When it comes to chile peppers, my taste buds generally tap out around the habanero, those little orange babies whose Scoville scale rating (which measures the amount of capsaicin — the chemical compound that stimulates nerve endings and makes your mouth burn and eyes water) taps out around 300,000.
That’s around 1,000 times hotter than a lowly jalapeño but considerably less than law enforcement grade pepper spray (oh well, thank goodness for that).
But no New Mexican Scorpion chilies here, the pepper currently petitioning Guinness World Records to become the world’s hottest chili pepper, and which claims to have a Scoville rating of more than one million.
“I don’t think the producer has enough for a big production,” says Central Market’s Cooking School Manager David Kiser. “I don’t think he’s even produced enough to sell seeds. Plus, there are some people who don’t believe it’s real.”
And it sounds like Kiser is one of them.
“But we have pretty much everything else,” he says.
Okay, game on. Kiser has set out a spread of peppers and pepper products for us to try as a prelude to Central Market's "Eat the Heat" festival that kicks off Wednesday through March 29.
The man has also kindly set out — and this is very, very important — a bowl of sour cream and some Mexican crema.
“You have to remember that capsaicin is oil based,” he explains, “so the minute you get it in your mouth and feel the burn, any water you add is just going to move it around.”
As in, not do a darn thing to help your burning tongue and probably make it worse. That’s right, no amount of water or Margaritas will help if you overdose on peppers. You need a dairy product to cut the heat, which is why you see so many folks swilling a glass of milk while eating Tex-Mex. Okay. Not.
But Sandra Bullock did wisely chose to drink milk after Ellen DeGeneres dared her to eat a whole habanero on TV. Now that’s the performance she should have gotten the Oscar for.
But I digress.
Kiser and I started with some delectable cheeses: one soft cheese with the vile habaneros and a harder cheese with jalapeños. But both were wonderful and not life threatening, the kind of cheese you could set out with wine and crackers and not kill the guests.
Then we moved on to a few salsas. The best of which turned out to be Austin’s Dan’s Prime High Noon Habanero hot salsa. Pretty tasty on a corn chip, but it did require a taste of sour cream afterwards. I don’t think I could sit down and eat a bowl of this with a bag of chips.
“But my favorite is the McClure’s Pickles,” Kiser explained as he opened the bottle and sliced up a huge pickled cucumber that had been soaking with a (again with the freakin’ chili!) habanero.
But, you know what? They actually are the best tasting pickles ever. A jar will set you back close to 10 bucks but it’s well worth it. These things would be awesome on a sandwich or a hamburger.
But wait, there’s more, can you say chili and chocolate? Yes sir, next up were several chocolate bars made with peppers, including the artisan chocolatier Bovetti’s milk chocolate bar with Sichuan peppers and bits of salted peanuts. Even for a non-sweet lover like moi, it was a salty, spicy, sweet delight.
“You can put chili peppers in anything,” Kiser says. “Even ice cream!”
“Of course, what would a bloody Mary be without spice? Imagine adding cayenne pepper or a habanero oil to it? Chili pepper oils are a great way to add heat to any dish without the obvious pepper, people will be asking you what that secret ingredient is.”
In fact, cooking with chili peppers is an international craze, not just a south of the border tradition. Look at the Asian, Italian and French cuisines.
“Well,” admits Kiser, “maybe not the English and Irish.”
Although it probably couldn’t hurt them.
The celebration of all things hot and tasty includes tasting stations throughout the store, a shrimp and crawfish boil on Saturday-Sunday and March 26-27, and if you Tweat your Heat or Melt Your Facebook you have a chance to win a $25 gift card to Central Market.
You can also sign up for cooking classes like The Spicy Indian where cookbook author Raghavan Iye will teach the secret of cooking with Asian spices on Saturday and Molly Fowler, The Dining Diva, teaches Couples Cook: Hot or Spicy Friday.
Oh, and of course you can buy plenty of peppers and pepper products. A plethora of peppers, more than 20 different kinds of fresh and dried peppers will be showcased in the store, everything from everyday jalapeños and their dried and smoked counterpart the chipotle chili, to the heat devil Bhut Jolokia, known as the flame inducing ghost pepper.