000; and the current reigning, ridiculously hot pepper, the Trinidad Scorpion, has set the record with a Scoville rating of 1,463,700 heat units.
Since peppers are relatively easy to breed and cross-pollinate, we are always seeing new varieties in the markets. With their origins in South America, chile peppers most likely made their way to other parts of the Western Hemisphere 15,000 years ago, with their primary uses being medicinal.
What makes peppers unique, and incredibly varied in their pungency or heat, is their capsaicinoids, a chemical compound that produces that burning sensation when it comes in contact with mammalian tissue (remember, these same compounds are used for pain relief, pest deterrents and even riot control). Capsaicin is found in yellow-colored sacs called vesicles, which are attached to the placenta of the fruit where the majority of the seeds are found. The vesicles can also be found in the thick veins that run the length of a fruit.
So if you want to know how hot a pepper is, cut it open and inspect those parts – the yellower the veins, the hotter the fruit.
I think my dad’s favorite color is yellow.
Darrin Parmenter is the director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 382-6464. Darrin Parmenter