By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2007 Gourmet Magazine
Our PIP2s are just fine, which is a good thing because the PIP2-impaired are in for trouble if they try to eat their way along the Rio Grande through New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley, the chile capital of the world. But those with tenacious PIP2s can find dining adventures of a lifetime. Over chile con queso, enchiladas, and chiles rellenos at Chope’s, a rural café in La Mesa that’s popular with growers, Paul Bosland explains that PIP2 is a lipid molecule bound to taste receptors that either breaks off easily at the first touch of capsicum, generating hypersensitivity to chiles’ heat, or clings, allowing full savor of the fruit’s radiance, even through its heat.
We first met Bosland, professor of horticulture at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and the country’s foremost chile breeder, in 1992, six years after he came to New Mexico from the University of Wisconsin, where he worked to create sweeter cabbage for better sauerkraut. Bosland has become New Mexico’s “Chileman” (that’s how the license plate on his pickup truck reads) and has played a big role in helping a regional crop attain culinary stardom. At the time, he was toying with ways to describe chiles’ taste the same way people talk about wine. The Mexican mirasol was “prunelike,” the Peruvian aji amarillo “similar to green apples,” and of the legendary habanero, he said, “It has a lanolin taste.”
Since then, he has developed a catalog of attributes more precise than oenophilic poesy. The Five Characteristics:
1. Heat Profile. Does it come on quick (like a jalapeño), or is the punch delayed (like a habanero)? The speed depends on the balance of capsaicinoids, of which there are at least 15.
2. Where does the heat develop? You feel jalapeños at the front of the tongue; New Mexico pods work midpalate; habaneros ignite near the throat.
3. Is the heat sharp or broad? Most Asian chiles have a pinprick feel. There is one called “claws of the hawk.” New Mexico chiles paint the tongue like a wide brush.
4. How fast does the chile dissipate? Most Asian varieties are hit-and-run. A habanero’s heat can linger for hours.
5. Intensity. The amount of heat can vary, from the raging naga jolokia (1,001,000 Scoville units) of Assam, India, to the red savina habanero (577,000), to pimientos (zero).
Every menu in the region offers two kinds of chiles: red and green. The fruit grows green and ripens red, and there is no rule or season that precisely predicts which color of any particular variety will be hotter. We are joined at Chope’s by Emma Jean Cervantes, a third-generation grower and chair of the board of the Chile Pepper Institute. Known locally as the First Lady of Chile, Cervantes points out the big consistent difference between colors: Red chiles have more sugar content. She explains to us how they are properly prepared: “You start with dried pods—preferably sun-dried, because they have a better flavor. You break them into fragments and remove the seeds. You boil and soften them, then put them in a blender, adding just enough water to get the right thickness.” (Some cooks use a roux, but Cervantes doesn’t because it dilutes the flavor.) After blending, the mixture is run through a sieve to remove skins. At this point, a little salt and garlic may be added, but nothing more. This is New Mexican chili. It is used to top everything from morning eggs to enchiladas, and it comes in a bowl for dipping tortillas. Many restaurants offer it with meat, a.k.a. the chili con carne of Texas.
So, is it chile or chili? This is a big issue to New Mexico chile-heads, and Bosland attempts to put it simply: “In a bowl, it’s with an i. The plant or fruit is e.” Cervantes pulls us from the spelling dilemma with an even knottier issue. “I wish you’d reclassify the whole thing,” she says to Bosland. The problem is that agronomists and some growers think of it as a fruit, but botanists refer to chile as a berry of the nightshade family, similar to the tomato.
Cecilia Yáñez, whose father, Chope, was born and raised in the building that is now the family restaurant, and whose grandmother started selling enchiladas to La Mesa farmers in the early 1900s, buys her year’s supply, about nine tons, during the autumn harvest from a farmer who, she says, “knows what we like—not too hot, not too mild.”
The Mesilla Valley’s long greens are best savored in Chope’s rellenos. Stuffed with mild cheese, battered, and fried crisp, the fleshy walls of the pod have a strapping vegetable punch. As for red chiles, their ultimate taste is in the purée that is made daily. Like Cervantes, Yáñez believes that starting with any powdered chile inevitably makes a bitter brew. She destems, deseeds, soaks, and blends whole red ones to create a cream-thick opaque vermilion liquid with a flavor as clear as fruit nectar. It’s fairly hot—the kind of lip-searing hot that any restaurant outside New Mexico would warn customers about. But in this area, it’s normal. The really hot stuff on the table is green salsa, made entirely from Mesilla Valley jalapeños. Chope’s will oblige those who insist on maximum heat by offering special four-alarm chili in a bowl or on enchiladas, but Bosland, Cervantes, and Yáñez all agree that when it gets that hot, you can’t taste the chile anymore.
“Who, then, asks for extra-hot?” we wonder.
“Crazy tourists,” Yáñez answers.