Fire Up Your Late Winter Meals: Bring the Bite of Hot Chiles to the Table

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It could be said that the great search from the 15th century onwards for the shortest route to the East was due to a little black berry, Piper nigrum. Pepper! It might also be argued that the race to get to the source of pepper was the spark that led Columbus to find the New World.

When Spanish navigators discovered the hot and fiery chile pepper, abundant and adored by Caribbean natives, they called it “pimiento,” the Spanish word for pepper. Whether or not they thought the chile pod was actually the coveted piper nigrum, by calling it pepper they began a history of mis-identification and confusion about Capsicum plants that continues to this day.

Although native to North America, seeds of the Capsicum peppers were introduced to Europe by Columbus and were growing in Spanish gardens by about 1500. Soon, the hot new plant was adding its piquant and pungent flavour to dishes in India, Southeast Asia and parts of Africa.

There are five cultivated species of the Capsicum genus: C. annuum; C. Frutescens; C. chinense; C. baccatum; and, C. pubescens. There are also more than 20 wild varieties. Chiles contain the active element capsaicin, which is responsible for their medicinal properties such as: stimulant; tonic; diaphoretic; rubefacient; carminative; antiseptic; antibacterial; expectorant; anti-bronchitis; anti-emphysema; decongestant; and, blood thinner. Chile peppers are high in vitamin A and contain some vitamin C, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium.

Chile peppers help people with bronchitis and related problems by irritating the bronchial tubes and sinuses, causing the secretion of fluid that thins the constricting mucous and helps move it out of the body. Capsaicin also blocks pain messages from the brain, making it an effective pain reliever. With its clot-dissolving properties, Capsaicin may also help prevent heart attacks if taken on a consistent basis.

Ranging from fiery hot to sweet and mild, chiles are a study in contradiction. Well known by chefs for their ability to cause severe burns to the skin and eyes (always wear gloves when handling hot chiles!), the offending Capsaicin is the main ingredient in skin creams that are used to soothe the excruciating pain of arthritis and shingles. Chiles are often shunned by those who believe the pepper causes or irritates ulcers. Yet in Mexico, a long-standing remedy for stomach problems has been to consume a whole Serrano or jalapeno chile pepper.

And the confusion doesn’t stop with folk remedies. Chiles are a hot-bed of conflicting species, varieties and pot types. The names change from region to region; just trying to sort out the American / Spanish / Mexican nomenclature is a huge challenge. Typically, the fresh and dried version of the same chiles bear different names, which are different again when the chile is smoked, or green or ripe. Botanically, they are classified as berries. Horticulturally they are fruits. We use them fresh as vegetables but when dried, they’re a spice.

Chile-heads are addicted to the rush from chiles. Here’s how it works: Capsaicin irritates the pain receptors on the tongue that ignite the pain centre in the brain, triggering a release of morphine-like natural painkillers called endorphins. The endorphins try to douse the fire by setting the body awash in a sense of well-being, and the chile lovers ride the wave of euphoria throughout the rest of the meal.


The active components that give chiles their heat are the Capsaicinoids. These irritating elements transfer easily from the chiles to your hands, the basket or harvest container, the knife and the cutting surface – anything that they come into contact with. To avoid painful burning of your eyes, lips and other mucus areas, use disposable gloves to harvest and prepare hot chiles for recipes.

In their Big Book of Herbs, Tucker and DeBaggio clear up the misinformation about which parts of the chile pepper are hottest. Some sources claim that the seeds are the hottest part, but this is not quite the case. Tucker and DeBaggio note, “The pure seeds themselves contain none or up to 10 per cent of the total capsaicinoids; the heat on the seeds primarily arises from contamination from the placenta.” According to these experts, this is the thin inner membrane (the placenta) on the inside of the chile pepper that holds the highest concentration of the fiery elements. Anything that touches this heat center will be tainted with the heat from the capsaicinoid essences.


Roasting peppers not only provides an easy method of peeling peppers, it intensifies their nutty flavours, caramelizes their sugars and makes them soft and tender. Choose thick-walled fresh peppers for roasting. Roasted peppers may be canned or frozen to preserve them for future use.

