Chili peppers are an incredible food. They're fruit, actually, by botanical standards. All chilies are members of the capsicum family, which includes both sweet and hot varieties. Capsaicin is the substance found in chilies that gives them their fiery kick, and while a hot pepper's most memorable characteristic may be its spiciness, they all vary greatly in both heat and flavor.

Like many foods throughout history, chili peppers have been used as often for their health-promoting properties as they have been a flavoring. One of the most useful traits of the chili is its ability to induce perspiration. If you've ever eaten food that was spicy enough to cause a damp brow you understand this completely. It's no coincidence, then, that chilies are ubiquitous in the cuisines that are close to the equator. Sweating is, of course, the human body's way of cooling off, something that is crucial in a hot and humid climate. And it is this same function of the humble chili that promotes healthy respiratory, circulatory and digestive systems.

Another beneficial quality of the chili is it's ability to not only camouflage "off flavors" in food that is past its prime, but also to act as a food preservative. Two overt examples of this are chili con carne, and Jamaican jerked foods. It's well-known that chili con carne began as a staple meal prepared by chuckwagon cooks of the old Southwest, being frugal as they had to be, they boiled meat with fresh chilies to cover up it's sometimes rancid flavor. And while "jerked" foods are all the rage today, the actual technique originated in Jamaica by escaped African slaves. They rubbed meat (usually pork) with spices and fresh chilies (including the fiery habeñero) and cooked it over coals until it was extremely dry. This would act as a natural preservative against the hot, humid jungles in which they hid.

These same slaves are said to have rubbed their weapons with the spicy pods, thus even a minor wound would incapacitate their would be captors. A modern version of a "pepper weapon" is the pepper spray that is often carried by mail carriers and police.

Chilies are indigenous to the Americas, and like many common American foods were first introduced to Europe by Columbus. On his second voyage to the "New World," Columbus came upon civilizations that had been consuming chilies for 10,000 years or more. Thinking they were related to black pepper, and the Aztec name for them being chilli, he dubbed them "chili pepper".

The Aztecs were such chili connoisseurs that they categorized chili's pungency into six levels, which, in their native tongue, began with coco, meaning "hot," and ending with cocopalatic, or "runaway hot." My personal favorite is cocopetztic, translating to "brilliant hot." There are more than 200 varieties of chilies and more than 100 of them are native to Mexico.

The intensity of a chili's heat is measured in what is called "Scoville Units," which were developed by Wilbur L. Scoville, the gentleman who developed the Scoville Organoleptic Test in 1912. The pungency of a particular chili is measured in multiples of one hundred Scoville Units. The greater number of Scoville Units recorded the hotter, or spicier, the pepper.

This heat range is also translatable to a numbered chart ranging from 1 to 10. A jalapeño, for example, is a number 5 and contains between 25,000 to 35,000 Scoville units, whereas a cayenne pepper is a number 8 and contains close to 50,000 Scoville units. One of the hottest chilies--the habeñero--is definitely a number 10, and can contain as many as 300,000 Scoville units; some say the number range should be extended to 12 or even 14 just for this chili.

Generally, the smaller a pepper is the hotter it will be. Most of a chili's heat is concentrated in the seeds and ribs of the pepper. If you'd like to reduce the intensity of a particular chili, which will allow more of its natural flavor to pervade, remove the inside membrane and seeds. This, of course, should be done with great care, and with the spicier varieties wearing latex gloves is highly recommended--habeñero and scotch bonnet chilies have been known to actually cause blisters on unprotected skin.

Though often thought of as strictly a Southwest plant, chilies are easy to grow in the humid summers of the Northeast. The type of chili denotes its particular growing time, but most come to fruition and ripen during the months of July and August. You'll also find a larger variety of them at grocers during this time as well. When purchasing fresh chilies, look for fruit that is firm, smooth and free from blemishes. Avoid those with any signs of shriveling or soft spots on the skin. Store them in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator for up to one week.

Red Potato Salad with Serrano Salsa Yield: 8 servings

4 pounds small red-skinned potatoes
2 ripe plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 small shallot, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 serrano chilies, seeded and minced
1/2 cup loosely packed chopped cilantro
3 tablespoons virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon salt

Place the potatoes in soup pot and cover them with cold water to which 2 teaspoons of salt have been added. Bring the water to a boil then lower it to a simmer; cook the potatoes until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes and refrigerate them for 1/2 hour. Make the salsa by combining in a small bowl, the tomatoes, shallot, garlic, chilies, cilantro, olive oil, and salt. Stir the salsa until thoroughly combined, set aside. Remove the potatoes from the refrigerator; cut the small potatoes in half, quarter the larger ones. Combine the potatoes and the salsa in a large bowl and toss gently. Allow the salad to rest for 10 minutes prior to serving. Serve the salad as a side dish as is, or, over a bed of crisp greens as a summer entrée.

Spicy Turkey and Pork Meatloaf Yield: 6 servings

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup diced onion
1/2 cup diced celery
1/2 cup diced green bell pepper
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced
1-1/2 pound ground turkey
1-1/2 pound ground pork
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon oregano leaves
1 tablespoon basil leaves
2 large eggs
1/2 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper sauce
1/2 cup breadcrumbs

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet, then add the onion, celery and bell pepper. Sauté the vegetables until they are translucent but not caramelized. Add the garlic and jalapeño and sauté a minute longer. Remove the vegetables from the skillet, spread them on a clean plate and place them in a refrigerator to cool for 15 minutes.

When the sautéed vegetables are cooled, place them into a large bowl along with the ground turkey, ground pork, chili powder, parsley, cayenne pepper, salt, black pepper oregano, basil eggs, ketchup and hot pepper sauce. Mix the meatloaf until all of the ingredients are well incorporated, then add the breadcrumbs and mix again until the mix takes on a smooth consistency.

Pack the meatloaf into a lightly oiled loaf pan, cover it with aluminum foil, and bake it at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately 1/2 hour. Remove the foil from the meatloaf and continue to bake it until it reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the meatloaf from the oven and leave it at room temperature for at least 10 minutes before serving.

Littleneck Clams and Andouille Sausage Steamed with Beer and Chilies Yield: 6 servings

4 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound andouille sausage, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 small onion, diced small
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 jalapeño peppers
1 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups beer (not dark)
3 cups diced tomatoes
36 littleneck clams
1/2 cup coarsely chopped flatleaf parsley

Heat the oil in a large shallow pot and brown the sausage. Remove the sausage from the pot and set aside; drain a portion of the fat that may have accumulated. In the same pot, add the onion, garlic and jalapeño; sauté for 2 minutes, or until translucent but not browned. Stir in the oregano, salt and black pepper; sauté for 1 minute. Add the beer and tomatoes; bring the liquid to a boil, then lower it to a simmer. Add the sausage back to the pot and simmer it for 5 minutes. Add the clams to the simmering broth, cover them and cook for approximately 7 minutes, or until they are opened and fully cooked. Remove the pot from the heat and sprinkle the clams and sausage with the parsley. Serve while hot.

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