Cooking with Chilli

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 Burning with Desire – Virgil Evetts

 Despite being full of promise, and all that la-de da, spring is a tricky beast when it comes to dressing and eating- Over exuberant salads are still bone-chilling but a pot of pea soup feels like molten ships ballast. What to do?

 Break out the chilli, I say. The beauty of this fierce-bad fruit is its ability to give warmth without too much substance and to marry so beautifully with breezy tropical accents such as lime, pineapple, coriander and mint.

I’m a total freak for chillies. Being raised by a chef, I was exposed to their pleasures at a tender age, and now eat them in quantity [and intensity] all year round; but I think they’re particularly welcome during the cusp seasons of spring and autumn.

I do however appreciate that not everyone is a fan, and that to the polite of palate they can be downright painful. So I’ll go easy on you.

Firstly, a buyers guide to common chillies and then a recipe- Chilli con Carne, that suits the season; it’s as light on the heat as you want it to be, warming but not weighty and hopefully leaves you feeling sated.  

I can’t however offer you any useful advice in the spring clothing department.  I have very little sense of seasonal suitability of dress. I once wore jeans and a t-shirt on the Whakapapa chair-lift in July. It’s cold up there.

 Safety briefing. Know thine enemy…

It’s impossible to reliably list the heat of any chilli as this can vary from season to season or even between fruit on the same bush.

So using the Scoville scale [the official measure of chilli heat], and my own experience, I can give you a reasonable idea per common variety; but the only way to be sure is the taste test. Yup, stick that tongue out and stop being a big ol’ ‘fraidy cat. The alternative may be howling children and gastric violence in the smallest room. Seriously though, NEVER use chillies until you’ve worked out their individual heat. To lower the burn factor, remove the seeds and membrane. This is where the worst heat resides. Use milk, not water to sooth a chilli-singed mouth and toothpaste on seared lips.  After handling chillies, always wash your hands in hot, soapy water [the ‘heat’, a chemical called capciacin, is oil based] before you rub your eyes, nose or more importantly,  visit the toilet.  A friend of my mothers takes great and regular delight in reminding me, and any company, of the day I learned the latter. Suffice to say her gleeful retelling involves a shrill and only slightly exaggerated tarantella-esque dance.

 Fresh isn’t always best when it comes to chilli, but I do prefer it. The flavors are more pronounced and the heat is [usually] more manageable.  Dry chillies have their place too particularly in winter when fresh are pricey and hard to come by.  In New Zealand you’re only likely to find a few varieties of fresh chilli in shops or markets.  Most are forms of capsicum annum [which also includes sweet capsicums/peppers]. Many more can be found in seed catalogues if these don’t cut the mustard and now is the time to be planting…

 Common chillies

 Cayenne. [Capsicum annum]

The long, red, supermarket chilli and a good work-horse variety.  Moderately hot, with that pleasing blend of sweetness and acridity, they are just as good cooked, raw or dried. I use and grow more of these than any other chilli.  

Jalapeno [capsicum annum]

Fleshy with a blister-streaked skin, this is a great chilli for eating raw or pickled. Yes they’re hot, but not menacingly so and they have a distinctive grassy flavor. Great with cheese.

Banana or Hungarian. [Capsicum annum]

Large and usually [with the odd bowel purging exception] quite mild. Good fried in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt as anti-pasto.

Thai or birds-eye [Capsicum annum]

Very small and very hot. Good to add heat to dishes but tends to obliterate flavour. Tread carefully.

Less common ChilliesHabenero/Scotch bonnet. [Capsicum chinensis]

 Another species and another level of pain. This group have the distinction of including among their ranks, the worlds hottest chillies [in some cases thousands of times hotter than a cayenne], and even the tamest examples are frighteningly fierce. However, if you can handle the 3rd degree burns, they also deliver more flavour than any other chilli.  Members of this group have a complex and very more-ish, apricoty flavour and fragrance.  Way too hot for most but by far the most interesting chilli, taste-wise. I’m trialing a low-heat form in my garden this summer and am already fanaticizing about eating them sun- warmed and fresh off the bush.

 Rocotto/Perenial chilli/Gringo Killers. [Capsicum pubescens]

Large, fleshy and appallingly hot. These malevolent S.O.Bs belong to a different species again to any of the above and are best avoided by all but the chilli masochist. Most of the heat but none of the finesse of the previous.
 Now to apply your knowledge…

Chilli con Carne
That’s chilli and meat to us of the non parlo Espanola brigade.  This much abused dish has strayed from its perfectly respectable Tex/Mex roots into a pub-food standard that is often little more than baked beans and mince.  When made with a little care and respect it can be an economical, nourishing plateful of happiness. There’s lots of room for personal preference in this recipe.   Make it fiery hot or foppishly mild; it’s entirely up to you. The cocoa adds a truly Mexican dimension and extra depth of flavor, while the optional extra of smoked paprika imparts a distinctively southern-states feel.  I’ve fed this to fussy children and tame-tongued adults alike and have thus far received no complaints.



1 can tomatoes chopped

1 can kidneys beans, drained and rinsed [use dried beans if you can bothered. I can’t]

4-500 grams prime minced beef

1 onion, finely chopped

5+ cloves NZ garlic crushed

Fresh or dried chillies [preferably cayenne]

1-2 tablespoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon cocoa powder

2-3 tablespoons paprika

1- 2 teaspoons Smoked paprika [optional]

Lime or lemon juice

 Heat a heavy pan or wok over a moderate heat. Fry the onions in oil until translucent and lightly browned. Add the garlic and fry for a further minute or two. Raise the temperature and add the meat. Fry until browned and beefy-fragrant. Add the chilli to taste, add the cumin. Stir briefly and add the tomatoes and beans. Reduce heat to a low simmer and cook for 10-15 minutes until slightly  reduced. To prevent sticking add a little water if necessary.

Stir in cocoa and paprika, season and add citrus juice to taste.

Cook for a further 10 minutes, adjust seasoning and stir in smoked paprika if desired. Don’t add it earlier as the smoky flavour will be lost.

Serve with rice, and complete with fresh salsa [tomatoes, pineapple, guacamole etc], sour cream and a sprinkle of fresh coriander leaves. Soft tortilla fried in oil until crispy goes very nicely here too.

 Obviously there are millions of other ways with chilli, but this is reliable crowd pleaser with plenty of chilli flavour – thanks to the paprika,  and as much or as little heat as you can endure.

Finally, it seems like everyone has a chilli horror story [see my bathroom mishap above]. Care to share? Go on, consider it therapy!

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5 thoughts on “Cooking with Chilli

  1. I like to add a cinnamon stick to my ‘chilli con carne’; it imparts a warm spicey taste and pairs nicely with the heat of the chillies.

  2. Its a bit like anchovies or fish sauce. It adds a sort of back-bone flavour note. Sligtly bitter, slightly earthy. One of those things you notice more when its not there. You could push it up to about a tablspoon if you like but dont go overboard. It will eventually tastes like chocolate stew.

  3. Ah, a subject close to my heart!

    I love chile con carne, it’s one of those things that tastes even better the next day. I use smoked-dried chillies to add that ‘essence of bonfire’.

    I have woken up with a numb lip after I spent an evening chopping loads of jalapenos for pickling, then slept with my hand on my mouth. And the number of times I’ve popped a contact lens into my eye with chilli fingers…. All I can say is that you get used to the pain.

    I’ve put some chilli pics that I’m quite proud of, in my Chilli Gallery on my website. I hope it’s OK to put a link here (we’re not selling anything yet). If not, feel free to chop.