I haven't always been a fan of hot peppers. I never ate much spicy food at all growing up, and although my tolerance has grown slightly as an adult, I started out using hot sauce on my food, or maybe crushed pepper flakes in my recipes.
In my mission to cook healthy whole foods, though, I've finally learned how to use hot peppers. I've actually come to love fresh chilis in a lot of the food I cook – as long as they're red chilis.
Types of Chili
One thing to keep in mind about chili peppers is that they are not all created equal. Some are barely spicier than a bell pepper, while others are practically inedible in their pure form.
For most applications, I think jalapeños are a good entry-level whole pepper. They have some serious bite, but they're not as ferociously hot as I used to think they were before I started to experiment. Like many peppers, jalapeños come in different colors, especially red and green. Personally, I have a strong preference for red. Green chilis are ok, but they have a little of that unique green pepper flavor that bell peppers also have, and that is a flavor that I've never really been able to appreciate.
Cooking with Hot Peppers
The most common way to use fresh hot peppers is to mince them and add them to a dish in the early stages, for example to saute them along with onion or garlic. The only problem here is that it's hard to know exactly how spicy the dish is going to end up, since you can't exactly taste it at this point. I suggest starting with just a bit and adding more to your next dish until you get an idea of how much chili you like in your food. During this process, I strongly suggest sticking with the same pepper.
When you mince hot peppers, keep in mind that a lot of the heat is in the seeds. In most cases, you actually want to scrape out the seeds and throw them away. Just mince the flesh of the pepper, and don't forget to wash your hands, knife and cutting board well before you touch your eyes or chop anything that you don't want to have a peppery flavor.
Fresh peppers can be yummy, but actually my favorite ways to use them are in simple preserves. Simplest of all, you can take some fresh chilis (remove the seeds and stems) and puree them in a blender with vinegar. This makes a very simple hot sauce that might not be the tastiest condiment, but is great for adding to food while cooking. The handy thing about using a vinegar like this is that since the peppers are thoroughly blended, you can add it in the final stages of cooking and taste as you go for the perfect level of heat. A very spicy pepper – for example a habanero – works well here, because you can get a lot of spice without having to add a lot of vinegar to your dish.
If you actually like to eat hot peppers, you can also make your own pickled peppers (which are more accurately called vinegared peppers, since this recipe isn't fermented). Make thin slices of some jalapeños or a milder chili, like banana pepper. Put them in a jar and cover with vinegar. Leave as long as possible, but even a few hours in the vinegar will give them a mild pickled flavor. Over time, the vinegar will also get peppery, and can be used to flavor dishes like the pureed version. Put on sandwiches, salads, or wherever you could use a little extra heat.