“They’re breeding the heat out of jalapeños, and it’s all because of poppers,” says Rick Bayless, addressing a group of us attending his seminar on the foods of the Yucatan. Bayless, with two acclaimed restaurants in Chicago, an ongoing PBS cooking show, multiple cookbooks and a nationally distributed line of salsas and sauces, is regarded by most food professionals as the leading authority in the U.S. on Mexican cuisine and its many regional variations
He was right. But some jalapeños have had the heat bred out of them and some haven’t. I learned that the hard way years ago, when I was catering. In fact, jalapeños were the nearest brush with disaster I had as a caterer.
Thankfully, all my catering events went well. Catering can be a rollercoaster ride. No matter how well a caterer plans and executes, unknowns over which he or she has no control still lurk around the corner: the weather, transportation, working in an unfamiliar kitchen that belongs to the people who are paying you, a larger number of guests showing up than expected (at least by the caterer), the guest of honor arriving an hour late, or an hour-early conclusion of a meeting before dinner. Somehow I always managed to pull it off. True, there was the time the tomato sauce fell into the chocolate fondue when I had to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision. And the time we had to transport food up a steep ice-coated driveway, bucket-brigade-style. But the clients were pleased, and the guests never knew about the little behind-the-scenes dramas.
They never knew about the jalapeños either. It started when I got a call to book a wedding shower. It wasn’t for a punch-and-cake-type shower, though. Nothing feminine and frilly for this bride: She wanted to wear jeans, drink beer and eat lots of spicy Tex-Mex food. And the caller wanted to hold the event in our bar.
That I had to think over. Several years before we’d installed a 21-foot antique walnut bar in an outbuilding previously used to wash apples when our property was the site of a large orchard. We’ve deliberately kept it rustic with the existing cement floors and tin roof. The only restrooms are in our farmhouse. It’s a great place for casual parties, but I’d never considered booking catering events there. Because the woman giving the shower was a friend of a friend and would provide event insurance for the evening, I agreed.
Jalapeños poppers had just begun making their appearance; they’d be a novelty among my Tex-Mex appetizers. Well before the shower, I experimented, carefully removing the seeds and ribs (the source of all chiles’ heat), stuffing the jalapeños with a combination of Mexican cheeses, dipping them in beer batter, and frying them. My family, those trusty guinea pigs, gave them thumbs up. The stuffing was better than any we’d had in restaurants, and the jalapeños’ heat was just right. Success!
My first surprise came when the guests began arriving. Somehow with the talk of jeans, beer and Tex-Mex, I’d gotten the idea that this was a couples shower – but the folks making their way out to the bar were all definitely female, and of mixed ages: About half were the bride’s generation; the other half were mothers, aunts and grandmothers, some of whom were well into the senior-citizen category.
“Looks like there’ll be lots of leftovers,” I said to my husband as I walked over to where he was frying poppers outside. “Guess what we’ll be eating for the next couple of days.”
“#&*^%*!!!,” replied my husband, who’d just sampled a popper. He grabbed a beer and began gulping frantically. “Have you tried these? They’ll blow your head off!” He glanced over at a particularly frail sweet-faced lady walking with a cane and the supportive arm of a younger guest. “If you serve these, you’ll be looking at a major lawsuit!”
Forewarned, I gingerly took a bite. It was incendiary. Maybe some of them weren’t as hot, but there was no way to find out. Fortunately, there was plenty of other food. No one missed the poppers, and we still ate leftovers for days.
Years later, the heat of jalapeño peppers still varies widely. Strains grown commercially for poppers are mild, and pickled jalapeños can be purchased either hot or mild. Fresh jalapeños, however, are almost never labeled according to their degree of heat. Sometimes I’ve had to use more than I intended because they’re too mild, sometimes far less because they’re too hot. Now if I’m making something that calls for jalapeños and that I want really hot, I often replace the jalapeños with Serranos, which are somewhat smaller, have a similar flavor profile, and have a more reliable heat level.
So heed my warning: To avoid losing friends and alienating family, always conduct a taste test before using fresh jalapeños!
Jalpeño cheese cornbread
Most southern cornbread is fairly sweet and has a cake-like crumb – too sweet and too cakey for my taste. The base recipe for this cornbread comes from the Betty Crocker 1950 Picture Cookbook, which says it’s from Ohio. Regardless of where it originated, it’s my hands-down all-time favorite cornbread – with or without the jalapeños and cheese. It’s quick to put together, bakes in minutes, and has a delectably crunchy crust and moist interior.
• 1/4 to 1/3 fresh jalapeños, stems, seeds and pith removed, cut into small dice
• 1 T. plus 1/4 c. bacon fat, preferred, or unhydrogenated lard, or butter, plus additional for buttering the skillet or pan.
• 1 1/2 c. buttermilk
• 1 egg
• 1/2 tsp. baking soda
• 1 T. baking powder, preferably one without aluminum, such as Rumford
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1 T. sugar
• 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
• 1 1/2 cups medium or coarse stone-ground cornmeal, preferably NOT degerminated
• 1 c. loosely packed, coarsely grated cheddar cheese* See note.
Preheat the oven to 450░. Put a 9-inch iron skillet or other 9-inch baking dish in the oven.
The amount of jalapeños you use should depend on your own heat preference level, as well as the jalapeños’ heat level.
Melt the tablespoon of bacon fat in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the diced jalapeños and stir to coat them, then sauté until they are softened and have lost their bright green color, about five minutes. Remove from the heat and keep warm.
Put the 1/4 c. bacon fat in a large microwavable bowl and microwave a few minutes until it is melted. Add the buttermilk, and microwave again just until it is lukewarm. Add the egg and the jalapeños. Beat until the egg is completely incorporated and the jalapeño pieces aren’t clumped together.
In a separate bowl, combine the baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar, flour and cornmeal and stir until combined. With a rubber spatula, make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, and stir in the buttermilk mixture. Combine with a few swift strokes, then add the grated cheese, and stir just until everything is incorporated. Do not overmix.
Remove the hot skillet from the oven, and quickly coat the bottom and sides with additional bacon fat or other fat, using a heatproof brush or folded paper towels. Add the cornbread mixture (it should sizzle when it hits the skillet), spread it evenly, then immediately return the skillet to the oven. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
The cornbread can be served at room temperature, but is best served hot (or at least still warm) from the oven.
*Note: Pre-grated cheese is coated with cellulose, a harmless substance that keeps the shreds separate. If you grate the cheese yourself, toss the shreds with a tablespoon of the combined dry ingredients before adding it to the batter.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.