If you have The Great Pepper Cookbook from Melissa's, you can cook your way up the Scoville heat scale from zero (bell peppers) to "insanely hot" (bhut jolokia and scorpion chiles).
As a major distributor of peppers and chiles, Melissa's/World Variety Produce has put into this book all the info you need to deal with these zesty creatures.
A glossary of 38 varieties shows what they look like, tells when they are in season, gives alternate names (like flea pepper for chile pequin) and suggests what to substitute if you can't get the one your recipe calls for. Preparation tips tell how to roast, grill and peel fresh chiles and how to toast and rehydrate dried ones.
First up in the book is a rendering of Wilbur Scoville's famous scale with each chile pictured and tagged with its Scoville heat units. Remember when the habanero was the hottest chile around, the darling of macho eating contests? On the scale it looks gentle as a breeze compared to the scorpion, which tops out at 2 million Scoville heat units. A fresh habanero at its hottest only gets to 200,000 SHU.
Check the scale, decide how hot you want to go and then find a recipe in your comfort zone. And don't expect only salsas and chiles rellenos. Melissa's team has packed the book with "regular" food such as egg salad sandwiches, stuffed mushrooms, butternut squash soup, coleslaw, creamed chicken and even chocolate truffles. But if you insist on Mexican, there are recipes for albondigas soup, beef barbacoa, chicken enchiladas, lettuce-wrapped tacos, buñuelos, churros and a couple of aguas frescas.
Published by Oxmoor House in hard- and soft-bound editions, The Great Pepper Cookbook is available through Melissa's Produce at 1 (800) 588-0151, the Melissa's website and Amazon.
Be careful when you use it, though. You can get singed working with hot chiles, and that's no laughing matter - or is it? Don't decide until you've checked out Melissa's quirky promo video.
Then try this wimp-friendly recipe for Roasted Butternut Squash Soup. The fresh red Fresno chiles that it calls for are 16th from the bottom on the Scoville scale (2,500 to 10,000 SHU), low enough that you'll feel nothing more than a pleasant glow.
Roasted Butternut Squash Soup
From: Melissa's The Great Pepper Cookbook
Yield: 6 servings
1 butternut squash (about 2 pounds), peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
6 ounces pancetta, diced (about 1 cup)
3 fresh red Fresno chiles, stems and seeds removed, 2 chopped, 1 sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large onion, chopped, about 1 cup
2 ½ cups chicken broth
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, undrained
2 tablespoons dry sherry
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with foil.
2. In a large bowl, toss squash cubes with 3 tablespoons olive oil, ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper. Arrange squash in a single layer on baking sheet. Bake until tender, about 20 minutes.
3. Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add 1/3 of the pancetta; cook until browned, stirring occasionally, about 7 minutes. Transfer to a plate to drain.
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4. Add the 2 chopped chiles, garlic and onion to the hot oil in the Dutch oven; cook 5 minutes. Add remaining 2/3 pancetta; cook, stirring often, 3 minutes. Add roasted squash, broth, tomatoes and sherry; bring just to boiling. Reduce heat to low, simmer until tomatoes start to break apart, about 5 minutes. Cover; simmer 15 minutes.
5. Place squash mixture in a blender; process until smooth. Stir in salt and black pepper to taste. To serve, top evenly with pancetta and the sliced chile.