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Banner Dried Chili Peppers (c)2012

February has arrived, and with it, a longing for spring. Here in Colorado, the ground hog always sees his own shadow, and we’re sentenced to 6 more weeks of winter. On the sunny, mild days one could be convinced spring is around the corner, but we know better. March is our snowiest month, averaging 17 inches in Boulder. Too bad I don’t ski.

Fresh produce is at its leanest right now, and many months will pass before a peppery radish, sprightly green bean, juicy peach, or ripe tomato graces the table. The farmers market has gone into hibernation until April. Hearty, rich, comfort food is wearing on my palate. I begin to crave bold, punchy flavors. Subconciously, I reach into the pantry for crushed red chili pepper to sprinkle over pastas and soups. The spicy heat stimulates my palate, and I feel the warm summer sun shining on my shoulders, if only for a moment.

A visit to my local supplier, The Savory Spice Shop, reveals a whole world of undiscovered dried chili peppers: whole beauties, red ground powders, and crushed flakes. I feel excited and creative, hurrying home with a bag full of perfect specimens, each with its own flavor profile. To me, dried chili peppers are fascinating in the same way as wine: so many grape varieties, colors, tasting notes, and terroir. Dried chilies can taste pungent, smokey, fruity, sweet, nutty, floral, or tangy. They may have the essence of licorice, prunes, or chocolate. During these cold and dreary days of winter, why not seek out new varieties of dried chili pepper to liven up your cooking?

According to The Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion, more than 200 types of chilies exist. Indigenous to Mexico, chilies were brought to Spain by Columbus in 1492, then distributed across the globe. Today, chili peppers are important to the cuisines of Central and South America, the Caribbean, India, Asia, Spain, Italy, and the Middle East. India is the largest producer and consumer of chilies.

Dried chili peppers are used in dips, sauces, pickles, chutneys, stir-fries, curries, soups, and stews. In the home kitchen, whole dried chilies are usually toasted and ground or toasted and soaked before being added to a dish. The spicy heat in chilies comes from capsaicin found in the seeds and white fleshy parts. Dried chilies can be very hot, and so recipes will often instruct the cook to remove the seeds and veins. Pay attention to the label, which shows a rating of the heat from 1-10.

This week at la Domestique is full of ideas for cooking with dried chili peppers during winter. We’ll explore cuisines around the world and learn about their favorite chili peppers. For thousands of years, the poorest peoples have used dried chili peppers to add flavor to their bland diet. Isn’t that just what we need in the dead of winter- a little sun on our shoulders to remind us spring will come, eventually.

Do you have a favorite type of dried chili or ground chili spice? Let me know in the comments section. Click Here.