There's an old legend that says in order to achieve truly hot chile peppers, you must plant them when you are angry. Following that line of thought, we suppose recent good news about water allotments for the state's farmers might be blamed for blunting a potentially piquant crop, but we doubt it. The heat we seek in the many varieties of the genus capsicum is a product of many things, and we suspect planting them brings more joy than angst. Chile peppers are a crop southern California does especially right, and thanks to spring rains and summer heat, that rightness is abundantly at hand.
All chile peppers are native to South America; even the paint-melting Asian peppers didn't make it to the other side of the rim until Spanish explorers nailed down their Pacific trade routes. Their spice and heat is actually an evolutionary development designed to deter mammals with seed destroying digestive tracts. On the other hand, birds, with their gentle, seed-loving bowels, don't taste the capsaicin-induced heat, and merrily disperse the seeds far and wide. Our modern chile peppers have been bred and hybridized into a rainbow of colors, sizes, and heat levels.
Long, pale green Anaheims and fat, black green poblanos (known as anchos when dried) are two of the mildest of the bunch, though they can inch into medium-hot range sometimes, and are most frequently used whole, stuffed with cheeses and meats, and are usually either fried, roasted, or grilled, imparting their pleasant vegetal flavor onto their stuffings. Jalapeños are ever-present in Los Angeles, either pickled in a condiment tray at your local taco truck, sliced fresh onto your bowl of pho, or added to a sweet-hot German relish. Serranos, which look like thinner versions of the jalapeño, are the gateway chili, hot enough to make a man cry, but they aren't as hot as some of the bigger capsaicin players like habaneros and Scotch Bonnets. We could talk about the Scoville Scale but even if you buy by type, there really are no guarantees on what kind of heat punch you're going to get from your chiles. Buying by type only delivers a possible range of heat. It all depends on the finicky and sometimes uncontrollable variables of soil, sun, and water.
All good chiles, regardless of variety, should feel heavy for their size and have a firm, dense flesh. Uniform coloring is good but blushes of greens, yellows, pinks, reds, and oranges are perfectly normal for some varieties. Flaccid, wrinkled, bruised, blemished, soft, spongy, or discolored are adjectives that should never be associated with your chiles, or anything else for that matter.
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As far as heat goes, you can ask to test a chile before buying, but have a sugar packet on hand to kill the sting if it ends up being too much (cold milk and bread help too). We don't think we need to tell you to avoid touching your eyes or other sensitive spots after handling cut chiles (or even whole Thais, habaneros, Bonnets, or the bhut jolokia, the hottest chile pepper in the world and an unlikely offering at any local market, although if you're interested, Jim Duffy of Super Hot Chiles can get you plenty) but a public service announcement seems as appropriate and necessary as brush fire warnings around fireworks season.
Felicia Friesema will be leading a special tour of the Hollywood Farmers Market on August 8th.