Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Habaneros Without The Heat

Datil Sweets

The habanero is a chile that is guaranteed to be hot …right? Certainly every habanero that I’ve ever purchased has been hot. Macho hot! I don’t go for macho… On a perceived hotness scale of 0 to 10, 0 being totally sweet and 10 being off the chart hot, I max out at about 6 – that’s just toleration, not enjoyment. Habaneros hit the chart at 9 or 10.

A home gardener will easily find generic habanero seeds and plants. But, if you look a little further you can find named varieties, most of them notable for either unique colors or extreme hotness. Just what is the point of hotter than hot anyway? Must be that macho thing – bragging rights - whatever. So, why am I even discussing this cruel capsicum? It’s obviously not the heat that piques my interest, rather, it’s their unique flavor. It has been described as being fruity, floral and smoky, among other things. But I’ve never been able to get past the heat to experience the flavor. How can you concentrate on flavor when your mouth feels like an inferno and you’re gasping for breath and your brow is dripping with sweat and you can hardly get that glass of beer to your mouth without dribbling it down your front?* What can a semi-wimpy chile aficionado do?

I finally learned that habaneros have taste-alike siblings (some of them look-alike) that don’t lay waste to your taste buds. The range of heat in chinense chiles (the species of chiles that includes habaneros and their siblings) starts at almost non-detectable and climbs the hotness scale to the habanero heights. Yippee! Here was my chance to experience that elusive flavor. But, it took quite a bit more searching before I found sources for seeds and plants.

Cross Country Nurseries offers a number of mild chinense chile plants which I ordered from their website. The plants got to me in great condition and they all thrived in my garden. Actually, most of them survived the winter and went on to produce for a second season. The next winter we had a hard freeze and the plants finally hit the compost pile. Unfortunately, I didn’t bother to do any proper seed saving. This year I placed another order with Cross Country for a more limited selection of plants including Datil Sweet, one of my favorite chinense varieties from the previous seasons. The chiles this year had only a trace of heat in the placenta and none in the flesh. Oh, and they did taste marvelous.

Chile plants tend to get off to a slow start in my garden because my location only 10 miles inland from the cold Pacific produces nighttime fog and cool evening temperatures well into the summer. Daytime temps are generally delightful until late in the year. And since we don't generally get frost until December I usually pick chiles well into November. I picked the bulk of the Datil Sweets and Rocotos after Thanksgiving and even now there are still some hanging on the plants.

So, here’s a roundup of the chinense chiles that I grew in ’05-’06. They all came from CCN except for the Cachucha which I grew from seed purchased from Peppermania (and not carried by them at the moment).

Aji Brown
Aji Dulce 1
Aji Dulce 2
Aji Dulce - Cachucha
Aji Panca
Datil Sweet
Grenada Seasoning
Puerto Rican No Burn
St. Lucia Red Seasoning
St. Lucia Yellow Seasoning
Trinidad Perfume
Trinidad Seasoning

This year I want to try a few more chinense varieties, including some spicier ones.

Tobago Sweet Scotch Bonnet
Tobago Seasoning
Cheiro Recife
Numex Suave Orange and Red
Bido Tacana
Venezuelan Sweet Habanero
Belize Sweet Habanero
Red Globe

One of my favorite things to make with mild chinense chiles is Pepper Jam. It is a favorite accompaniment to cheese of many kinds. The latest batch was made with mostly Datil Sweets and a cup of Red Rocoto chiles for spice.

Pepper Jam

5 ½ cups chopped peppers, with or without seeds (about 2 lb)
1 box low sugar pectin (Sure-Jell)
3 ½ cups sugar
½ cup lemon juice
½ cup 5% acidity vinegar (apple cider is good)
½ cup water

Mix pectin with ½ cup of sugar. Put fruit and liquids in blender and blend until liquid or leave chunky if desired. Cook fruit until boiling. Mix in pectin mixture and return to a rolling boil. Add sugar until all mixed in and bring to a rolling boil and boil for one minute. Remove from heat. Ladle into clean jars and top with boiled lids and rings. Process for 10 minutes in boiling water bath.

Makes about 6 cups jam.

Red & Yellow Rocotos

*Beer is my favorite fire extinguisher. Other chile wimps that I know swear by milk or something sweet like maple syrup or hard candies. Keep away from water though – capsaicin is water soluble and a mouthful of water will just spread the hot stuff further around your mouth.

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