The word cocina is one of those perfect Spanish words that encompass the culinary arts as well as your home kitchen and cooking. Few words have as much meaning and love in Mexico as La Cocina as it is from this part of the home that a family’s traditions are often born and nurtured. For me, the word cocina holds deep meaning, because my early careers centred on being a chef and later a purveyor of gourmet groceries.
As a long-term resident of Vallarta, the change in type and quality of restaurants and our ability to source a vastly more diverse set of ingredients is incredible. One of the most consistent parts of living here, however, is that so much of the food we use day-to-day is utterly fresh and flavourful.
In this column, we will focus on food and lifestyle. Some weeks the focus will be solely on better understanding the foods that are unique to this region. But as the word cocina itself is diverse and not limited to only one part of the kitchen, we will also feature local chefs, local producers, and even some local shops so you can find that perfect paella pan!
Today let’s talk about something so simple we often pass it by with barely a second glance; the jalapeño and its various incarnations, including the ripened red huachinango and the smoked and canned chipotle.
One of the most frustrating things about using these peppers is that they have very inconsistent heat levels. The technical term for measuring the heat of peppers is Scoville units, and the tricky jalapeño can range from 2500 to 10,000 which is still very mild compared to the habanero, which starts at 100,000 and goes up from there depending on variety.
The good news is that if you love using them in your day-to-day cooking, there are some things you can do to get a more consistent flavour and heat. First off, when buying fresh green jalapeños you should look for ones that are medium in size and have no brown lines or scarring. These marks mean that the pepper grew in a very hot temperature and the more scarred, the hotter it will be.
Once you have picked your perfect peppers, you can simply chop them up and discard the seeds. Using them this way is the most common, but I highly recommend giving them a nice blackened char on the outside and storing them in oil in your fridge.
You can blacken peppers very quickly by simply tossing them lightly in your preferred cooking oil, I use a canola blend for this and adding a little salt to them. Once coated you can grill, oven roast or cook in a pan on top of your oven. The goal is the same, give them a lightly blackened outside and then set them aside to cool in a covered bowl for about 30 minutes.
I like to have some roasted garlic around for salads or just to use, so I will often roast my garlic and jalapeños on the same day and store in the fridge to use later. Once the peppers are cooled, place them in a container and add enough oil to coat them. You can leave the charred skin on and remove it, along with the seeds when you go to use the peppers later. This simple preparation will give you the flavour you love from these peppers but substantially reduce the heat level.
If you find the ripened red jalapeño, which is called the huachinango, you can follow the same steps, but keep in mind that once ripened the heat level goes up, so even after the roasting process you will have a much spicier pepper.
The flavor of the smoked red jalapeño we all know as the chipotle is unique and intense and we will talk more about it when we cover the other most commonly used peppers here in Jalisco: serrano, poblano, and the habanero.
For now, Buen Provecho!