Let’s talk chile peppers.
When I first moved to Arizona, I knew that I had a lot to learn about chiles: my knowledge base consisted of reaching for the shake jar of red flake chile pepper and applying it liberally to my pizza slices.
I needed to learn all about chiles — identification, preparation flavor profiles… I needed a crash course in chile peppers. At least that’s what they told me at the DMV when I went tried to apply for an Arizona license. Just kidding — that only happens in New Mexico.
Seriously, though, I went on a mission to find any information that I could about the ubiquitous chile — may I share what learned with you? Fabulous!
First thing first: the term ‘chile’ refers to chile peppers, while the term ‘chili’ refers to the meaty, beany goodness that you eat out of a bread bowl on Super Bowl Sunday. While this is not a hard and fast rule, I have found that it is consistently applied by those who work regularly with chile peppers. At least you will know what I mean, as this is the terminology to which I adhere — we’re not talking about chili today.
Second, and probably most important, is that chiles are not solely and uniformly a vehicle for heat. While chile peppers do convey varied amounts of heat, each type of chile pepper is a unique fruit with it’s own flavor and heat profile. In addition, there are things that you can do to a chile to reduce the amount of heat it conveys and draw out it’s unique flavor. Details of these techniques follow below.
Chiles can also be used fresh or dried. For this risotto recipe, I used fresh chiles exclusively, and I limited my usage to four types of chile peppers that are more commonly found throughout the United States — we can’t spend all day talking about chiles, people! So this risotto recipe calls for poblano chiles, Anaheim chiles, jalapeÃ±o chiles and serrano chiles.
Here’s another fun fact for you: chile heat can loosely be judged by the size of the fruit. For example, the deep, dark emerald green poblanos that you see pictured here are some of the mildest chiles that you can get your hands on, while those teeny little serranos are wicked, wicked hot.
Did you also know that the majority of the heat of a chile pepper is contained in the seeds and membranes of the fruit? I will often remove those parts of the chile entirely, as I did for this recipe, allowing me to channel the flavor of the chile without blowing the top of my head off from the heat.
Preparing fresh chiles is actually quite simple, but will require a few basic tools, several minutes of your time and some concentration so that, again, no head tops are blown off or eyes are left watering from chile smoke. Here’s how it works:
Gather up your chiles, a pair of metal tongs, a large Ziploc plastic bag and a sharp knife. You may also want to use gloves and, depending on the chiles you are working with, goggles.
Using the metal tongs, grasp your first chile firmly at the stem end. You are going to be charring it over an open flame so it should be noted that, if you do not own an open-flamed stovetop, you can also place your chiles on a baking sheet and broil them. The problem with this method is that you don’t have nearly as much control as you do if you char the chiles by hand and you need to keep opening the door of your oven to turn the chiles. It is doable though, and you should select the method that works best for you.
Continuing with the stovetop method, hold the chile over the flame, rotating it after several seconds on each side. The chile will snap, crackle and pop as it blisters and chars — this is totally normal. You want the chile to blacken as completely as possible.
Once your chile is as black and blistered as possible, remove it to the plastic Ziploc bag. Be careful, though: if using your tongs to transfer the chile, make sure the tongs don’t touch the bag. Many a pair of tongs have been ruined in my house by glued-on, melted plastic bags.
Placing the chile in the bag allows it to sweat and the skin to loosen. All of this charring and sweating is simply an exercise in peeling off the skin. After five to ten minutes have passed and you remove the chile to a cutting board, you will see that the previously tough and waxy skin of the chile has now loosened so much that you should be able to peel it off by hand, or use a knife to lightly scrape it away.
Once you’ve peeled away the skin, you can remove the top and bottom point of the chile, using your sharp knife to then make a vertical slice down the body of chile. Spread the chile open and scrape out the seeds and any obvious membrane. At this point, all you are left with is delicious chile flesh, and you will want to slice the flesh vertically into thin strips, which are referred to as rajas.
Now it’s your turn to go nuts with creativity: these rajas can be used in anything from burritos to casseroles to, as seen here, rice dishes. If you really want to kick the flavor up, you can put the rajas back on the grill and double-roast them. Silly, silly goodness.
So now you’ve earned your fresh chile badge, and following is a recipe for some risotto that will allow you to take your new skills for a test drive. Feel free to substitute the chiles of your choosing in this recipe — you’re the expert. And, hey, that badge looks good on you!
Chile Cheese Risotto
- 1 ½ c. Arborio rice
- 3 ½ c. vegetable stock
- 1 c. Fontina cheese, grated
- 1 poblano chile
- 1 Anaheim chile
- 1 jalapeÃ±o chile
- 1 serrano chile
- 1 c. red onion, diced
- 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
- 1 tsp. white pepper, ground
- 1 tsp. cumin, ground
In a large stock pot, sauté the onion in the oil over medium heat for approximately 5 minutes. Once the onions have become translucent and fragrant, add 1 cup of stock and the rice, stirring often until the stock has been completely absorbed by the rice.
Continue adding the stock ½ cup at a time, stirring often and only adding additional stock when the rice has absorbed the stock already in the pot. This entire process will take approximately 35-40 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the onion and chiles as described above. I recommend roughly chopping your rajas for this dish: smaller pieces of chile, rather than long slivers, work better in a dish that will ultimately be eaten with a fork.
Once all of the stock has been added and the rice mixture has become thick and uniform, stir in the spices, cheese, and chile and onion pieces. Serve immediately.
YIELD: 4-5 cups of rice