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“It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you’ve done, or think you can do. There’s a confrontation with destiny awaiting you. Somewhere, there is a chile you cannot eat.” — Daniel Pinkwater, A Hot Time in Nairobi
The poor souls who suffer from allergies, whose symptoms range from a stuffy nose and itchy eyes to profound sneezing, often depend on over-the-counter potions for temporary relief. But not true-blue New Mexicans. Land of Enchantmenters grab our home grown hotheaded red or green chile pod to help clear the head. Why? A puissant chemical, capsaicin [kap-SAY-ih-sihn], which is found in most varieties of chile, is known for its nasal passage arousal and decongestant properties.
Up to 80 percent of capsaicin is found in the seeds and membranes of the chile pod. But not all peppers contain the fiery compound. Most paprika and bell pepper varieties, for example, fall at “0″ on the heat index which ranges from 1 to 10. In contrast, untamed versions, such as cayenne and habanero, produce readings from 7 and up.
Pure capsaicin powder is blonde in appearance and insoluble in cold water. That’s why drinking tumbler-size glasses of icy water, say scientists, won’t snuff out the chile irritant. But Susan Hazen-Hammond, author of Chile Fever: Mine’s Hotter Than Yours [Gramercy Books, 1996] writes, “. . . in Mexico, ancestral home of peppers, an old folk saying claims water is the best antidote. Someday scientists may discover why.”
Milk, especially whole milk, and yogurt, and a generous helping of Breyers French vanilla ice cream tames the pain for me. (Dairy products contain casein, a protein that helps desensitize the tissues by splitting the bond between the pain sensors and the capsaicin.) But other chile noshers swear by saltine crackers or a thimbleful of sugar or salt. The crystal granules, when rubbed on the tongue, are said to “sandpaper away” the pain. (Contact me if you have other surefire cures to share.)
Most chile cheechakos (chile novices) are tomorrow’s Chileheads, individuals who enjoy the cussing and sweating that occurs after downing a particularly ardent chile dish. After repeated doses of a mild variety like El Paso or Cherry, cheechakos inevitably demand a chile with a bit more bite. When I arrived in the fertile chileland ten years ago, for example, the gentle Big Jim was racy enough for me. Today, the hot Sandia peppers my homemade salsa and it’s my pepper of choice when I’m afflicted with allergies.
Alas, like thousands other, I suffer from seasonal rhinitis, a malady acquired only since relocating to this desert land. And when the nasty ailment hits, I retreat to my cozy abode, curl up on my cushy divan and savor a big bowl of Crockpot Firecracker Stew, which I share below.
CROCKPOT FIRECRACKER STEW
2 lb. boneless, skinless chicken, shredded or cut into strips (I use chicken breasts)
1-1/2 medium white onion, thinly sliced
2 large garlic clove, minced
1/2 to 1 lb. fresh (as hot as you like) green chiles, roasted, peeled, chopped (for added punch, try canned jalapenos)
2 (15-oz) cans corn kernels, drained
1 cups long grain rice, uncooked or 4 to 8 oz. egg noodles, uncooked
4 cups water or chicken broth
1 red bell pepper, diced
1-1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste
1/2-1 tsp. pepper, or to taste
Dump ingredients into a crockpot. Turn on low and simmer for several hours. Tastes best when refrigerated overnight and reheated. Top with shredded extra sharp Cheddar cheese. Serve with warm corn tortillas