NATCHITOCHES, La., June 23, 2012 — Think of your favorite spicy cuisines - Thai, Szechuan, Indian, Mexican. What do they have in common? They come from the tropics.
Norway and Canada aren’t known for their spicy foods. There’s no such thing as Icelandic pepper sauce, and the best adjective for Swedish food is “heavy,” not “fiery.” As paradoxical as it seems, spicy foods are ideal for hot weather. That’s because capsaicin, the chemical in chili peppers that makes your mouth burn, also makes your blood circulation rise and dilates the capillaries in your skin. More heat is pumped from your core, you sweat more, and your body has an easier time shedding excess heat.
There are other reasons to eat chilies: They’re good for your stomach lining since capsaicin inhibits acid production, stimulates gastric mucous secretions (it does the same to your nose, so keep kleenex handy when you eat chilies), and increases blood flow to the stomach lining. They’re believed to play a role in reducing the incidence of Type 2 diabetes by reducing blood sugar levels after a meal; they decrease the harmful effects of LDL-cholesterol; and they just taste good!
There are more ways to eat chili peppers than in salsas and enchiladas. One of my favorite ways to get chili fire on a hot day is jalapeño lemonade.
Note: It’s a good idea to wear thin latex gloves when you chop chilies. If you’re going to use your bare hands, don’t put your hands anywhere near your eyes until you’ve washed them, and then washed them again. Don’t even think about chopping habaneros with your bare hands.
2 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups water
4-5 fresh jalapeño peppers
3 or 4 sprigs fresh thyme
zest from one lemon (just the yellow part, no white pith, which will make your lemonade bitter) or 1/4 tsp pure lemon oil (NOT lemon extract, which will make your lemonade taste nasty)
2 1/2 - 3 cups fresh lemon juice
Slice the peppers thin and throw them in a pot, seeds and all. Add the thyme, sugar, and water, then put over medium-high heat and stir until the sugar dissolves. Add the zest (if you use oil, add it after you remove the syrup from the burner) and leave over the heat until the syrup comes to a simmer, then remove from heat. Jalapeños from the same plant can have different amounts of capsaicin - some are extremely hot, some are mild - so you might want to test the syrup. If it’s spicy hot, quickly strain out the peppers, thyme and zest. If it isn’t, you might want to toss in more sliced jalapeños and return to the simmer.
Let your syrup cool, then pour it in a large pitcher and add the lemon juice. Chill, then add cold water until it’s diluted to suit your taste. I like my lemonade on the tart side, so I use three cups of lemon juice. I usually dilute it with another three cups of water, for a total of 2 1/2 quarts of lemonade. If you’re going to add ice to it, dilute it less.
I don’t drink, but my brother-in-law tells me that this lemonade makes an excellent margarita, and the jalapeño-sugar syrup makes a good daiquiri. You can use that same syrup to make a delicious and unusual jalapeño lemon sorbet. The combination of hot and cold is always surprising.
1 1/2 cups jalapeño-sugar syrup (made with or without the thyme) from the lemonade recipe
1/2 cup water
1 egg white
1 cup of lemon juice, strained (4-6 lemons, depending on how big and juicy they are)
zest from three lemons, or 1/2 tsp pure lemon oil
Add the zest to the syrup and bring to a boil, then cover and cool. If you use the lemon oil, just add it to the syrup and don’t boil it. Add the water and strained lemon juice, then chill.
When your lemon mixture is cold, put it in an ice-cream machine and churn it for about ten minutes, or until it starts to look icy. Whisk your egg white and add it to the churning sorbet at the ten minute mark. Continue churning until the sorbet is thick and set. If you’re not going to eat it right away, scoop it out of the ice-cream maker and put it in a plastic container, cover tightly and freeze.
The sugar/water ratio isn’t that important when you make the syrup for lemonade. It’s critical when you make it for sorbet. The specific gravity of sugar syrup is measured in degrees Baumé. The syrup for a sorbet should be 17-20 Baumé, and the syrup recipe here with the extra water will come in around 18. Since most of us don’t own hydrometers, that’s a good thing to know.
Chilies are great additions to all kinds of sweet dishes. A little cayenne in chocolate frosting or a chocolate batter adds a whole new dimension to chocolate cake. Ancho chilies also go very well with chocolate. Chili chocolate chunks can be a delicious alternative to chocolate chips in your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe, or just toss some cayenne into the cookie dough. Finely minced habanero pepper (just a very little bit) adds a wonderful spark and sparkle to white chocolate mousse. A little cayenne is great in peppermint desserts, too.
The sultry days of summer are a great time to get better acquainted with chilies. Enjoy!
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. And chili-chocolate cake, and cayenne candy-cane cookies. He doesn’t think there’s any food that can’t be made better by adding chilies, chocolate, or both. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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