On The Range: Chipotles

On The Range is a weekly exploration of the history and lore of Texas menu items.

When considering chipotles, or any other piquant peppers, you need to keep two names in mind.

One is Rolaids, if you're of a timid stomach. But you should also be aware of Wilbur Scoville, the chemist who almost a century ago, created the Scoville scale of hotness known as the Organoleptic Test.

Simply put, this scale measures the amount spice generated by various forms of capsaicin, assigning a numerical rating to each. The scale reflects thirteen levels of heat, from zero (Bell peppers) to 2500-8000 Scoville units (jalapeno), up to 100,000-350,000 units (Habanero)--finally topping out at 15 to 16 million units (pure capsaicin).

Just for the record, law-enforcement-grade pepper spray clocks in at a blistering five million units--sometimes a good thing to know.

Chipotle peppers fall just below the midpoint on the Scoville scale, anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 units. And according to Diana Kennedy in My Mexico, the smoked jalapenos are rising on the popularity scale faster than you can order a drive-thru burrito:

"Jalapeno chiles---ripened, smoked-dried, and prepared in a pungent sauce for chipotles en adobo---have taken the American gastronomic world by storm. They are everywhere, the condiment of the decade, mixed with anything and everything: in sauces, seasoning pastes, soups, salads, breads, etc. There are two types of chipotles: the larger, highly-smoked, tobacco-colored one, and the smaller, mulberry-colored (as the name implies) mora---not to be confused with moritas, which are smaller."

Pretty succinct.

Chipotles are indeed produced from jalapenos, which have been left to ripen on the vine while the green varieties are scooped up to meet America's insatiable need to put something atop their ballpark nachos. When they turn deep red, they are harvested and placed in a wood-burning closed smoker grill then left for several days until most of the moisture seeps away.

Not surprisingly, Stephan Pyles has included a recipe for chipotle brioche in his book The New Texas Cuisine. He writes: "The chipotle puree adds an earthy, brick-like color, as well as a little punch at the back of the palate when the other flavors have subsided. This bread makes a great accompaniment to any meal, especially sliced and toasted. It's also ideal for making club sandwiches."

Sounds good, though it's not on the menu at Don Pepe's Rancho Mexican Grill. But you will find chicken enchiladas in chipotle cream sauce served as a daily special from time to time. As Pyles predicted, the delicate cream sauce does gain a little punch from the chipotle peppers, and is subtle enough where you won't necessarily have to reach for the Rolaids.

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Chris Meesey