1) Wash and dry peppers. If roasting bell peppers, cut in half lengthwise and remove stem, membrane and seeds. If using chile peppers, leave whole with stem intact. Arrange on a lightly oiled, rimmed baking sheet, cut side down. Brush lightly or drizzle with olive oil.

2) Roast on the top rack in an oven set to Broil (or 500°F/260°C) for 10 to 12 minutes, or until skins blacken and blister. You will need to turn whole chile peppers once or twice during roasting.

3) Cover with a clean kitchen towel or place in a paper bag and let cool. Skin should rub away or pull off easily. Cut off stem end on chile peppers and remove seeds if desired, but leave chile peppers whole. Slice bell peppers, quarter or leave halves. (If you are planning to freeze the roasted peppers, cool and seal in a freezer bag without removing the skin, which will slip off easily upon thawing.)

Cayenne is the main ingredient in ‘Harissa’, a key condiment in Middle Eastern cuisines

A key flavouring and condiment in Middle Eastern and North African cuisine, Harissa is never far from a Moroccan, Libyan, Algerian, Turkish, or Tunisian table. In fact, it is the go-to seasoning for many cooks in the region. Often it is added to soup, stew and curry dishes or tagines, used with meatballs, or rubbed into kebabs and other meats before grilling.

The main ingredient is cayenne (or other hot chile peppers) and while it is easy to make from fresh or dried hot chiles, it is also widely available in cans or tubes, or freshly prepared in tubs in Middle Eastern or North African markets.

Dairy products (in particular yogurt), and the starch in pastas and couscous, help to dial the heat down and so they are often paired with harissa and other hot chile dishes.
(Makes 1/2 cup)


  • 12 cayenne, serano, or jalapeno chile peppers, fresh or dried
  • 3/4 cup boiled water
  • 1 Tbsp cumin seeds
  • 2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1 piece (2-inch) cinnamon, crushed
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1) Discard stems and seeds from the chiles. Using kitchen scissors, cut chiles crosswise into thin strips, letting them fall into a bowl. Pour water over top and soak for 30 minutes or until softened.

2) Meanwhile, in a small, heavy pan or spice wok, over medium heat, dry-fry cumin, coriander, fennel, cinnamon, and fenugreek seeds (optional) for three minutes, or until fragrant and light brown. Set aside to cool.

3) Using a small food processor or blender, chop the garlic with the salt. Drain chiles, discarding the soaking water (or reserving it for another use later). Add chiles to garlic and process until smooth. Add toasted spices and process to incorporate them into the mixture.

4) With the motor running, gradually drizzle in the oil through the opening in the lid, processing the mixture until the sauce is well blended to a consistency of mayonnaise.

Serve this robust chile over baked potatoes for a main dish or with whole-grain nachos for an appetizer or party dish. Because many of the water-soluble nutrients are in the canned liquid, try to use both the beans and the liquid from the tin (if using home-cooked dried beans, do not use cooking liquid).

(Serves 4 to 6)


  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1-1/2 cups chopped red bell pepper
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped celery
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 fresh or dried hot chiles, chopped finely
  • 1-1/2 Tbsp Cajun Spice or chile pepper
  • 1 lb firm tofu, frozen, thawed and crumbled (see tip)
  • 1 can (28 oz/796 ml) tomatoes, including juice
  • 1 can (19 oz/540 ml) black beans with liquid
  • 1 can (19 oz/540 ml) dark red kidney beans with liquid
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 Tbsp chopped fresh savory
  • 1 Tbsp blackstrap molasses, optional
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

1) In a large saucepan, combine onion, bell pepper and oil. Sauté over medium heat for 7 minutes. Add celery, garlic, chiles, Cajun Spice and tofu. Reduce heat and gently simmer, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.

2) Add tomatoes with juice. Increase heat and bring to a boil, stirring up browned bits in bottom of pan. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add black and red beans with liquid, parsley and savory. Simmer for 5 to 10 minutes or until heated through. Add molasses, if using. Add salt and pepper, to taste.

