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Kevin’s Kitchen

Some, Like Me, Like it Hot

There are joys in discovering the many flavors of peppers, spicy or not

My journey to 100,000 Scoville units began with a single chip.

The Scoville scale, for those of you who don’t know, is a measure of a pepper’s content of capsaicin—the chemical compound that makes peppers spicy. It ranges from 0 for a bell pepper to 16 million in the case of pure capsaicin. Jalapeños weigh in at about 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville units, depending on how they are cultivated. Habaneros, meanwhile, are rated at 100,000 to 350,000 Scovilles.

The single chip mentioned above was a tortilla chip with a tiny amount of salsa on it. I was about 5 or 6, and was making my first foray into a spicier world. I soon graduated from dipping chip corners into the salsa to downing heaping spoonfuls of the spicy stuff.

I quickly moved up to the “big leagues,” adding a drop or two of the Tabasco Sauce that my dad so favored to my food. Soon those drops became dashes, and the dashes became streams. I had become a chile connoisseur.

The hotter, the better became my mantra, especially as a young adult. I moved on to fresh jalapeños, then to serranos, habaneros and Scotch bonnets. Peppers spiced up my breakfasts and often dominated my suppers.

Some of the first things I planted in my very first vegetable garden were jalapeño bushes.

As I learned to love ever-hotter foods, I also discovered that different peppers imparted different flavors, and I started to appreciate them for more than their endorphin-inducing burns.

The melding of those distinct flavors comes to a crescendo in this recipe for a mole rojo that my friend George Leake showed me how to make. Unlike the traditional idea of a mole, this one is made without chocolate. But it features four varieties of dried chile peppers (guajillo, ancho, pasilla and arbol) as well as pepitas (pumpkin seeds), sesame seeds and other flavors. It is wonderful atop roasted meat or as a veggie dip.

Mole Rojo De Jorge

3 cups pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
5 dried guajillo chiles
5 dried ancho chiles
5 dried pasilla chiles
5 chile arbol pods
1/3 cup whole comino seeds (or 1/4 cup ground cumin)
2 to 4 tablespoons peppercorns (or equivalent amount of fresh-ground pepper)
1 1/2 cups sesame seeds
2 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil
1 onion, diced
2 heads garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1/2 cup chicken stock
Salt to taste

Spread pepitas on cookie sheet and roast in slow oven (250 degrees) for about 30 minutes, checking and stirring every 10 minutes, until golden brown. Set aside to cool. Stem and seed chiles. Toast chiles in batches in large skillet (cast iron works best) over medium-high heat until skins just begin to blacken. Place in deep bowl and add boiling water to cover. Allow to soak for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, reduce heat in skillet to medium and toast comino seeds, in batches if necessary, stirring or shaking pan constantly, taking care not to scorch them. Remove to plate to cool. Toast peppercorns, if using, for 20 to 30 seconds and remove to plate to cool.

Reduce heat to medium-low and toast sesame seeds, in batches, if necessary, until golden. (Sesame seeds burn easily, so be sure skillet has cooled a bit before you start.) Remove to plate and allow to cool. Return heat to medium, heat oil in skillet and sauté onion until it begins to caramelize. Add garlic and cook another 1 to 2 minutes until fragrant. Add chicken stock and remove skillet from heat.

Using a molcajete (mortar and pestle) or spice grinder, grind comino seeds, then peppercorns. Remove chiles from water and place in blender or food processor. Reserve liquid. Add ground spices and process chiles until medium-thick paste forms, adding some reserved liquid if necessary. Add onion and garlic mixture and process until smooth. In a molcajete or spice grinder, process toasted sesame seeds until fine, add to paste in food processor and pulse to combine. Grind about half of toasted pepitas similarly and add to processor and pulse to combine. Chop or grind remaining pepitas into small pieces and stir into mixture. Taste and add salt as necessary.

Servings: 32. Serving size: 1/2 cup. Per serving: 103 calories, 3.3 g protein, 7.1 g fat, 7.5 g carbohydrates, 1.9 g dietary fiber, 9 mg sodium, trace cholesterol