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Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2007 08:07 am

Getting the chile bug

Retired state employee finds his bumper crop in southern Illinois

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PHOTO BY ROLAND KLOSE
Untitled Document Jerry JimОnez is a contented man. You can see it in his serene smile and hear it in his calm, rich voice that carries just an intriguing hint of accent. Maybe it’s because of his loving family. Maybe it’s because of his home on 17 acres in the hills of southern Illinois, with beautiful panoramic views in all directions. Maybe — at least partially — it’s because of the endorphins he gets from eating all those darn hot peppers. Endorphins are polypeptides produced by the pituitary gland and hypothalamus in vertebrates, including human beings. They produce a sense of well-being and exert analgesic effects; in other words, they’re the body’s natural painkillers, counterbalances to pain, danger, or hard exercise. Endorphin production is also stimulated by capsaicin, the active chemical in hot chile peppers. These days JimОnez and his wife, Carol, are finding delicious ways for people to enjoy the benefits of endorphins through their enterprise Darn Hot Peppers. Chile peppers have always played an important part in JimОnez’s life, though it’s only recently that they’ve become a business. One of 11 children, JimОnez was born in a small town near Corpus Christi, Texas. Growing up, he worked in cotton, carrot, and cucumber fields with his parents and siblings before attending college in Oklahoma, where he met Carol. After graduating with a degree in history/sociology and a stint in the Army, he moved to Illinois to begin a career in the Illinois Division of Rehabilitation Services. Illinois was familiar territory: JimОnez worked summers during college in Belvedere for the Green Giant food company. Initially he worked in northern Illinois, and Carol taught foreign languages in Rockford. For the last three-and-a-half years of his career, however, he was based in Springfield as assistant bureau chief. Responsible for monitoring all of southern Illinois, he grew to love the area, gaining an appreciation of the needs of its rural and migrant population and becoming an advocate for more and better state services for the disabled in such out-of-the-way-places. All through those years, JimОnez grew chiles for his family, and chiles played an important role in the food they ate. A year after he and Carol retired to their Rancho Bella Vista (“beautiful view ranch”), just outside Cobden, they really got the chile bug. JimОnez tilled two acres and planted it all in chiles: jalapeЦos, arbols, guajillos, habaneros, pequТns, and more. That was four years ago. The soil and climate of southern Illinois proved ideal for chiles, and the JimОnezes found themselves with far more fresh peppers than they could possibly sell or eat themselves. The next year, they decided to turn their love for chiles into a business, and Darn Hot Peppers was born. The couple built a small retail store/commercial kitchen at Rancho Bella Vista. In addition to selling fresh chiles in season they began producing scrumptious jarred salsas in different flavors and varying degrees of hotness, plus dried peppers and seasonings. Their most innovative products are hot-pepper jams and jellies: Apricot Ambrosia (with habaneros), Orange JalapeЦo Jam, JalapeЦo Lemon Jelly, and Habanero Honey Spread. Unfortunately, customers will have to wait until next year to try the JimОnezes’ Mulberry Magic; this year’s late-spring freeze destroyed the mulberry crop. Earlier this month, Darn Hot Peppers held its inaugural PepperFest. Bluegrass, Tex-Mex, and other music filled the air, which was scented by the beef brisket being prepared by one of JimОnez’s brothers, who’d come up from Texas especially for the occasion. Talking to the JimenОzes and their friends and family, eating their delicious food (especially that brisket), and seeing their beautiful place makes it easy to understand their sense of contentment — and their excitement about what the future holds.
Jerry JimОnez sells Darn Hot Pepper products at the Springfield’s farmers’ market most Wednesdays and Saturdays. (The market will run until the end of October.) Darn Hot Pepper products may also be obtained at the JimОnezes’ retail store, 827 Vines Rd. in Cobden or ordered online at www.darnhotpeppers.com. For more information, call 618-893-1443 or e-mail customerservice@darnhotpeppers.com.
Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
HabaЦeros are one of the hottest chiles and have a unique flavor. This recipe provides the merest touch of their heat and is equally delicious when using smoked pork chops.
Grilled Marinated Pork Chops with Habanero Cherry Sauce Adapted from a recipe on the Darn Hot Peppers Web site
Pork: 1/4 cup dark-brown sugar 1/4 cup Dijon mustard 2 tablespoons soy sauce Six center-cut pork loin chops, 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick
Sauce 10 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, divided (It’s very important    to use unsalted butter — not because of the salt, per se, but    because of the purity of the butter) One finely chopped peeled carrot One finely chopped celery stalk 3/4 cup finely chopped onion, not supersweet 1 tablespoon minced shallots or additional onion 1 tablespoon minced garlic 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger, optional 1 tablespoon thyme leaves, or one teaspoon dried thyme leaves   (not ground) One bay leaf 3/4 cup port wine 1 pound stemmed, pitted sweet cherries such as Bing, fresh or frozen One stemmed, seeded, and minced habanero chile (use plastic    gloves when handling) 3 cups pork or chicken stock, unsalted or low-sodium Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Combine the brown sugar, mustard, and soy sauce until the sugar dissolves. Spread all over the chops and refrigerate, covered, for at least four hours and as long as overnight. Remove from the refrigerator at least one hour before grilling to allow the meat to come to room temperature. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a nonreactive pan. Cut remaining butter into bits and keep cold. SautО the carrot, celery, onion, ginger, thyme, shallots, garlic, ginger (if using), and bay leaf in the pan until the vegetables are softened and the onion turns golden. Add the port and stock, bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce it to a simmer and cook, covered, for 30 minutes. If a smoother sauce is desired, strain the liquid through a sieve, pressing down to extract as much liquid as possible and discarding the solids; return the sauce to the pan.
Add the cherries and habanero to the pan, return it to a simmer, and cook until the liquid has reduced to about half and coats a spoon, 30 minutes or more. (It may be prepared ahead of time to this point.) While the sauce is reducing, wipe the excess marinade from the chops and grill them to the desired degree of doneness. Cover and place in an oven set on the lowest setting until ready to serve. When the sauce has been reduced, remove it from the heat. If it’s not been strained, remove the bay leaf. Whisk in the butter, a few cubes at a time, until it has all been incorporated. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Place the chops on heated serving plates and divide the sauce among them. Serve immediately. This also works well with smoked pork chops, and the sauce would be excellent with ham.
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