My Grocery Shopper Picked A Peck Of Serrano Peppers
Updated: Jul 5
There are a few things I remember about my first trip to Mexico. One is the glee that my sister, Stacey and I found in the mariachis rendition of "La Cucaracha," played at our table at my father's request.
People in costume, playing music just for us. A song about a cockroach? Really? We were delighted.
And though I have no memories of the food we ate, I remember my Aunt Mary at dinner. First her eyes popped wide open. Then, her face turned from pale to pink to red as her body shook with laughter. Tears ran down her cheeks.
This was not unlike the time that Stacey ate a slew of red pepper flakes from the shaker at Pizza Hut, believing them to be bacon bits. I have no idea who would have led her to believe such a thing.
But at that restaurant in Mexico City, Aunt Mary had either asked for or had been presented with some hot peppers. Now understand, Aunt Mary was the queen of spice.
Known for her stuffed artichokes (not spicy but oh, so garlicky) and her love of heat, she was the only person I knew who actually grew her own peppers.
That the pepper she bit into that day was so hot that it made her cry, then laugh, made all of us laugh, too. It was a memorable moment.
Perhaps it was the memory of this that made me so late in arriving to the pepper party.
I have always liked my food to be flavorful, with an appropriate spice level. But to have heat just for the sake of heat? No thank you.
For years I tried to explain to everyone that Cajun food wasn't all blackened and spicy. When Paul Prudhomme put Cajun food on the map back in the eighties, it was a revelation for many.
It was also an opportunity for people who knew nothing about Cajun or Creole food to royally screw it up.
Yes, there are blackening spices. But more importantly blackening refers to food being cooked in a searing hot cast iron skillet. What many people missed is that for something to be blackened, it doesn't have to be spicy. Especially when the dish is so spicy that all you taste is hot.
When I was 19, and working as a waitress at El Rio Grande in New York City, I learned two things. One was about jalapeno peppers:
1. Jalapeno peppers are less spicy when they are fresh.
2. The main source of the heat is contained in the pith and ribs of the pepper, not the green flesh.
The other thing I was told were the words, "We think waitressing is not the career for you," the day they fired me. Not only was I a bad waitress, but I fear I screwed up more than one check with mathematical errors. Don't judge. Math was always my worst subject.
Other than buying the occasional jar of jalapenos for tacos, I didn't mess with peppers again until I visited Jamaica. There, Marty fell in love with Jerk chicken. Of course I wanted to recreate it for him when we got home.
One of the locals gave me a list of ingredients to make a jerk marinade. Included in the mixture was allspice (not hot) and Scotch bonnet peppers (the fires of Hell.)
This, too, was in the mid-eighties. There was no internet. I was newly married and only owned a few cookbooks. I had never had anyone I know use Scotch bonnet peppers before.
Therefore I had no idea that gloves should be worn while working with hot peppers. The reason for this is that the micro cuts in your hand hurt all day after coming in contact with capsaicin, the chemical compound in peppers that gives them their fiery flavor.
Nor did anyone warn me not to rub my eyes after cutting peppers. You know what happened next.
Suffice is to say that the risk/reward ratio of working with hot peppers became way disproportionate in my eyes. The next time we went to Jamaica I bought a jar of Jerk spice and called it a day.
Chipolte peppers grabbed my interest when I had an amazing black bean and corn soup from room service on a layover.
It was in Los Angeles, and someone on the crew said that if you ordered anything on the menu, it was accompanied by crusty bread with a rich marinara sauce. Not wanting to blow my budget, but wanting the bread, I ordered the soup. Seasoned with a little chorizo sausage and chipotle peppers the soup was a revelation. Topped with cilantro, cheddar cheese and sour cream, it became my new obsession.
Chipotle peppers, I learned, were smoked, dried jalapenos. They are sold packed in cans with adobo sauce, which is a tangy, sweet red sauce.
Some sautéed fresh corn, a can of black beans in flavorful liquid such as El Ebro, a little chipotle in adobo and voila. A quick, easy and inexpensive soup. Sometimes I made it with chorizo, other times with kielbasa or andouille. Sometimes no meat all all. If I didn't have fresh cilantro to sprinkle on top, I stirred dried into the soup. There is no one in my family who doesn't love this dish.
Peppers popped in and out of my thoughts as the years passed. A trip to Vegas and a meal at The Mesa Grill opened my eyes to the possibilities I had been missing.
Doctor Melissa sent me Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill Cookbook for my birthday, but other than my versions of his chipotle salmon and blue corn muffins, I mostly just ogled the food porn.
What it made me understand, however, is how well earned Bobby Flay's reputation is. I have since visited the restaurant on other occasions. Every single bite I ever had there was filled with flavor.
It wasn't until quarantine, though, that I finally took the time to start playing with peppers. Watching Bobby on the Food Network motivated me, as did the competitive cooks who were always adding one pepper or another to their dishes.
My experiments began with poblano peppers, as their capsaicin levels are fairly low.
Capsaicin levels are measured by the Scoville scale. Created by pharmacologist Wilbur Scoville in 1912, the scale was first determined by a panel of taste testers who tasted and then ranked the various peppers level of heat.
A more scientific method of measurement was developed in the 1980's, which led to peppers being given a number to represent their Scoville Heat Unit (SHU).
Poblano peppers range from 1000-2000 on the scale, while jalapenos range between 2500 to 8000.
