Over the past few weeks, I’ve taken an interest in a new vegetable sold at the farmers market: jalapeños. Don’t worry. I still eat a lot of tomatoes. But now I complement those tomatoes with something spicy.
For nearly my entire life I assumed I was incapable of eating spicy peppers. I always had to buy mild salsa because even what they call “medium” was too hot for me. Living for six months in Mexico didn’t seem to help that much because I tried to avoid the really spicy food, the kind that everybody else loved. I felt bad about making my host parents purchase so much milk, because it was only through a pint (or two) of milk that I was able to eat their food.
A few months ago, it occurred to me that I could probably eat chilli peppers if I just put my mind to it, if I just developed a strategy for gradually incorporating them into my diet. So I started buying products that had jalapeños in them or were jalapeño-flavored. There’s a store in town that sells jalapeño-burgers, which are hamburgers made with chopped-up peppers thrown in. I bought one and I really liked it. It didn’t burn my mouth. How was that possible? That encouraged me to try jalapeños in salsa, too.
A few people in town gave me jalapeños over the summer. I chopped them up and put them in “salsa con queso” (salsa with cheese) and they added a nice kick. Just a few weeks ago, I bought a box of 13 jalapeños at the market. The vendor told me they would be good in the refrigerator for two weeks, or for a few months in the freezer. I wasn’t keen on freezing them, so I knew that if I were going to let them sit in the refrigerator, I’d have to eat about one per day to get through them all.
I looked for a way that I could use a bunch of them at once. I decided to make tacos and then cut up a jalapeño to put in the tacos every day. I realized that, if you cut the jalapeños into small pieces, they’re much more tolerable. I mince the jalapeños with a chop until they are scarcely larger than a grain of sand. After I was done with the original taco meat, I noticed I still had a lot of cheese, beans, tomatoes, and, of course, jalapeños, left over. So I made tacos a second time.
This time, I cut up three jalapeños and cooked them with one pound of hamburger meat. I also added one whole onion, which was a mistake because the taste of the onion has been overwhelming. Much to my surprise, I can barely taste the jalapeños now. I have to add jalapeños to the tacos just so I know they’re really there.
The funny thing is that jalapeños are too spicy for many people, yet they are not even close to the hottest peppers on earth. Habanero peppers are many times hotter than jalapeños, and quite frankly it will be a while before I’m ready to tackle them.
My advice to people who want to try hot peppers is to start small. Put just a hint of the chilli pepper in your food to see how strong it is. Another thing to remember is that some parts of the pepper are hotter than others. In a jalapeño, the lightly colored ribs on the inside that hold the seeds are the spiciest part. Cut out the ribs and you’ll find the jalapeño is considerably tamer. Lastly, in case you do set your mouth ablaze, have some foods on hand that will put out the fire. I’ve heard that bread is a good thing to eat, as well as just about any dairy product.
This may seem counterintuitive but water is not good to drink because it does nothing to neutralize the capsaicin oil, which is what burns your mouth. Instead, water just washes it around and spreads the burning sensation to your entire mouth. I know this from experience. I once ate a red chilli pepper, thinking it was an orange peel, and the water did precious little to squelch the fire blazing inside me.