Hot peppers can add variety to your life - and food

Want to add some spice to your life?

No, this is not a late-running Valentine's Day-themed column that focuses on your love life. I'm talking about adding some spice to your life (and food) with hot peppers - many of which are grown right here in Florida.

Until recently, I never appreciated the variety of hot peppers available - worldwide, the variety numbers in the thousands, said Danise Coon, a senior research specialist at the Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces, N.M.

My South American ex-husband used to have me carry in my purse to restaurants his jar of rocoto hot pepper sauce. Peppers are measured for spicy heat with something called Scoville units, which can range from 0 (bell peppers) to even up to 2 million. Apparently, the rocoto chili pepper has anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 Scoville units - so, while not the highest, it definitely was something my lengua gringa (American tongue) wanted to avoid.

Still, as I report on agriculture and occasionally visit ethnic-geared markets, it vexes me to see a variety of peppers but have no clue what most of them are. As part of my hot pepper education over the past year or so, I've ventured into making hot pepper jelly and using jalapeņos on dishes like nachos or pizza.

It doesn't hurt that hot peppers are supposed to have oodles of health benefits. They are reported to help fight inflammation, reduce congestion and help you lose weight by speeding up your metabolism.

All of that got me thinking about hot peppers here in Florida. "As long as the peppers have plenty of heat, enough water, and no frost, they can grow," said Mike Hultquist, a writer based in Lake in the Hills, Ill., and developer of the website (by coincidence, I reached him while he was vacationing in Bradenton Beach.

Coon said that the biggest states for commercial hot pepper growth are California, Arizona, and Texas, but that Florida is within the top 10 or so states.

During your next visit to a supermarket, check out the variety of hot peppers. You will likely see some easily recognizable ones, such as banana peppers (0 to 500 Scoville units) and jalapeņos (2,500 to 8,000 Scovilles). However, you may also come across varieties like the Anaheim (500 to 1,000 Scovilles), poblano (1,000 to 2,000 Scovilles), serrano (5,000 to 23,000 Scovilles), and the habanero (100,000 to 350,000 Scovilles-whoa!).

While visiting the produce area at Red Barn Flea Market in Bradenton, I noticed a number of large bags of brown peppers hanging overhead. A vendor told me those were guajillo peppers, which are milder dried peppers used in Mexican cuisine to provide extra flavor and color.

You probably already know about the use of hot peppers in Latin American foods, but many Asian cuisines add some heat, too, said Coon. The Asian varieties may include heirloom hot peppers such as santaka or takanotsume, she said. The peppers used in Asian cuisine often provide intense heat that dissipates quickly versus the lingering heat given with Latin American peppers, Coon said.

Hot pepper starter guide

If you want to explore hot peppers without burning your tongue off, what's a good way to start?

First, Coon said the poblano is a good starter pepper. "It's a stuffing-type pepper with a mild heat level. You can start there and then move it up a notch," she said.

Although I found plenty of recipes online for stuffed poblano peppers, Waly Zemp, a Bradenton resident and native of Mexico, recommended that I make pasta poblana - a pasta dish that combines poblano peppers with a sauce of heavy cream, cheese, butter, and a few other simple ingredients. It gave my usual pasta night a fresh twist, and it had little heat.

You also can gradually add spice to your life with rubs, seasonings, salsas and powders that contain hot peppers, said Hultquist. Even dried peppers like the guajillo I mentioned earlier are "awesome," said Hultquist, because they can be stored for a long time.

Another good starter hot pepper is the jalapeņo, which can be used in a variety of dishes, including jalapeņo poppers, said Hultquist, who has literally written a book about the popular snack dish.

Another way to enjoy hot peppers is to try them smoked, said Zemp. He's a big fan of chipotle, which is a smoked or dried jalapeņo pepper. Chipotles aren't very spicy but they add rich flavor to dishes, he said.