A few years ago when I was out for a walk, a neighbor offered me some habanero peppers. I knew they were hot peppers, and since I like my chili spicy I brought home a bag of the little red fruit. They sat on the kitchen counter in the bag for a couple of days until I offered to chop and freeze them. My plan was to package a couple of tablespoons of chopped pepper in small snack bags ready to be used as needed.
Jerri went to bed and I washed, seeded and chopped the peppers. I bagged them, washed up and went to bed feeling productive and virtuous.
I woke up at 1 AM. The time is etched permanently in my memory because my hands were on fire. Maybe I didn’t wash my hands thoroughly enough, I thought, so I went to the bathroom and scrubbed them for a couple of minutes. Rinsing them under cold water, I was sure that I had taken care of the problem. However, when the water began to get hot, my hands got hotter.
Being a person who trusted in the vast library of useful information that is the Internet, I went downstairs to the computer and typed “habanero pepper hands” into the Google search box. At that time we had only a dialup connection, so it took a minute or so for Google to give me the first page of about a quarter million results.
Unfortunately they were not the results I was looking for. There were suggestions to use sugar, milk, olive oil and alcohol to relieve the burning, but as I tried one remedy after the other, none of which offered more than relief lasting a few seconds, I began considering banging my head against a wall. If I did it hard enough, I might forget about my hands for awhile.
I had the most sympathy for the person who had posted a comment on a chat page headed by a question of how to stop hands burning from chopping habanero peppers: “I am one of those people stupid enough to chop habanero peppers without gloves. What should I do?” My exact mea culpa and question.
I had the least sympathy with the person who posted this smarmy comment: “You should always wear gloves when chopping hot peppers.” Lots of help that was.
By this time it was about 2:30 in the morning. In a lucky flash of genius I realized that since my hands felt pretty good under cold water when I was washing them and in cold milk while I was soaking them, maybe I could just keep my hands in cold water until they shriveled up and dropped off or stopped burning. At that point I didn’t much care which happened first.
I put our largest mixing bowl on the breakfast bar, filled the bowl with about four inches of cold water, added two trays of ice cubes, put my hands into the bowl and promptly fell asleep sitting on a stool. When I woke up about 6:30 that morning my hands felt only uncomfortably sunburned.
One good thing to come out of this experience, aside from learning that soaking your hands in ice water stops burning caused by habanero peppers, was learning about the Scoville Scale The Scoville Scale ranks chile peppers according to how hot they taste in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). The heat comes from capsaicin, the chemical that makes peppers taste hot, and the scale goes from zero (bell peppers which have no capsaicin) to 16,000,000 for pure capsaicin.
Jalapeño peppers, which we had been using for years, rank pretty low on the scale at 2,500 to 8,000 SHU. Habaneros, on the other hand, have 200,000 to 350,000 SHU. Peppers vary in flavor as well as spiciness, and we have learned to enjoy many of them, from the mild Anaheim and poblano peppers to the hotter jalapeños and serranos and even those habaneros that I now know must be used with care and for us at least in small amounts.
Besides using jalapeños in our breakfast frittatas and for making jalapeño poppers, jalapeño peppers make a wonderful stir fry for anyone who enjoys a slightly spicy dinner. Stir fries are perfect for quick summer dinners. If you like spicy foods, here is a simple recipe for two or three people that will tingle your tongue in less than 30 minutes.
3/4 lb. lean sirloin steak
1 small or medium yellow onion
3 or 4 fresh jalapeño peppers
1/2 red bell pepper
stir fry sauce
2 T olive oil
Prepare the rice according to instructions on the package or your own special way.
While the rice is cooking, slice the sirloin into thin (1/8 to 1/4 “ thick) strips two to three inches long. Peel and coarsely chop the onion. Remove the stems and seeds from the jalapeño peppers and chop them into half inch inch pieces. If you have sensitive skin, wear gloves when you do this. Remove the seeds from the bell pepper and slice it into thin strips.
Pour 2 tablespoons of olive oil into a skillet. A wok, of course, works best but is not essential. About eight minutes before the rice is done, heat the oil, add the beef and brown it lightly. Add the onions and peppers and stir rapidly for about 1 minute. Season the meat and vegetables with two to four tablespoons of stir fry sauce.
Continue stirring for another one to two minutes to cook the vegetables. Season to taste (I always add a dash of salt) and have soy sauce at the table for final seasoning. Serve over rice with a garden salad on the side.
NOTES: Most of the heat in peppers is concentrated in the seeds and white membrane inside the pepper, so the spiciness of the jalapeños in this recipe is on the low end of the Scoville Scale.
And a final reminder from one who now knows better: Wear gloves whenever you chop habanero peppers.