Learning to love chili peppers is not for the faint of heart.
Take Jim Switzenberg, who grew up in Lancaster, went to Lancaster Catholic High and after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America found himself deep in the heart of Texas.
“I wasn’t a crazy hot freak when I got to the Southwest,” he said. “But I was working in kitchens with 100 percent Mexicans who didn’t speak much English, and I’m the white boy. These are guys who are actually working for me and teasing me at the same time.
“When they make breakfast, they make these little tacos, egg tacos. They take a bite out of the egg taco and a bite out of a jalapeno, and they smile like they’re saying, ‘This is how you eat here in Texas, try one.’
“I had to look tough in front of these guys. So I smile and take a bite out of the jalapeno like it was nothing, and I ask for another jalapeno. I just grabbed it and walked away. Then I went into the walk-in and started pouring milk down my throat. I burned myself up.”
Chilies are definitely an acquired taste, and one Switzenberg brought to his new home in Elizabethtown when he moved back to the area.
Switzenberg, who teaches culinary fundamentals and technique at HACC, grows jalapenos, Tabasco peppers, habaneros and poblanos, and his small garden has about a zillion Scoville units — the standard measure of spice heat. Heat in the chilies comes from the membrane, which is why many recipes for the heat-challenged will say to seed the pepper and scrape out the ribs.
Removing membranes and seeds from a habanero, for instance, will take away about 80 percent of the heat, leaving only the abundant flavor.
Switzenberg’s harvest from half a dozen plants is huge. His poblanos are the size of bell peppers, and the Tabasco plant has 60 or 70 chilies even now. He thinks he can keep harvesting through October.
Both his affection for chilies and his growing techniques came from his days in the Southwest.
“An organic farmer from Austin told me he got about 25 percent more harvest by droughting his chilies, and then watering them again.
“When they first start to go from flower to pepper and little buds appear, that’s when you trick ’em. You give them no water so they start to wilt. Get them to the point where you think they’re gonna die, and then water them really strong. It tricks them into budding more, so you get a lot more chilies.”
Chef Jim’s garden is only the beginning for his chilies. Some he dries, some he smokes and the hottest go into a Thai chili paste he makes with ginger, lemon grass, cilantro and garlic. Easy directions: sautee everything quickly, then puree.
But his specialty is salsas.
“I teach my students at HACC that there are five ingredients to a salsa: Chili, salt, lime. onion and cilantro. If you add mango to those five ingredients, you have a mango salsa. Add tomato, it’s a tomato salsa.”
Add avocado, it’s guacamole. Simple.
The key ingredient is the chili, which pushes many gardener/cooks to be creative.
“Everything is fair game,” said Corey Stein, who is a risk management consultant, a home cook and a former winner of George Weigel’s “How Does Your Garden Grow?” contest.
He grows jalapenos, cherry hots, cayenne, habaneros and Hungarian peppers, and puts them in an empty vodka bottle.
“I put them in as whole as possible, so the release of the heat is a little bit slower. I fill it to the brim with all the peppers and pour vodka back into the bottle. It doesn’t have to sit for more than a few hours before it starts picking up the heat.”
Then what? Drink it?
“I’ve found that cooking with it is really the most affable use,” Stein said. “I use it in my spaghetti sauce, and it seems to spread the pepper hotness very evenly throughout the sauce. Then I started experimenting with it in soups.”
With fall upon us, and a good harvest of chilies in hand, there is a good alternative for those who have a smoker or a dehydrator.
Nick and Ellen Hughes, who garden in Lower Allen Twp., take their extra peppers to the oven — and even drive to Spiral Path Farms to buy more.
Ellen gathers a range of hot and sweet peppers of as many colors as she can find, then slices them into pieces about 2 inches long. She makes a single layer in a roasting pan, then pours olive oil over all until the bottoms of the peppers are covered.
“It may seem like a lot,” she said, “but you can continue to use the oil for all of the peppers you are preparing.”
Strew chopped thyme and chopped onion over the peppers and place the pan under the broiler, not too close to the heating element. When they start to blacken, turn the peppers and broil until they’re fork-tender. Pull them and start the next batch.
“I usually work on two pans simultaneously, so there’s always another one waiting to go under the broiler,” she said.
PAT CARROLL: 255-8149 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Torchbearer Sauces are made by three habanero-loving guys in Mechanicsburg
For a pictorial guide to popular chilies, go to
Here are some of Chef Jim’s chili-reliant recipes:
1 onion 2 habanero peppers 1 pound tomatillos 1 poblano pepper
1/2 cup tequila 1/2 cup cilantro 2 limes Salt and pepper to taste
Rough chop vegetables and put in a sauce pot with tequila. Cook on medium heat until it simmers and everything is soft. Puree until smooth. Add other ingredients and adjust seasoning.
10 ripe avocadoes 2 cups diced tomatoes 1 1/2 cups diced red onion 2 jalapeno peppers, minced 2 fresh limes, juiced 1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped salt and pepper to taste
Peel and seed avocadoes. Mash avocadoes with fork. Add tomatoes, onion, jalapeno, lime juice, cilantro, salt and pepper. To prevent darkening, keep avocado seed in the mix and add 1/4 teaspoon olive oil.
Pico de Gallo 10 tomatoes, seeded and chopped 4 jalapenos, seeded and minced 1 clove garlic, minced 4 scallions, chopped 1/4 bunch cilantro, chopped 2 tablespoons lime juice
Salt, to taste
Combine ingredients and let sit in refrigerator for 2 hours
Chili Sauce 2 pounds chilies, roasted and peeled 3 garlic cloves, peeled 1/2 teaspoon cumin 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 lime, juiced 2 tablespoons oil 2 cups water
Pulse chilies in food processor until chunky, add everything else and puree.
Salsa Caliente 6 tomatoes, seeded 1/2 onion, sliced into chunks
habanero or jalapeno chili, seeded 1 cup fresh cilantro leaves 2 garlic cloves, peeled 1 cup bell pepper, chopped 2 tablespoons oil 1 lime, juiced 1/4 teaspoon salt
Put ingredients in a food processor, pulse until well mixed but still chunky.