3) Tip: Freezing tofu overnight or for a few hours and then thawing gives it a meaty texture. It crumbles nicely and seems to absorb more of the cooking liquid. Omit this step if time does not permit.

Imam is the Persian word for “holy man.” The Middle Eastern name of this dish – imam bayildi – literally means “the holy man fainted,” implying that he was so enraptured that he collapsed after taking a whiff of the fragrant spices in this baked dish.

(Serves 4)


  • 2 medium eggplants
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup thinly sliced fennel bulb or celery
  • ½ cup chopped hot fresh chile pepper
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 large tomatoes, seeded and diced
  • 1 tsp ground coriander seed
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp salt

1) Trim ends from eggplants and discard. Fill a large saucepan to the halfway point with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add eggplants and cook for 7 minutes. Remove and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking. When cool, cut each in half lengthwise. Scoop out the flesh leaving a 1/4-inch thick shell. Arrange shells, cut side up on prepared baking sheet. Coarsely chop flesh and reserve.

2) Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and sauté for 10 minutes or until soft. Stir in fennel, chile pepper and garlic and sauté for 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, coriander, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, salt and reserved eggplant flesh. Cook, stirring, for 3 minutes or until vegetables are tender.

3) Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C). Spoon stuffing equally into each eggplant shell. Cover with parchment paper or casserole lid and bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Serve immediately or let cool and serve at room temperature.

A tasty and complete meal, this casserole travels well and makes a great pot-luck dish. As an added bonus, it can be made ahead up to two days before baking.

(Serves 4 to 6)


  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  • 1/2 cup brown rice, rinsed
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 cup chopped red bell pepper
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 can (28 oz/796 m) tomatoes, drained, reserving juice
  • 1-1/2 cups cauliflower florets
  • 1-1/2 cups broccoli florets
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese, divided
  • 1 cup chopped spinach, divided
  • 1-1/2 cups Savoury Oatmeal Topping (see recipe below)

1) In a saucepan, bring stock to a boil over high heat. Stir in rice. Cover, reduce heat and simmer gently for 35 minutes or until rice is tender. Drain if any liquid remains.

2) Meanwhile, in another saucepan, combine onion, bell pepper and wine. Simmer over medium-high heat for 7 minutes or until vegetables are soft. Add tomatoes, cauliflower and broccoli. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently for 7 minutes or until florets are tender-crisp, adding some of the reserved tomato juice if mixture gets too dry.

3) Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C).

4) In the bottom of a lightly oiled 8-inch (2 L) baking dish, combine rice and half of the ricotta and spinach. Spread evenly over bottom of dish. Spoon vegetables over rice. Spread remaining half of ricotta and spinach over vegetables. Scatter Savoury Oatmeal Topping evenly over top.

5) Bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes or until vegetables are bubbly and topping is browned.

6) Tip: Casserole can be prepared through Step 4, covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Bring to room temperature before baking.


  • 1/2 cup large flake rolled oats or spelt flakes
  • 1/2 cup chopped nuts (almonds, peanuts, filberts or other)
  • 1/3 cup shredded mozzarella
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 to 2 Tbsp olive oil

1) In a small bowl, combine oats, nuts, cheese and parsley. Stir in oil, a small amount at a time, mixing until it resembles a coarse crumb.

Pat Crocker's mission in life is to write with insight and experience, cook with playful abandon, and eat whole food with gusto. As a professional Home Economist (BAA, Ryerson U., Toronto) and Culinary Herbalist, Pat’s passion for healthy food is fused with her knowledge and love of herbs. Her wellness practice transitioned over more than four decades of growing, photographing, and writing about what she calls, the helping plants. In fact, Crocker infuses the medicinal benefits of herbs in every original recipe she develops. An award-winning author, Pat has written 23 herb/healthy cookbooks, including The Healing Herbs Cookbook,The Juicing Bible, and her latest books, Cooking with Cannabis and The Herbalist’s Kitchen.

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