Las Crucen Paul Bosland knows his chiles. The foremost chile expert in the world talks flavors, cooking, and what really beats the heat when you’ve had a too hot bite.
Written by Jessica Muncrief Photography by Lisa Mayhew-Ortiz
“I began devoting 100 percent of my research to chiles and, looking back, it’s been a very good career.”
Paul Bosland, his wife Judy, and their children, Emily and Will, came to Las Cruces in the early 1980s. A recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Paul had accepted a vegetable breeder position at NMSU so they could be closer to family in Albuquerque and San Diego.
About a year into working with cold crops like broccoli, cabbage, and spinach, he realized he could spend all his time on chile peppers and still not answer all the questions about them. “I guess you could say I put all my chiles in one basket and watched that basket carefully,” he laughs. “I began devoting 100 percent of my research to chiles and, looking back, it’s been a very good career.”
Chile peppers have indeed taken Paul far in his career. He and his team have released 44 different cultivars of the plant ranging from jalapenos and cayennes to paprikas, ornamentals, and mild habaneros. They discovered the bhut jolokia (aka the ghost pepper) and coined the term “super hot” to refer to any chile over 1 million Scoville Heat Units (SHU). (As a frame of reference, a jalapeno comes in at about 10,000 SHU).
In 1992, Paul helped establish the Chile Peppper Institute (CPI), the only international, non-profit organization devoted to education and research related to chile peppers. CPI partnered with CaJohns Fiery Foods to create, first the Holy Jolokia hot sauce, and now an entire line of salsas, condiments, and even brownies.
Today, Paul is perhaps the foremost chile pepper expert in, not just the United States, but in the world. In just the past year, he’s spoken in Peru, Hungary, and Cambridge, England. Thailand and China are on his upcoming travel schedule.
CPI: 25 Years Strong
This past February, CPI celebrated its 25th anniversary in conjunction with the annual New Mexico Chile Conference. The event kicked off with a reception and dinner at Hotel Encanto featuring a hot Bloody Mary bar and an “execution table” demonstration by Vic Clinco, the owner of the largest private collection of hot sauces in the world.
Dinner guests dined on, what else, a chile pepper-themed meal featuring NY steak, chicken rellenos, and stuffed poblanos. Proceeds from the dinner are going towards the creation of an endowed Chair of Chile Pepper Research.
While CPI is a great resource for people in the industry, it’s also a must-visit for foodies or anyone interested in spicing up their favorite dishes. Located on the second floor of NMSU’s Gerald Thomas Hall (use their free parking space in the lot behind the building), this is a one-stop shop for all your chile needs from seeds and frozen green chile to cookbooks and condiments. (Out-of-towners can shop the online store.) The knowledgeable staff can also answer all your pressing pepper questions.
Eat Like a Chile Connoisseur
The question we’ve been begging to ask: What’s Paul’s favorite chile? The answer, isn’t that simple he says: “I get asked that a lot. I tell people, you’re not going to drink cabernet with chicken; you’ll probably want a white wine. Likewise, each chile has a special use and a special place in cooking. If I’m doing rellenos, I’ll probably use Joey Parker which is very mild, has a nice flavor, and is a good size. Or for something a little hotter, I’d use the NuMex Heritage Big Jim.”
For jerky, Paul slips some Baby Piquin powder between the skin and the meat, while the NuMex Heritage 6-4, is his choice for red sauce because it doesn’t have that tang of bitterness. For cornbread, he likes throwing in some NuMex Pinata. The fruits on the Pinata turn from lime green to yellow to orange to red, so it gives the cornbread a colorful confetti touch.
And when it gets too hot to handle, Paul confirms once and for all, milk is indeed the best remedy to combat a too spicy bite. “You can use nonfat milk,” he adds. “It’s not the fat, but a protein in milk called casein that cuts the heat. When you eat chile peppers, chemicals called capsaicinoids bind to your tounge’s heat receptors and give your brain a false signal that it’s hot. It kind of tricks your brain. When you drink milk, the casein displaces the capsaicinoids attached to that receptor.”
If you’re not really a milk drinker, Paul says eating chile may be just the excuse you need to order desert. After casein, sugar and carbohydrates have also been found to help cut the spiciness, so traditional Mexican desserts like flan and sopapillas with honey will probably do the trick too.
Beyond The Heat
So what is it about these spicy marvels that has captivated Paul for more than three decades? He says it’s a love of not just the heat, but the flavors, that turns people into diehard pepper fans. “Again, I take eating chiles back to the wine metaphor,” he explains. “When you first start with wine, the only thing you notice is alcohol. Over time, you’ll learn the difference between white and red. Then within reds, you learn about cabernets and merlots. Chiles are the same thing. The first time you try, all you notice is the heat. But, over time, you notice—and appreciate—those flavor differences.”
There’s a lot of imitators on the market, but if you want to get the best, most flavorful chile every time, Paul says you have to go with a New Mexico chile. He’s speaking from first hand experience when he says that they’ve been specifically bred to be as tasty as they are. “There are some products you can buy in the store that just aren’t any good,” he explains. “It’s just green chile that’s all heat and no flavor. We had growers tell us that over the years, they’d started getting better yield, but were losing that green chile flavor. That’s where we step in. That’s the whole purpose behind what we do at NMSU and CPI: ensuring that New Mexico chiles are full of that traditional flavor.”
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The Flavor Wheel
Paul and colleague Danise Coon developed this handy wheel to help cooks recognize the different flavors in each type of pepper. For example, Cayenne is tart and acidic with dusty tones. It’s flavor comes in slightly sharp and dissipates quickly. “People that really want to become chile connoisseurs learn about these different flavor notes,” Pauls says. “You can get to the point where whenever you eat something you can tell what chile is in it.”
Ready to grow your own chile garden? CPI offers more than 80 varieties of seeds so you can add all kinds of new flavors to your favorite dishes. The really good news: you don’t need much of a green thumb to make it happen. Paul says, “If you can grow tomatoes, you can grow chiles.”
At one point in time, chile plants, with their red and green peppers, were a traditional holiday gift. But in the 1950s, breeders made poinsettias shorter and more compact and they took over as the iconic plant of the season. “We said, let poinsettias have Christmas, we’ll take all the other holidays,” Paul laughs.
CPI indeed offers up an ornamental chile plant for nearly every holiday from Memorial Day to Thanksgiving. The chile fruits change colors, so for example, the Halloween changes from orange to black while the Valentine’s Day goes from white to red.
Chile Pepper Institute | Gerald Thomas Hall, Room 265 | 945 College Ave
Monday-Friday, 8am-5pm Free parking space in the south lot behind Gerald Thomas Hall