Farmers’ market brings the heat

Jul. 12, 2014 @ 11:24 AM

Summertime produce is flooding the South Durham Farmers’ Market, and among a full rainbow of sweet bell peppers, our shoppers will also find a wide selection of smaller, but more intense chili peppers. The hot and relatively dry weather this spring and summer has yielded a plentiful pepper crop full of flavor.

Peppers have been cultivated in Mexico and Central America for thousands of years. As with several other plants native to the Americas— tomatoes, corn, potatoes and squash— the use of peppers spread quickly after Columbus’ return to Spain. Chilies were so successful in part due to their ability to replace the heat provided by peppercorns (their unrelated namesake), which were immensely expensive at the time. A few centuries later, many of the iconic dishes of Europe, India and Asia rely on peppers (e.g., paprikash, vindaloo and Nam phrik), and over 100 varieties of peppers are sold worldwide. 

The heat in chili peppers comes from an alkaloid called capsaicin. Peppers seem to have adopted capsaicin to protect against harmful fungi and to make the fruit unappetizing to herbivorous mammals with molars that destroy rather than disperse the seeds.  Birds, on the other hand, are unaffected by capsaicin and swallow the seeds whole, allowing them to pass through and germinate. 

The amount of capsaicin in a pepper is measured in Scoville heat units (SHU). The SHU scale ranges from 0 SHU (a bell pepper) to 16,000,000 SHU (pure capsaicin). Currently, the hottest peppers, the Carolina Reaper and Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, measure at just over 2,000,000 SHU. That is quite hot; for comparison, a jalapeño is less than 8,000 SHU.

Of course, in high enough quantities, capsaicin can cause painful irritation to the skin and mouth. (Pepper-spray is the recommended method to deter bears!) Once, while preparing stuffed padron peppers from the market, I made the mistake of scratching the corner of my mouth. I learned the hard way that approximately one-fifth of padrones are very hot, and there is no method for determining the spicy culprits ahead of time (though, typically, the drier the weather, the hotter the pepper). It’s a thrilling game of pepper roulette.

Since then, I always handle chilies with gloves, but should you suffer from a similar incident, it’s important to wash the affected area with oil or soap, as water alone or alcohol will not effectively rinse away the offending capsaicin. Also, keep in mind that the highest concentration of capsaicin is found in the pith tethering the seeds to the flesh of the pepper.

At the SDFM, we have several hot peppers available including cayennes, Scotch Bonnets, jalapeños and Anaheims. They are delicious grilled, roasted, sautéed or stewed and easy to preserve by pickling or drying. To reduce the spiciness, simply remove the seeds and all of the pith.

If hot peppers still aren’t for you, we also have plenty of poblano, banana and heirloom bell peppers, plus sweet pepper jelly from Two Chicks Farm. But, if you like the spice, just remember that SDFM is bringing the heat!

Elizabeth Zander is market manager for the South Durham Farmers’ Market, open 8 noon each Saturday and 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. each Wednesday at Greenwood Commons Shopping Center, 5410 NC Highway 55.