Hot chilies are members of the nightshade family, along with all other sweet peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant.
The chemical that makes chilies "hot" is capsaicin; it is mostly found in the seeds and pale veins along the insides of the chili. "Hot" is not a taste the way salty or bitter are. Tastes are detected with the taste buds only, while capsaicin is an irritant that affects any part of the skin and especially mucous membranes. Sugar isn't sweet if it gets in your eye, but capsaicin is still hot as many of us know from unfortunate experience of touching an eye with a finger used to handle chili peppers while chopping.
In traditional Mexican cooking, the type of chili called for in a recipe is specific. A sauce originating in one village might contain three ancho chilies and two pasilla chilies, while a similar sauce from another region might insist on one large mulato chili and two chilies negro. Cookbooks offer substitutes -- if you can't find this, use that one instead.
To confuse the issue further, one chili might have a different name in different parts of Mexico, and the same name might be used for different chilies in different locales as well.
Is it that important? Really, other than heat level, is one dried chili that different from another once it is ground or pureed into a sauce?
Only one way to find out.
We tasted seven mild to medium-hot dried chilies easily available. We stemmed and seeded the pods and removed as much of the interior veins as possible, then soaked seven grams of the chili pieces in a half cup of hot water for one hour, then pureed them with 1/4 teaspoon salt.
After tasting them this way, we made a simple batch of enchilada sauce with browned flour and oil, chicken stock, cinnamon, honey, lemon juice and cocoa, and combined sauce with the chili purees, each in equal parts.
GARLIC AND PASILLA CHILI SOUP
3 large dried pasilla chilies
1 quart hot water
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 head garlic, cloves peeled and coarsely chopped
1 large tomato, cut into 1-inch dice
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican
Pinch of salt
1 cup country bread or baguette in 1/2-inch dice
1/4 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
1 Hass avocado, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/4 cup cilantro leaves
In a large bowl, cover the chilies with the hot water; set a small plate over the chilies to keep them submerged. Let soak until softened, about 20 minutes. Strain and reserve the soaking liquid. Stem, seed and coarsely chop the chilies.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a large saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the onion and garlic and cook over moderate heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the chopped chilies and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the tomato, oregano, a pinch of salt and the strained-chili soaking liquid and bring to a boil. Cover the soup and simmer gently over low heat for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a cake pan, toss the diced baguette with the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil and spread in an even layer. Bake until golden brown, about 8 minutes.
Working in batches, puree the soup in a blender (or use an immersion blender). Return the soup to the saucepan, bring to a simmer and season with salt. Ladle the soup into bowls. Top with the creme fraiche, avocado, cilantro leaves and croutons and serve.
-- "Food and Wine," by Jean-Claude Szurdak
BOBBY FLAY'S ANCHO CHILI SAUCE
3 ancho chili pods
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 large red onion, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 cups plum tomatoes, and their juices
3 roasted red peppers, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1-1/2 tablespoons honey
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Put the ancho pods in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let sit for 30 minutes, then remove the stems and seeds and coarsely chop. Reserve the soaking liquid.
Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Add the onions and cook until soft. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, peppers and ancho chilies and cook until the tomatoes soften and break down and the liquid thickens, 20 to 30 minutes.
Let cool and carefully transfer the mixture to a food processor and process until smooth. Add the vinegar, honey, salt, pepper, to taste, add cilantro and pulse a few times just to combine. Transfer to a covered container and refrigerate until ready to use.
-- Food Network
CHILIED PEANUTS AND PUMPKIN SEEDS
Makes 3 cups
2 cups roasted peanuts (preferably without salt)
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons ancho (or guajillo) chili powder (available at Hispanic markets), plus a little arbol chili powder if you like it spicy
1 cup hulled pumpkin (pepita) seeds
Turn on the oven to 250 degrees and position a rack in the middle. In a medium bowl, toss the peanuts with the lime juice until all have been moistened. Sprinkle evenly with chili, then toss until the chili evenly coats the nuts. Spread the nuts into a shallow layer on a baking sheet. Slide into the oven and bake 20 to 30 minutes, until the chili has formed a light crust on the nuts. Remove from the oven and sprinkle generously with salt, usually about 1 teaspoon.
In a large skillet over medium heat, toast the pumpkin seeds: spread the seeds into the skillet and, when the first one pops, stir constantly until all have popped from flat to round, about 5 minutes. Scoop on top of the peanuts, toss the two together, then scoop the mixture into a serving bowl.
-- Rick Bayless
(Food Network is part of Scripps Networks Interactive, which shares common ownership with The E.W. Scripps Co., the parent company of Scripps Howard News Service.)
(Aimee Blume wrote this for The Evansville Courier & Press in Indiana.)