Spice It Up With Cayenne Pepper

Sweet and Spicy Chocolate Ice Cream (recipe below)

If I say the words “cayenne pepper,” do you get fired up with excitement or recoil in fear? Either way, one thing is certain: The conversation starts with a bang!

Unlike the cool cucumber or creamy avocado, the fiery red cayenne pepper is one variety of fruit (yes, fruit) whose very name elicits strong reactions, leaving people hot and bothered. But even if your preferences are firmly planted on the mild side, stick around. I’ve harvested a bushel of information about cayenne that might just tempt you to fan the flames.

Cure With Cayenne
Cayenne’s spiciness has been falsely accused of causing upset stomachs and heartburn, but recent research is restoring reverence for this pepper’s powerful health-building properties. As the ancient Aztec people understood, cayenne is actually capable of soothing a variety of ailments, including the burning discomfort of acid reflux and ulcers.

Unlike horseradish, garlic and spicy mustards, cayenne contains a substance called capsaicin, which causes a hot sensation when eaten, but doesn’t irritate or damage our insides. In fact, the fiery feeling caused by cayenne can protect the stomach against irritants and works to inhibit the inflammation and pain of conditions such as arthritis and headaches.

What’s more, cayenne has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol and triglycerides while stimulating circulation and increasing the body’s ability to ward off blood clots. It also combats congestion associated with colds and allergies by triggering the release of mucus from the sinuses (hence the runny nose we get when indulging in spicy foods).

Cook With Cayenne
If you’re not already a cayenne enthusiast, it can be daunting to consider cooking with all that proverbial fire. Summon your courage by remembering that many of the world’s most exciting menus incorporate at least of pinch of this flavor-fueling pepper. Think Mexican, Thai, Indian and Szechuan. Cayenne can also add zing to an ordinary breakfast scramble, a summer potato salad, or even a bowl of sweet ‘n’ spicy chocolate ice cream (check out my recipe below).
While cayenne can be used fresh or dried, the powder form is probably the easiest way to begin experimenting in the kitchen. Look for organic powder locally or order from a reputable source such as Mountain Rose Herbs (www.mountainroseherbs.com). Start with a dainty dash (about 1/8 teaspoon) in your favorite dishes, and work up to more as your affinity for flame is kindled.

When chopping whole fresh or dried peppers, handle them with care. Cayenne’s capsaicin content can cause a burning sensation on skin, lips and especially eyes. If your skin is particularly sensitive, don a pair of gloves before handling. ‘Capsaicin is concentrated in the seeds and white inner membranes of the peppers, so you can kick up the heat by including these parts in your cooking.

To store, place fresh peppers (unwashed) in a paper bag and refrigerate for about a week. Fresh peppers can also be hung to dry in a sunny spot away from moisture. Once shriveled and dry, peppers can be ground to make powder or stored whole in a tightly sealed jar.

Sweet ‘n’ Spicy Chocolate Ice Cream
It may seem counter-intuitive to mix fire and ice, but this summer treat is nothing short of sensational.

Prep Time: 1 hour
Freeze Time: About 4 hours
Makes: 1 quart

2 cups heavy whipping cream, divided
1/4 cup cocoa powder
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
6 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Heat 1 cup cream in a small saucepan. Whisk in cocoa powder and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat. Add chocolate pieces and stir until melted.
2. Pour mixture into a metal bowl and add remaining cup of cream. Place bowl in an ice water bath to chill.
3. Combine milk, sugar, cinnamon, salt and cayenne in a saucepan and cook over medium heat until steaming but not boiling, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.
4. Place egg yolks in a medium-size bowl. Slowly pour 1/4 cup of the heated mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, then transfer the egg mixture into the saucepan.
5. Stir constantly over medium heat, scraping the bottom, until mixture thickens and coats the spoon. Remove from heat.
6. Place a mesh sieve over the chilled cream mixture. Pour the warm egg mixture through the sieve, then stir to combine. Add vanilla and allow to cool in the ice bath.
7. Transfer mixture to an ice-cream maker and churn according to the manufacturer’s instructions. You can eat it soft, straight from the churn, or place it in an airtight container in your freezer for a few hours to firm.

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COPYRIGHT 2011 MaryJane Butters
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