“That takes something,” said my older daughter as she dipped a tasting spoon into the marinara sauce.
I had roasted the last tomatoes from the garden with garlic and olive oil. Then I seasoned it and mashed it with a hand blender.
“How about more balsamic vinegar?” I asked as I added some Italian seasoning.
She went to the closet and added something to the pot. She grinned at me as she quickly put the bottle back in the cupboard.
Then she started sneezing. I went over to taste the contents of the updated bubbly pot on the stove. I also started sneezing.
“Did you put a lot of pepper in the pot?” I asked between sneezes.
“I added some of my Demon Red dried chilli pepper,” she admitted.
I was afraid to dip a spoon in the pot for fear it might melt or explode.
“Oh, mom, I just added a little bit,” she said with a laugh and another sneeze.
The sauce was actually very good, with just the right amount of heat, but not too much for us with Scandinavian bloodlines.
Why are some peppers so hot that they cause sweat and pain? Hot peppers cause a burning sensation in the mouth because they contain a compound called capsaicin.
The spiciness in peppers can be measured in Scoville thermal units, which are a measure of the capsaicin present. The chemist Wilbur Scoville developed the test to assess the spiciness of chili peppers about 100 years ago.
Every year my daughter grows some kind of super hot pepper plant in our garden. The dried pepper she added from last year has a rating of 50,000 on the Scoville scale. In comparison, a pepper measures zero.
That year she grew a ghost pepper plant that has a Scoville thermal unit rating of at least 750,000 thermal units.
According to some scientists, we actually develop a tolerance to hot food and may crave it after a while. When we eat super spicy food, the nervous system responds to the pain by releasing endorphins, or “feel good chemicals”.
To determine the Scoville units, dried peppers were chopped up and placed in a sugar-water solution. A panel of taste testers then assessed the heat level. More peppers were added until the testers could determine they were there.
His testers managed to try one pepper sample a day before their tongues needed a break.
Bell peppers vary in spiciness from zero, the number assigned to a sweet bell pepper. A jalapeno pepper has a Scoville rating of about 5,000 while serrano pepper has a rating of about 15,000 or more. If you really want to challenge your taste buds, try a habanero, known for its fiery, sour pungency and which has a rating of over 350,000 Scoville units. Extremely hot peppers have values in excess of 1 million Scoville units.
Fortunately, laboratory equipment for human taste testers can now measure capsaicin levels in different types of pepper.
When handling hot peppers, keep in mind that the essential oils can burn your skin. Wear plastic gloves to protect your hands and be careful not to touch your face or eyes. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly.
If you enjoy hot and spicy food, it is essential to have a glass of milk close at hand. The protein in milk helps counter the burning of the essential oils in the peppers by encapsulating the oil and helping to wash it away.
Bell peppers are low in calories and very high in vitamin C and natural antioxidants to fight disease. Green peppers ripen into red peppers, which are sweeter and have higher vitamin C content.
One of my interns brought this recipe to test and it was a hit. Tahini is sesame paste. Look for it in the spice section or in the ethnic grocery section of larger stores.
Roasted red pepper hummus
2 whole red peppers
1 (15-ounce) can of chickpeas
¼ cup lemon juice
¼ cup tahini
1 clove of garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon of cumin
Pinch of cayenne
Salt to taste
Wash and quarter the peppers and scrape out the inside. Slide the oven rack directly under the grill. Place the peppers skin side up on the baking sheet. Place the baking sheet in the oven on the top rail. Put the oven on grill and saute the peppers for 5 to 10 minutes until the skin is charred. Let the peppers cool down. Remove charred skin and chop, or temper skin and chop. Blend the tahini and lemon juice for 1 minute, scrape off the sides and blend for another 30 seconds. Add olive oil, garlic, cumin, and salt, blend for 30 seconds, scrape off the sides, and blend for another 30 seconds. Drain and rinse the chickpea can. Put half of the chickpeas in a blender and puree for 1 minute. Scrape off the sides and add the other half of the chickpeas. Blend for 1 to 2 minutes. Scrape off sides. Add paprika and stir until smooth. If the hummus is too thick, add a little water. If the hummus is too thin, mix in more chickpeas. Serve with carrot sticks, celery sticks, pepper sticks, crackers, pita chips, etc.
Makes eight servings. Each serving has 130 calories, 8 grams (g) fat, 4 g protein, 11 g carbohydrates, 3 g fiber, and 85 milligrams sodium (no added salt).
Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., RD, LRD, is a food and nutrition specialist at North Dakota State University Extension and a professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences. Follow her on Twitter @jgardenrobinson