Friday, January 15, 2010

Pepper Perdition: 5 Mistakes I Made so You Don’t Have To

I love peppers. They come in such a variety of flavor… but they also bring a variety of problems when you are preparing them for cooking.

Mind you, most of my pepper prep repository has come from screwing things up. (Though, Food Network and the Husband-of-Awesome has helped to prevent or at least warned me about pepper mistakes.) While mistake may be the best teacher, she’s a friggen bitch, let me tell you!

So, here are some things I’ve learned that may help you avoid some real, physical pain – or at least serve up some schadenfreude to temporarily entertain you.

5. TASTE. A lot in little portions.

Experimenting in flavor may seem counterintuitive to avoiding the pain of capsaicin (for those who don’t knew, capsaicin is the chemical that makes peppers burn). However, having a little bit (which means if someone says "It's REALLY HOT. Try a little on a toothpick," you listen) to get the flavor nuances down means you'll choose the right kind of pepper for the dish you want. (Because you do want to graduate beyond bell peppers, right?)

4. Small packages.

If you watch Food Network or even Mythbusters, you probably have heard that the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is. Yes, this is mostly true.

Addendum 1: They come in small packages for a reason. Use hot peppers sparingly in your cooking because they can get EVEN HOTTER when you cook them or let them sit. There are some exceptions, so rely on constantly tasting what you cook - and flavor accordingly.

Addendum 2: You can often counteract extra heat by adding a dairy-based fat, like cream or cheese or yogurt. Beer or any alcohol tones down the heat because capsaicin is alcohol soluble. You'd think starches, like potatoes or pozole or pasta or rice might work, but not nearly as good as you think/want.

3. Poblano Peppers are a Crapshoot!

This is highly specific, but I love the flavor of poblano peppers. However, I have had some almost as hot as habañeros and some as mild as bell peppers. And they are the worst offenders of the heat fluctuation in cooking. I made fajitas for Christy's family with poblanos that were too hot for most people (and I appreciate their kindness in still eating them). Then, not a few weeks later, I add poblanos to a white chicken chili (dairy free), and there was no spice or heat whatsoever. Be prepared to deal with unexpected Poblano consequences.

2. Protect yourself.

When preparing meals with anything hotter than a bell pepper, add the peppers as close to the last thing as possible. Even then, use a separate knife and cutting board, and WEAR GLOVES. The trick with the gloves is to KEEP THEM ON when you clean up after the pepper. Or, if you must prepare the peppers in the middle of meal preparation, change gloves and keep wearing them until you have cleaned up the entire mess. I tell you this having suffered COUNTLESS burning eyes, noses, and lips from NOT taking these simple preparations.

(Oh, and if it wasn't obvious - DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES BESIDES IMPENDING DEATH touch yours (or someone elses) face, ANYWHERE while wearing your pepper-juiced gloves.)

Now, for when you forget this or mess up - because, trust me you will - remember that capsaicin is alcohol soluble. Diluted rubbing alcohol on or around a burning nose or lip or open cut on your hand can relieve the burning. With eyes, you're kind of SOL because you really don't want to squirt even diluted alcohol into your eyes… so, use your natural defenses of tears and go lay down for a few. Also, in case your glove gets a nick or rips, washing your hands a few times in diluted rubbing alcohol (and then moisturizing like hell!) reduces the risk of having an eye or face burning accident as such.

1. Clean-up

Why is this number one? Because it's far too easy to forget and will end up causing one of the eye-face burning experiences on you or someone you love.

Separate your trash! Scrape all your pepper remnants and wipe them down with disposable towels, directly into the trash. Or, better yet, in a separate bag and then tie up the separate bag and chuck it. And, above all, do NOT clean your pepper implements into a sinkful of dishes. This will get the capsaicin/pepper juice over everything AND the heat from the hot water will carry the burn right up to your eyes and nose - and that of anyone who is kindly helping you with dishes (or is stuck with dishes as a chore, which makes for an awful surprise!).

Peppers are a great flavor to add to dishes, and they are full of vitamins. Also, capsaicin is good for the heart and circulation. However, make sure the experience is entirely enjoyable by taking a few simple precautions to avoid disappointment, pain, and potentially severe injury.



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