Seventy-one million Mexicans can't be wrong. Not about the chiles, anyway. After all, it is a primal American food. Indians were eating wild chiles long before the New World adopted agriculture. "They [the Aztecs] have something like pepper for spicing, which they call chile, and they eat nothing without it," wrote conquistador Hernando Cortez in then early 16th century. The Spanish quickly acknowledged the value of the chile; Fray Bernardino de Sahagu'n wrote in the mid-1500s: "Altogether, the Aztecs have made no despicable contribution to the noble science of gastronomy."
In Mexico today, there are many varieties of chile (genus Capsicum), including chile ancho, chile boludo, chile guajillo and chile tzincuayo. But for most Mexicans on either side of the border, the chile jalapeno is the prince of peppers. In freewheeling Veracruz it is jocularly called "chile gordo" (fat chile), and in sedate Mexico City, it is the chile cuaresmeno (Lenten chile).
"Chiles jalapenos en escabeche pickled jalapenos are probably the most ubiquitous condiment on the Mexican meal table," declares Diana Kennedy in "The Cuisines of Mexico." While Kennedy correctly assesses the popularity of the jalapeno, she underrates its culinary -- not to mention social and healthful -- properties.
The jalapeno, a deceptively plain, smooth-skinned green chile averaging about three inches in length, is more than a mere condiment. Even during the terrible heat of Arizona summers, my father, Tio Manuel, and cousin Chacho sat at the kitchen table, resolutely chewing both fresh and pickled jalapenos and washing them down with dark Mexican beer. The interior heat caused by the chiles combined with the infernal desert temperature outside caused them to sweat like overzealous hot tub enthusiasts.
The heat in jalapenos is caused by capsaicin, a chemical so potent that it can be tasted in a solution of one part capsaicin to 100,000 parts water. Why do we do that to ourselves?
The ability to bite into a jalapeno and enjoy it was for my family a measure of merit, manhood and Mexican blood. The jalapeno amounts to a dietary proscription in parts of the Southwest and in Mexico, allowing one to control who sits down at the dinner table with family and friends.
The imaginative use of the versatile jalapeno requires only a light touch and a daring palate. The chile can make an otherwise undistinguished meal sit up on its hind legs and howl at the moon, or can enhance an exciting dish's special taste. EGGPLANT A LA MEXICANA (4 to 6 servings) 4 medium eggplants Salt 2 pounds fresh mushrooms 1/4 cup butter 2 cloves garlic, minced 2 medium onions, chopped 3 to 4 3-inch long fresh jalapenos (seeded, veined, stems removed and chopped) 6-ounce can tomato paste 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped 1/2 cup dry burgundy 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated 3/4 cup bread crumbs 4 eggs, beaten 1 cup sour cream
Peel the eggplants, salt lightly and cut into 1/2-inch slices. Bake on an oiled flat pan at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes. Slice mushrooms and cook in butter with garlic, onions and jalapenos. Add tomato paste, parsley, wine, and salt to taste. Simmer, uncovered, until the mixture thickens. Remove from heat. Combine 1/2 cup cheese, 1/2 cup bread crumbs, eggs and sour cream. Stir in the tomato mixture. Lightly grease a casserole dish and sprinkle the bottom with the remaining crumbs. Cover with a layer of eggplant, then a layer of sauce, alternating until all is used up. Sprinkle the top with the remaining cheese. Bake in a 350-degree oven for about 1 hour.
Supermarkets in the Washington area are beginning to stock fresh jalapenos in order to meet the growing demand. Yet many cooks still fear the undeserved reputation of the jalapeno as a gastrointestinal assasin. Quite the contrary is true. The jalapeno is good for you, a fact recognized as early as 1600 by Father Joseph de Acosta in "The Natural and Moral History of the Indes:" "When the chile is taken moderately, it helps and comforts the stomach for digestion. But if too much is taken, it hath bad effects, for of itself it is very hot, fuming, and pierceth greatly, so as the use thereof is prejudicial to the health."
The good priest's recommendation of chiles in moderation for stomach problems may surprise some, but chiles were used for centuries as medicine before the Europeans arrived in the New World. The Mayas used hot peppers for treating asthma, coughs and sore throats. Capsicum peppers have long been recommended in herbals for treating heart, liver and male genitourinary ailments. Four years ago, Dr. Irwin Ziment, a California lung specialist, claimed that he had found capsicum to be an effective expectorant. The jalapeno is also a good source of Vitamin C. There are 160 milligrams, more than twice the minimum daily requirement, in one-tenth of a pound.
A mild warning: Be sure to wash your hands well after handling jalapenos, whether fresh, pickled, dried or smoked. Your eyes or other sensitive body parts can really sting after unintentionally rubbing them with jalapeno juice. (The juice is oil based and needs a thorough washing with soap to be removed.)
A perfectly respectable, though often bland dish, has recently fallen into disrepute among macho types. The much maligned quiche is considered unacceptably effete, particularly after the publication of Bruce Feirstein's "Real Men Don't Eat Quiche." The following, however, is definitely un plato muy sabroso for both sexes. JALAPENO QUICHE (Serves 4 to 6 real men) 2 chorizo (Mexican sausage -- if not available, spicy pork sausage will do) 3 scallions, chopped fine 3 pickled jalapenos (seeded, veined, stems removed and diced) 3 eggs, beaten 1 1/4 milk 2 cups muenster cheese, grated 1/2 teaspoon coriander, chopped Salt 1 unbaked, 9-inch pie shell
Brown sausage, breaking it up with a fork. Add scallions and jalapenos to meat and cook for 5 minutes. Drain and set aside. Beat eggs, milk, cheese, coriander and salt to taste. Add sausage and pour into pie shell. Bake in 400-degree oven about 35 minutes until a knife inserted midway between the center and the rim comes out clean and the quiche is brown on top. Let cool for 10 minutes. Serve immediately.