Armand Lobato, The Produce Aisle
Armand Lobato, The Produce Aisle

When roasting Hatch, N.M., chili peppers, I found it helpful to have a sales pitch ready.

Especially for customers who had never eaten a fresh chili, much less seen a batch being roasted in an iron drum rotating slowly over propane-fueled, hot blue flames.

“Good chili warms you twice,” I explained as I handed a sample, wrapped in a flour tortilla to the curious customer. “It warms you in the bright sun of today, certainly. But you have to imagine this same sensation a few months from now. You know, when it’s 10 degrees below-zero outside?

“That’s when you take a bag of chili from the freezer, peel and chop up some of these babies into a stew or pot of beans. Then, let that robust dose of capsaicin — the heat from the chili — surge through your body, opening blocked sinuses, warming you from the top of your head all the way to the tips of your previously frozen toes.”

The line was always good for a sale.

OK, so the whole, chili-roasting scene is more common in the Southwest. (And setting up a roasting program is as much work as it is fun). But every produce department ought to include chili education as part of its training program.

First, because all categories include some unit of quality measurement (sugar or crispness levels for apples, for example), realize that chili does too. Called the Scoville Heat Scale after pharmacist Wilbur Scoville, who established it in 1912, the graduated scale indicates the amount of the chemical capsaicin within the chili peppers. The higher the number assigned to a variety, the hotter the chili.

Then, while there are numerous chilies on the market, providing a simple reference is helpful.

Consider a bell pepper: sweet and few (if any) heat units. Anaheim has 1,000-2,000 Scoville units. The Hatch, anaheim and jalapeno can register from 3,500 to 8,000 units. Serrano has 10,000 to 23,000 units, and the habanero/Scotch bonnet chili heat units can range from 100,000 to 300,000.

Gives new meaning to the phrase, “Hot enough for you?” doesn’t it?

Why the wide ranges in Scoville units within each variety? To finish the lesson, I explain the variables are like any other commodity. Factors such as source, variety, seed, climate and soil all play a role. We’ve all had some jalapenos, for example, that were tolerable, while others instantly sear the roofs of our mouths, right?

Chilies are low in calories and have been found to speed up metabolism. More than this, chili adds zest and interest to a growing number of dishes and the category continues to expand in popularity.

As the summer chili harvest season heats up, it’s a topic worth reviewing.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 30 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions.

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