CHILE, variously spelled chili, chilli and chilie, much to the consternation of those who speak Spanish and the confusion of everyone else, is a member of the same family as the ordinary bell (or green) pepper.
To most people chile means hot pepper. (Its redundant to say chile pepper.) But in the mad, mad world of chiles, not only aren't all chiles hot, chiles from the same plant can vary from fiery to sweet and mild.
And to complicate things even more, the same variety of chile can have a different name, depending on where you live.
The chiles grown in the Southwest and California are just a few of the more than 200 which are found in Mexico. And thanks to the influx of Spanish-speaking people in Washington, some of those fresh chiles make their way here from Mexico, California and Texas.
They range from the mild, but sometimes not so mild Anaheim, also known as California, to the searing serrano.
It's when you start describing the relative heat of the various chiles, even just the eight or so availabe in Washington, that you run into an identity crisis. The best rule of thumb to follow is the larger the chile the milder it is likely to be. And while you're at it, don't forget that immature or young chiles which may be yellow, white or green turn orange, red and even brown as they mature.
Taking a stab at classifying locally available fresh chiles in ascending order of searing pain:
Anaheim (or California): pale green, mild to mildly hot; five to eight inches long, about one and a half to two inches in diameter at the top, tapering to a point. Use for almost anything, especially chiles rellenos. They must be peeled before using.
Pasilla (or maybe Ancho): dark green; seven to twelve inches long and one to one and a half inches in diameter; mild, sweet but faintly hot. Use in red chile sauce.
Yellow chile: two inches long and hot.
Fresco: bright green; two inches long, one inch in diameter; mildly to painfully hot. Use in sauces and salads.
Jalapeno: dark green; one to two and half inches long, about one inch in diameter at stem end; very hot. Use in guacamole and salsa Mexicana.
Serrano: dark green; one to one and a half inches long, half inch in diameter; very, very hot. Use in guacamole.
Italian: pale green, looks like Anaheims but always mild and sweet. Fry with garlic in olive oil.
Bell: needs no explanation.
Then there are a couple of kinds of tiny dried red chiles which are nameless imports from Japan, Africa, Central or South America.
And don't forget chile powder, not to be confused with chili powder which contains other herbs and spices. Chiles powder, found in Spanish grocery stores, ranges from mild to fiery. Paprika is one of the mild sweet chiles.
When buying fresh chiles, look for plump ones with clear bright skins. Since the hottest parts of the chile are the seeds, membranes and juices, watch out when you cut them open. Whatever you do, don't put your hands to your face until you wash them with soap and water.
While Mexican recipes call for certain chile varieties, you can substitute and get the desired degree of hotness by combining different proportions of the mild ones with the hot ones. Chiles Rellenos (Stuffed Peppers) Three or four servints 6 to 8 fresh Anaheim chiles, peeled 1/2 pund Monterey Jack cheese 1/2 cup flour 5 eggs, separated i teaspoon salt Salad oil for frying Tomato sauce (see recipe)
Wash chiles; dry and place on broiler rack about aninch from heat. Turn chiles frequently until they are blistered and lightly brown. Watch carefully!!
As each chile is done, place it in a plastic bag and keep bag closed. As each chile cools, remove from bag and peel. Use a paring knife and your fingers. (Chiles can be peeled a day ahead and refrigerated in plastic bag.)
Cut a slit down the side of each chile. Carefully remove seeds and white membrane. Be careful not to weaken the stem.
Stuff each chile with a piece of cheese about 1/2 inch wide and 1/2 inch thick and a little shorter than the lenght of the chile. Lap the cut edges over a little to encase filling. Roll chiles in flour to coat evenly; shake off excess.
Beat the egg whites with the salt until soft peaks form. Then beat the yolks until thick. Fold whites into yolks. Heat enough salad oil in large frying pan to the depth of 1/4 inch.
Hold each chile by stem end and dip into batter. Fry in the hot oil, only as many as the skillet can hold without crowding. When golden brown, turn and frying until golden brown on second side. Remove and drain thoroughly on paper towels. Serve immediately, either with or without tomato sauce. Salsa de Jitomate (Tomato Sauce) Makes two and a half cups 1 cup chopped onion 1clove garlic, minced 1 tablespoon oil 2 cup tomato sauce 1/4cup chicken stock Salt and pepper to taste
Saute onion and garlic in oil until onion is soft. Add the tomato sauce, chicken stock, salt and pepper to taste and cook for fifteen minutes at a simmer. Serve over chiles rellenos. Salsa Verde (Green Chile sauce ) Makes one and a half cups 4 Anaheim chiles peeled 1 large tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped 6 sprigs fresh coriander or parsley, chopped 1 small onion, chopped 1 clove garlic, curshed 1 serrano chile, seeded and chopped Saltand freshly ground black pepper Pinch sugar 3 tablespoons salad oil
Remove the stems, seeds and pith frm the Anaheim chiles, according to directions in recipe for chiles rellenos. Place in blender with tomato, corianer, oni, garlic, serrano chile, salt, pepper and sugar. Blend for several seconds. Heat the oil in skillet and cook the mixture, stirring, for two or three minutes. Scramble this sauce into eggs; serve it with broiled white fish or chicken.