Have you noticed that jalapeños aren't as hot as they used to be?
Or perhaps you've wondered why the colors of peppers at the produce counter seem brighter, or darker or more varied.
It's not your imagination.
It's Terry Berke's job.
Berke is senior hot-pepper breeder at Seminis, the world's largest supplier of vegetable seeds, a Monsanto subsidiary headquartered in Oxnard, Calif.
"Generally, the market drives breeding programs," Berke explained last week from the California seed farm, where spring planting had just begun.
For years, Berke and others have been developing hybrids and new strains of peppers to meet consumer demand. (But, he says, they avoid tampering with flavor.)
His job has been primarily to develop milder peppers, with brighter and darker colors, smoother skins, and different size chiles, smaller and larger. (Berke is credited with developing the first "heat-free" jalapeño.)
"The trend is for milder peppers across the U.S.," said Berke, whose employer supplies the seeds for an estimated 85 percent of the peppers on the U.S. market.
But America's growing passion for ethnic dishes has increased the demand for chiles at both ends of the heat spectrum: Home cooks are asking for milder models that will provide the flavor for popular world cuisine without the searing heat, while others seeking authentic flavors are looking for the pungent chiles commonly used in other parts of the world.
Chiles are of particular interest now as cooks shop for the hot peppers to prepare Mexican foods for Cinco de Mayo parties this weekend.
While Seminis has bred some milder pepper strains to meet consumer demand, the heat intensity in other peppers, such as jalepeños, has been dialed down unintentionally.
Climate, soil, rainfall and other such factors all affect the level of capsaicin (the chemical that makes chiles hot). "The more you stress a pepper while it's growing, the hotter the pepper will be," Berke said.
And stress levels (from drought, frost, insects, etc.) are generally lower because of improved farming practices such as drip irrigation, Berke explained, ultimately resulting in milder peppers."
In many cases they try to maintain the pungency by selective breeding, he said, but farm management has improved so much that chiles are naturally becoming milder.
Change is most apparent in jalapeños, the most widely used "hot" chiles, Berke said.
"Jalapeños used to be in the 4,000-to-5,000 'heat unit' range on the Scoville scale," which measures a pepper's intensity [see the chart below]. "Now, many fall in the 2,500-to-3,500 range, up to about 4,500."
Certainly, more chiles are coming into the mainstream to meet the tastes of growing Hispanic and Asian populations here, and to satisfy the broadening demand for their chile-enriched cuisines. Stocks of eight to 10 varieties of chiles plus a selection of sweet peppers are increasingly common in food markets.
Eating more hot peppers more often changes our taste perception of those peppers. In time, Berke said, as the taste buds become accustomed to the capsaicin, we won't need milder chiles because peppers at the same heat level will seem milder.
At Cross Country Nurseries, in Rosemont, N.J. (about 20 miles north of Trenton) - which claims the world's largest stock of pepper plants, with more than 500 varieties - the hot peppers are the bulk of the business.
"We sell more of the extremely hot chiles than anything," said owner Janie Lamson, noting that the home gardeners who provide the bulk of her mostly mail-order business want the hottest chiles they can get. First-time customers, she said, often buy only the hottest peppers, then come back the next year and include sweet varieties in the mix.
"Locally, we sell more sweet green bell peppers," Lamson added. She explained that almost all peppers go through an immature green stage at which many are harvested, then continue to mature, ultimately becoming red. (A few varieties pass through short phases in other colors from yellow to near black.)
As for gauging the heat of a chile, Lamson suggests relying on an old but still generally trustworthy guideline: The bigger the pepper, the milder the taste; the smaller the pepper, the hotter it's likely to be.
That was refined a generation ago to alert us to narrow shoulders (stem end) and pointed tips as signs of pepper pungency, with a broad top and rounded base indicating a milder, more mellow flavor.
Conditioning told us to think of red as hot. Now, as colors, shapes and sizes begin to change, old "rules" become less reliable. Hybrids like mini-sweet peppers are coming to market, packaged and branded. And the heat of red or mature chiles, we are told, may be subdued by an increase in fructose in mature chiles once the capsaicin level peaks.
Talk about confusing.
Your best bet is to start eating more chiles to increase your tolerance.
The bonus is that chiles - hot peppers - contain more than three times the Vitamin C of oranges and also provide high levels of Vitamin E and carotenes, antioxidants shown to help prevent cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Capsaicin is said to relieve and prevent migraine, cluster and sinus headaches. It is a known anticoagulant and, as a thermogenic agent, increases metabolic activity, helping the body to burn more calories and fat. (It's even used as a topical anti-arthritic and anti-inflammatory agent.)
To soften the impact on unaccustomed taste buds, Berke suggests drinking a glass of milk before a hot-pepper meal.
"Capsaicin and milk bind to the same receptors on your tongue," Berke said. By drinking milk first, you can saturate those receptors, leaving fewer sites to which the capsaicin can bind, thus lessening the heat it imparts.
Cinco de Mayo - the Fifth of May - and the festival it brings commemorates the 1862 Battle of Puebla, in which ill-equipped and outnumbered Mexican forces defeated well-armed French invaders against overwhelming odds.
The celebration, now focused on Mexican culture and cuisine, is one of many ethnic threads forming the warp and weft of America's national banner. The mood is not unlike that of St. Patrick's Day, not limited to those of one ethnic heritage, but shared in spirit by all.
(Gringos often confuse Cinco de Mayo with Mexico's Independence Day, Sept. 16.)
- Marilynn MarterEndText
Pepper Scoville Heat Units
Habanero, Scotch bonnet 20,000-35,000
Piquin, aji, cayenne 3,000-4,000
Jalapeño, chipotle, Fresno 2,500-4,500
Serrano, Sante Fe, banana, cherry 1,200-2,500
Ancho, pasilla, poblano, Anaheim 100-150
New Mexico 50-100
Bell pepper 0
SOURCE: Monsanto Co.EndText
Makes 6 servings
For the Stuffed Peppers:
6 large poblano peppers
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 pounds lean ground beef
1 piece Mexican cinnamon
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 ounce each: raisins, dried and diced apricots, mango, papaya and pineapple
For the Walnut Cream Sauce:
1 pint (16 ounces) Mexican crema (see Note)
8 ounces walnuts, about 2 cups
1 cup whole milk
Salt and pepper, to taste
Pomegranate seeds, or chopped tomato and toasted walnuts, for garnish
1. For the Stuffed Peppers, char the peppers under a broiler or over an open flame, turning every minute or so until the skin is blackened. Peel off the skin and carefully cut a slit along one side of each pepper. Remove the seeds.
2. In a skillet, heat the oil and saute the onion and garlic. Stir in the beef, cinnamon, bay leaves, and salt and pepper. When the beef is fully cooked, fold in the fruit. Remove the bay leaves and cinnamon. Stuff the peppers and set aside.
3. For the Walnut Cream Sauce, Combine the crema, walnuts, and milk in a blender container. Cover; puree smooth. To thin sauce, add more milk. Season with salt and pepper.
4. To serve, place a stuffed pepper in the center of each plate, cover with sauce and garnish with pomegranate seeds or chopped tomato and toasted walnuts. Serve at room temperature
Crema may be found in Hispanic markets. Make crema by whisking
2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup buttermilk
. Cover. Let stand in a warm place overnight. (A gas oven warmed by a pilot light is ideal.) Refrigerate and use within 1 week. Creme fraiche may be substituted. Or, for a quick version, mix 2 cups plain yogurt, 2 tablespoons lime juice, and 2 teaspoons finely grated lime zest. Refrigerate and use within 2 days.