Hot and Bothered

Those who like to get a buzz off the green stuff probably don't think they're addicts. It's just for fun. It's only recreational, right? The truth is green chiles can be addictive. What green stuff did you think we were talking about?

See, chiles contain capsaicin, a substance that causes the spicy heat we love to hate or hate to love. And high doses of capsaicin can cause the body to release endorphins, creating a buzz that can last several hours. Because of this response, hot foods can be mildly addictive and even an obsession for some. An entire "chilehead" culture has grown around the consumption of the hot pepper.

In these parts, the Woodstock of the chile counterculture is Chuy's Green Chile Festival. It kicks off Friday with fresh peppers being given away from 11 a.m. until the stash runs out. However, it continues from Tuesday through September 23 with green chile-flavored dishes served daily during what Chuy's likes to call "three weeks of peace and grub." Limited edition T-shirts and festival memorabilia also will be available, and fresh peppers will be sold by the pound either fresh or roasted outside (as they're served in the dishes).

"The big deal about the chile is the roasted flavor," says John Bollier, the general manager of the Chuy's at Knox and McKinney Avenue. "To get the outer, waxy skin off the chile, you can either blanche it by boiling it or dipping it in hot grease or roast it. Roasting it gives it a smoky flavor and is healthier. It also retains all the flavor and vitamins."

These particular chiles are grown in New Mexico and harvested at the end of the season. "It's the one time of year that they are harvested fresh," Bollier says. "Basically, you cannot get a fresh green chile in December."

Chuy's purchasing manager David Balli is equally thrilled. "This year's crops are looking really good," he says. "The valley had a very dry season this year, which means the peppers will definitely have a kick."

That "kick" is what we usually call the "heat," and that's determined by the number of Scoville units--a kind of chile pepper heat gauge--present. And "heat" is a pretty accurate description. At the molecular, cellular and sensory level, chile burns are similar to heat burns. However, someone who ingests regular doses of the capsaicin (unlike repeated exposure to fire) soon will have a long-lasting desensitization to the pain normally associated with chile peppers and develop a higher tolerance to the heat as well as very clear sinuses.

A word of wisdom to the adventurous: If you get in over your head by eating a few more Scoville units than you can handle, don't try to put out the fire with water. Alcohol is more effective, but the best countermeasures are milk and ice cream.