Chiles of Mexico: Chile Serrano

“There is no doubt, nor room for argument, when it comes to chiles: Mexico reigns supreme.”-Diana Kennedy

It’s no wonder. Wild chiles were eaten in Mexico  9000 years ago, and Mexicans have been cultivating chiles for at least 6,000 years. Kennedy points out that long before the Scoville scale was invented, the Aztecs had seven words to describe levels of chile heat. The Oxford Companion to Food notes, “It may also be true that chillies, the chemicals within them, or the repetition of the pain-pleasure cycle, are mildly addictive.” We couldn’t agree more. Thus a new series, “Chiles of Mexico” in which we will explore one chile a week. (Carl, you are welcome to step up an take the helm here at any point: we all know you are hoarding a lifetime of chile research.)

We’ll start easy with the common chile serrano.

A pile of green chiles serranos.

photo by Forest and Kim Starr

The serrano (C. annuum) is medium in size, firm, and commonly eaten while still green. The name is derived from the mountain ridges from whence the serrano originated.  Serranos are pretty spicy, but of course there is a wide range from chile to chile. The flavor is sharp and keen–great for every day use. In traditional sauces serranos are eaten either fresh or asado, and as a general rule, the seeds are not removed.

For many years Rich and I lived with our friend Kevin, a bearlike chile fanatic. Kevin drove me crazy because it didn’t matter how many chiles I added to my black beans or chilequilles or spaghetti sauce–none of it was ever spicy enough for Kevin. He’d contemptuously dump Siracha on his food before he even tasted it. “Not hot enough,” he’d bark, reaching for one of the hundreds of bottles of hot sauce that littered the kitchen. Every year I upped the chile level in my recipes, hoping to get him to finally call uncle (or at least stop abusing my food with Siracha), but my strategy never worked.

Kevin at Tenacatita, circa 2009

When we were planning for the first Tenacatita Benefit, my friend Kamari and I each bought a big bag of serranos and we ended up with way too many chiles. Staring at the shiny green pile, I had an idea.

I roasted ten serranos and ground them into a paste. I strained the paste several times to make it as concentrated as possible. Then I put the paste in a small decorative bowl and got to work on the real salsa, which would be considerably diluted by tomatillos and garlic.

A few hours later:

“Kevin,” I said casually, proffering a bowl. “Can you test this salsa and tell me whether it’s hot enough for the benefit?”

He grabbed a serving spoon and scooped a Steve-sized spoonful, which he slurped down in one gulp, neatly eliminating at least half the “salsa”.  He was quiet for a moment.

“I think,” he said slowly. “That it’s hot enough. Some people,” he said cautiously, “might even think that it’s too hot.”