Dried or Fresh Chiles: Ideas for Cooking Spicy (but not crazy)

Robert writes: I like spicy food and would be grateful if you could share your thoughts on the differences between cooking with the dry and fresh chiles I have here. Also, any recipe ideas would be much appreciated. I was thinking of making something with boneless chicken thighs tonight.

Tony’s take: Robert, like you, I’m a chile-head. To start with, they’re good for you (and this is something that’s largely overlooked):  both fresh and dried chiles contain all sorts of vitamins and antioxidants as well as other side benefits – like assisting with digestion (this to a degree which I think still has yet to be properly quantified). But more than anything, chiles just taste good. Their presence in dishes, when added with a little restraint and nuance, has a way to intensify the flavors around them and make life more exciting. You’re right that cooking with dried and fresh chiles is very different. Generally, I prefer  to cook dried chiles (as opposed to using them raw). I’ll toast them over low heat either in a dry pan or  with a little olive oil so the oil gets infused. Fresh chiles are more versatile (they’re fine either cooked or raw), but also more unpredictable; fresh chiles’ heat can vary (for instance, some jalapenos are mild while others are strong enough to embarrass you in front of a date).  And the sheer spiciness of some fresh chiles (like those small orange habaneros you have in the picture) demand caution (or else, risk the dreaded mouth-so-on-fire-you-want-to-retch state). The dried chiles you have there appear to be Mexican chile de arbol which are good all-purpose peppers. As for fresh, it looks like you have habaneros, Thai chiles and red jalapenos (or Fresno – either way, they’re similar). So, I’ve offered up an idea for each, including that chicken you were planning on making tonight. Enjoy, and keep on hand some milk or bread or beer (or whatever you like to get rid of the numbing heat)!

I. Dried Chiles: Cook, with gentle, low heat; toast with aromatics (like ginger or garlic);  cook the chiles whole or coarsely chop them first.

Spaghetti with Garlic, Rosemary, and Hot Pepper Flakes:  This is one of those ridiculously simple pasta dishes that most all Italians know how to make, but know how to make well, so that in 20 minutes total, you get a really flavorful dinner that is as good if not better than anything you can get from take-out. Though Italians use dried peperoncini (potent little red chiles), those chile de arbol should work just fine. Grab 1 or 2, coarsely chop them (so you get about 2 tsp.) and cook in a large saute pan over medium heat with a generous hit of olive oil (about 1/2 cup), 2 chopped garlic cloves (about 2 tsp.) and 1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary until the garlic starts to turn light golden at the edges, about 2 minutes . Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook a long noodle (like spaghetti or linguini) until just tender. Drain and toss the noodles with the spicy oil and serve with a sprinkling of Parmigiano or pecorino and some simply sauteed meat and vegetables.

Other dried chile ideas: Chop (or “crush”) dried red chiles and toast with garlic for a spicy Mexican salsa roja or stir-fry with minced ginger, garlic and fermented black beans and cook with strips of beef or chicken and some broccoli or gently simmer with fresh corn and hominy and chicken for a Southwestern stew.

II. Fresh Chiles: Chop and serve raw in sauces or salsas or gently simmer in sauces, soups, or stews.

Mango and Habanero Salsa: Habaneros are the grand daddies of the chile world (or at least the scary little guys as it were). They’re potent (over 100,000 Scoville units – the measure of pepper’s capsaicin or spiciness) and demand a little extra attention: you may want to use plastic gloves when working with them, because no matter how well you wash your hands afterwards, you can quite easily set  anything you touch on fire. Enough of the PSA. To make this salsa, dice (about 1/4 inch) and then toss 1 ripe mango, 1 jarred roasted red pepper, and some red onion (1/2 small) along with 1 habanero (cored, seeded, and diced), some chopped cilantro (1/4 cup), the juice of 1 lime and S+P to taste. Serve with grilled steak, chicken, or fish.

Spicy Stir-Fried Chicken with Basil and Thai Chiles:  I love Thai chiles. They hold for a while in the fridge (at least a week), are really easy to work with (you can just cut them into thin rings and discard the stem), and pack a nice punch without getting crazy. Try this Thai-inspired stir-fry. Cut up those boneless thighs you’ve got into a 3/4 inch dice. Thinly slice 2 to 3 of those chiles and stir-fry with a splash of peanut oil and some minced ginger and garlic. Once they start to sizzle, add the chicken and cook, tossing, until the chicken cooks through, 2 to 3 minutes. Toss with a light splash of fish sauce (1 Tbs.), some lime juice (1 to 2 tsp.) and a couple of torn basil leaves. Serve with some stir-fried vegetables and Jasmine rice.

Smothered Steaks with Onions and Jalapenos: This is just a slight spicy take on a classic. Sear a couple of steaks (sirloin or skirt would work), then reserve them on a plate and saute 1 large thinly sliced Spanish onion and 2 jalapenos (cut crosswise into rings) until wilted. Add a good splash of chicken broth (or water), some Worcestershire (1 Tbs.), soy sauce (1 Tbs.) and a little ketchup (1 to 2 Tbs.), season this onion broth/sauce to taste, add in a fresh herb if you like (thyme?), nestle the steaks into the onion mixture and serve.

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