Bobby Flay, as well as cookbook writers that I've read, usually have you remove the skin from poblanos by charring them in the oven or on a grill before use.
Of course, I learned this the hard way. While still edible, I learned that skipping this step ensures that your pepper will take much longer to break down than its counterparts, such as onions and celery. Besides an uneven cook, the result will give your dish an unpleasant chew.
The air fryer, I have found, is the quickest and easiest method for me. A few minutes on air fry until the skin blackens, and then let them cool. The skins will rub off easily and your peppers are ready to go.
I've used them with tasty success in white chicken chili, tossed into salads and almost anywhere a bell pepper is called for. It will give your dish a little extra something without too much heat.
Next on my list was serrano peppers. It took a couple of months for me to find any, and when I did, wham! I asked for a few and ended up with about fifty.
With an SHU of 10,000 to 23,000 the hottest serrano can be 9 times hotter than the mildest jalapeno.
While this sounds incredibly hot, we have found that we really love them. For a couple of weeks now, I have tossed or stirred them into everything I could think of. Sam has been going crazy with them, too.
*Last night I made sourdough discard waffles and mixed in some Mexican cheese blend and chopped serrano.
*A bogo strawberry sale was the perfect excuse for strawberry refrigerator jam with serranos.
*Strawberry serrano jam sounded like just the thing to stir into some Bourbon last night. When it proved to be too strong, I topped if off with soda.
*The same jam made a tasty topping for the cream cheese I spread on a few crackers to go with my cocktail.
*Today, I chopped some serranos up and tossed them into the shredded lettuce stuffed into my pita sandwich. I'm not a fan of raw jalapenos on my sandwiches, but I've found I like serranos.
This has taught me that there are many more nuances to the taste of peppers than just heat alone. You get so much bang for your buck when buying peppers, I can't believe I've spent decades going without.
The one fail was last Friday. Stirring serranos into riced cauliflower turned out to be a mistake. The cauliflower had been finished with coconut milk, which I figured would offer cooling relief to the heat of the peppers.
I was wrong. The heat of those particular peppers was off the charts, making the cauliflower almost inedible. This was a good reminder that peppers should be added judiciously, and probably tasted first. Their heat levels, as noted on the scale, can have a lot of range.
Maybe that's why the pepper Aunt Mary had in Mexico was such a hot surprise. It was likely a pepper she had had before, only this time it was at the top of the heat range.
Next up for me is the aji amarillo, a Peruvian yellow pepper that is an ingredient in one of my favorite Peruvian dishes, papas a la Huancaina. Made with queso fresco cheese and thickened with saltine crackers, it will require a special trip to the store.
I will also have to pre-game by avoiding carbs for a few days beforehand. Both my pantry and my ass have been increasing since the quarantine started. The pantry I'm happy about. My ass, not so much.
Things to do with serranos:
1. Dice and add to sandwich toppings.
2. Dice and add to jelly, jam or marmalade.
a. Serve jam on cream cheese or goat cheese crackers.
b. Stir jam into tequila, rum, bourbon or vodka. Ice it and add your favorite mixer.
c. Use the spicy fruit spread to coat chicken or pork before you bake/roast it.
3. Stir finely diced serranos into honey mustard dipping sauce. Mayo, honey, your favorite mustard and serranos to taste. This might be my favorite one yet.
It's fantastic with chicken fingers. I think it would make a great marinade for chicken breasts, too.
4. Use to make fresh salsa, or add a little to jarred salsa for an extra kick.
5. Make a crema with a little avocado, some sour cream, lime juice, chile powder and salt. Stir in some finely chopped serranos.
6. Add to waffle batter. A little cheese would be nice, too.
7. Stir some into mac and cheese for a spicy bite.
8. Add a couple of very tiny pieces to a mojito or margarita. Even better if it's a fruit flavored one, such as a strawberry Mojito.
There are still about 20 serranos in my fridge. I'm sure I'll come up with many more uses before they are gone.
Please share your thoughts and ideas about peppers with me in the comments below.
Serrano Honey Mustard Sauce
2 parts mayonnaise
1 part honey
1 part country style Dijon mustard (or whatever mustard you prefer)
Chopped serranos to taste.
Mix well and add more serranos if necessary. Use as a sandwich spread, dipping sauce for chicken fingers, pretzels, etc. Add some vinegar and use as a vinaigrette.
Side Note: There is a world of difference in the mustards you choose, as I learned in my last post, Mustard for Dr. Melissa, and as I'm continuing to learn. The first time I made this honey mustard dipping sauce, I used the country style Dijon. I really, really loved the sauce. In wanting to take a picture of it for this post, I remade it with plain Dijon because I wasn't paying attention. I wondered why I liked it so much previously, then realized it was a different mustard.
Photo above of mustard sauce made with plain Dijon, as opposed to country style.
Chipotle Salmon Marinade
2 parts soy sauce
1 part honey (or more if you like it really sweet)
½ part chopped chipotle in adobo sauce
Mix well and coat salmon. Marinate for at least 30 minutes before cooking. Bake, broil or sauté as normal.
*This is a basic marinade that yields tasty salmon even if you don’t use chipotle. The honey/soy base is a fantastic start to any number of tastes. Add chopped scallions, garlic and/or red pepper flakes if you’d like. Any kind of pepper can be stirred in as well. Toasted sesame seeds also make a great addition.