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The Luke-Warm Chile Peppers

New Mexico chileheads confront the mild jalapeno menace.

May 03, 2000|BILL PAPICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Move over, chicken hot dogs, sugar-free sweets, light beer and fat-free potato chips. Now there are jalapenos with no heat.

The bite-less jalapeno is a burning issue in chile pepper country, where some chileheads are fuming because plant breeders have figured a way to remove the fire from their favorite fruit.

The traditional jalapeno hits between 3,500 and 4,500 range on the Scoville scale, which measures how hot chile peppers taste. The renegade jalapeno rates at or near zero. (The hottest chile ever tested was a habanero that registered 577,000 units.)

Perhaps most frustrating to chile hotheads is that they can't point their pods at a particular plant-breeding villain. Several breeders take credit for developing chilly jalapenos.

"There is some method behind the madness," says Paul Bosland, chief chile breeder and plant geneticist at New Mexico State University at Las Cruces.

"My dubious plan all along has been to make chiles mild. Everyone begins eating them; then I make them hotter. Everyone will eat more and, before you know it, everyone is eating the hottest ones."

For his Nu-Mex Primavera variety, a jalapeno with no detectable heat in a taste test, Bosland received a 1999 Ig Nobel award at Harvard University. The award was one of several handed out in honor of people "who have done remarkably goofy things--some of them admirable, some perhaps otherwise."

One who believes this definitely belongs in the "otherwise" category is chef Martin Rios of Old House restaurant in Santa Fe, who received this year's New Mexico Hospitality Chef of the Year Award, the state's highest culinary award.

"If I'm going to make salsa with no heat in it, then people are going to look at me and say, 'What are you doing?' I suppose I could just call it a marmalade or something like that."

Although ultra-mild jalapenos may be shunned by culinary artists, commercial salsa makers have used them for years to cut the heat in mass-produced salsas.

Plant breeder Phil Villa of Camarillo says he got a call from Texas salsa manufacturer Pace Foods in 1991, asking him to develop a heatless jalapeno. Four years later, after crossing a female Italian pepper with a male jalapeno chile, Villa fulfilled Pace's request, just as the company was being bought by Campbell Soup.

"So they began a process that I can't divulge to try to control the heat levels [in salsa]," Villa says. "Apparently it was more of a success than they expected."

But the heatless jalapeno relationship to food processors goes back further, says Ben Villalon, a retired Texas A&M University plant breeder, who was cross-breeding the heat out of jalapenos in the 1970s.

"The first thing we were looking at 20 years ago tasted like grass," Villalon says. "The problem was trying to get the jalapeno flavor into that sweet jalapeno."

That problem was solved in 1978 when a low-heat jalapeno developed by Villalon, dubbed the TAM-1, was made available to the food industry by Texas A&M.

The TAM-1 rates 1,100 Scoville units. "The TAM-1 mild jalapeno had the [jalapeno] flavor, because it had a little heat in there," Villalon says.

"The problem with our mild jalapenos is you don't find them at the grocery stores and restaurants, because it's mainly a processing product that only goes to the big processors."

In 2001, however, Seminis Garden Inc. will introduce a no-heat jalapeno seed to the general public through retail seed catalogs, Seminis director Jim Waltrip says.

"There are a lot of people who can't eat anything but mild salsa," Waltrip says. "You'll be able to put this in mild salsas and have sissies be able to eat it."

Chile breeder Bosland says he will mail Nu-Mex Primavera seeds to whomever requests them.

"I've got a lot of mail from folks who said I've sold my soul to the devil. My desk was also piled high with people wanting a seed sample," Bosland says.

"A lot of people are terrified to even attempt jalapeno dishes because they don't want to get burned out. Now they can try them."

Whether heatless jalapenos will catch on at Mexican and Southwestern restaurants is questionable. There can be a stigma attached, says Chile Pepper magazine editor Robb Walsh.

"I remember a [Mexican] restaurant in New York where I ate a bunch of them," Walsh says. "I said, 'These must be TAM jalapenos.'

"They disavowed any knowledge because they were trying to say they were serving jalapenos and they didn't want it out that their jalapenos were actually heatless."

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