With the rising popularity of Mexican cuisine in Australia has come a demand for one of that country's favourite ingredients: the fiery flavour bomb known as the jalapeno chilli.
Once only available preserved, jalapenos are being widely grown here and are now at the height of their harvest season.
What are they?
Blunt, horn-shaped and a glossy British Racing Green, jalapenos are the cornerstone chilli of the Mexican kitchen. Here are a few things to remember:
The names of Mexican chillies tell you where they are from. Habanero chillies, for example, come from Havana. Poblano chillies were originally from Puebla, and jalapeno chillies are from Xalapa near Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico.
Chillies change their name depending on their physical state. Jalapenos are grassy green, but when they ripen to red, they become known as huachinangos, which then become chipotles once dried and smoked.
The flesh, seeds and endocarp (the white membrane surrounding the seeds) all contain capsaicin, the chemical that makes our mouths tingle and burn.
On the Scoville scale, which measures chillies' heat and pungency, jalapenos score 2000 to 5000 – mild to moderate compared with the habanero, which has 100,000 Scoville units.
Why do we love them?
Their juicy fleshiness and enduring crunch make jalapenos perfect for Mexican salsa, while their sweet, green herbal note works perfectly with its common companion, dairy. The fat in cheese, sour cream and creme fraiche counteracts the effects of capsaicin, rendering the jalapeno less fiery. And of course, humans just happen to love the endorphin buzz that chilli heat gives us.
Jalapenos add an appealing grassy flavour to guacamole. Photo: William Meppem
How do you use them?
- In Mexico, chefs pickle, grill, roast and fry jalapenos, also adding them to egg and slow-cooked meat dishes.
- Stuffed with cheese then crumbed and deep-fried, the chillies become irresistible jalapeno poppers. Bags of US-made poppers are available frozen in some supermarkets.
- Finely chopped jalapeno adds an appealing grassy flavour to cornbread, guacamole and salsa mexicana.
- Their heat contrasts with the cool juicy fruit in the watermelon salad at Mejico restaurant in Sydney and Melbourne.
- And for a cocktail with an intriguing difference, mix a margarita using a spicy sugar syrup, made by simmering chopped jalapenos with sugar and water.
Tip: For those who can't stand the heat, dial it back by removing the seeds and membrane, where most of the capsaicin resides, using the tip of a knife.
Where do you get them?
Jalapenos are at their best right now. Some of the big supermarkets carry fresh jalapenos, as do specialty food stores, greengrocers, and farmers' markets.
Jars of pickled jalapenos are readily available in most supermarkets. They don't have the heady aroma of fresh peppers but you can use them as a flavouring for cornbread, macaroni cheese and croquettes. Drain well and pat dry before use. They are not suitable for fresh salads and salsas.
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