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Published October 14, 2011, 12:00 AM

Prairie Fare: Spice up your menus with hot chili peppers

“I think the chili peppers burned the skin off my lips,” I mumbled after I finished my enchilada. With skinless lips, it’s hard to say b’s and p’s. OK, I’m exaggerating a little. We were dining in an authentic Mexican restaurant in New Mexico. My entree was a little spicier than the foods we are served in the Midwest.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

“I think the chili peppers burned the skin off my lips,” I mumbled after I finished my enchilada. With skinless lips, it’s hard to say b’s and p’s.

OK, I’m exaggerating a little. We were dining in an authentic Mexican restaurant in New Mexico. My entree was a little spicier than the foods we are served in the Midwest.

When we returned to our hotel, the door attendant asked us how we enjoyed the restaurant he had recommended. Our dinner was delicious, but my mouth still was on fire.

He shook his head and said, “Oh, I should have told you to order the peppers on the side. They’re pretty hot!”

Even though we had ordered the mild green chilies, they were spicy to us Midwesterners. I’m not sure I would have survived the red peppers. We ate many chili peppers that week, and we became more accustomed to New Mexico’s trademark hot vegetable.

Capsaicin is the name of the chemical substance that gives the “heat” to peppers. Capsaicin produces a burning sensation when it comes into contact with mucous membranes.

I should have ordered some milk to go with my red-hot dinner. Milk or other dairy products help neutralize the capsaicin in peppers.

Why are peppers so hot? According to the Chili Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, peppers evolved their heat to protect themselves from being eaten by mammals.

Interestingly, we mammals can’t seem to get enough peppers now.

Birds, on the other hand, are not affected by hot peppers. In fact, the seeds pass through their digestive tracts intact, so that’s how peppers are disseminated in nature.

Peppers can vary in from yellow to green and red to purple. They are excellent sources of vitamin C. The relative heat of peppers is measured in Scoville units.

More than 100 years ago, Wilbur Scoville developed a test to rate the heat of peppers. He extracted the capsaicin with alcohol and added it to sweetened water. He then had taste testers rate the relative hotness of various peppers.

A bell pepper has a rating of zero, while a jalapeno pepper’s rating is 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU). The rating of serrano peppers ranges from 5,000 to 15,000 SHU, and a cayenne pepper’s heat rating ranges from 30,000 to 50,000 SHU. If you encounter a habanero, be careful. The rating for habanero peppers ranges from 100,000 to 300,000 SHU.

People love peppers, especially in salsa and other Mexican foods. Peppers add kick to a menu and, with all the varieties of peppers available, you can decide on the level of the “flames” to add to your dish.

When you are handling hot peppers, be cautious. Most experts recommend wearing plastic gloves when preparing hot peppers. Be especially careful not to rub your eyes after handling peppers.

Peppers can be stored in a home refrigerator for about a week at 40 degrees.

Rinse them thoroughly under clean, cool water just prior to using them. You easily can freeze or dehydrate peppers. If you plan to pickle peppers or can salsa, be sure to use current research-tested food preservation guidelines found at www.ag.ndsu.edu/food.

For many people, fall means hunting season. This spicy chili recipe can include game meat or ground beef and a couple of kinds of peppers.


Hunter’s Chili

1½ pounds of lean ground beef or venison

1 large onion, chopped

2 hot peppers, chopped

1 bell pepper, chopped

1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes

1 6-ounce can tomato paste

1 cup water

2 cans of kidney beans

½ tsp. garlic

2 tsp. salt

2 tsp. Italian seasoning

2 tsp. chili powder

1 bay leaf

Brown the meat. Chop onion and peppers and saute with meat. Skim fat from meat.

Add all the ingredients to a large pot. Simmer for at least two hours. This recipe also could be prepared in a slow cooker set on low for about eight hours.

Remove bay leaf before serving.

Makes 10 servings. Each serving has 280 calories, 8 grams (g) of fat, 28 g of protein, 23 g of carbohydrate, 7 g of fiber and 850 milligrams of sodium.


Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.

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