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Food and Drink

Let it snow? Let it snow? Let it snow?

The weather forecast? Well, as I'm writing this, it's snow for today up on Whistler's slopes; snow tomorrow; snow the next day and the next; and some snow in the village to boot.

There's more snow, on Cypress, Grouse and Seymour mountains, pushing the envelope on sliding season to the limits. Even little knob-of-a-hill Burnaby Mountain, home to Simon Fraser University and the buses that can't make it up the hill in the snow, might see some of the white stuff this week.

In Pemberton Valley, farmers can't wait to see the last of the snow, creeping as it is to mid-April as they wonder, when on Earth can we get those darn seeds in the ground? And they're still ice fishing for kokanee at Williams Lake, where even more snow is expected.

So Happy April, Happy Spring? - emphasize that question mark - with the third snowiest season on record at Whistler Blackcomb thanks to the cooling effects of an exaggerated La Niña condition out in the Pacific Ocean that's delivered to Pig Alley a fat 1400+ centimetres (550+ inches for our American friends).

If "moderation in all things" is your refrain, or you've simply had it up to here with this endless winter, the easiest antidote and one much cheaper than even Expedia can deliver, is to cook up a storm, a piquant, comforting storm, with a great chilli theme from somewhere between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. We can only hope it will evoke memories of some place, some time there wasn't a snowflake in sight.

Sorry, but given the weather, I can't resist the British variant of "chilli" with the two "l's", which delivers an ironic twist what with "chill" embedded and all. Besides, it's the spelling usually preferred by scientists plus it's the original Aztec form that was subsequently corrupted into the Spanish variants of "chile" and "chili," the latter of which has become the preferred Canadian spelling.

This might settle in your mind, once and for all, why you see so many spellings around on every spice shelf and Tex-Mex menu from here to Fort Worth and back for that little magical ingredient of chilli, chile, chili. Take your pick; I've taken mine.

But the one and singular joy of the Capsicum family, responsible as it is for the 25 species delivering those fine little chilli peppers - fruits they are, technically - which have now outstripped black pepper, the former darling in the spice nation, by a production ratio of about 20 to1, is that it really does heat you up.

As you might have noticed after chopping up fresh chillis, the pungent chemical called capsaicin that sets a-tingle your fingers and, lord knows, any mucous membranes you happen to touch, including your eyeballs, is located in the pale, pithy tissue called the placenta which holds the seeds inside the hollow chilli fruit.

As American author and renowned food authority, Harold McGee, explains in his seminal book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen , the capsaicin, which is a colourless, odorless alkaloid, is only synthesized by the surface cells of the placenta and accumulates in droplets located just below the cuticle of the placenta's surface.

So, no, the seeds aren't really "hot". But the cuticle can split under pressure, for instance, by you cutting into the chilli with a knife, and so the capsaicin can be released onto the seeds and the inside of the fruit - and your fingers or eye, if you happen to rub it.

Also, capsaicin can enter the plant's circulation, and ends up in small amounts in the fruit itself as well as the stem and leaves nearby.

If you've been chopping up, say, jalapeño chillis for years, you've no doubt noticed that the peppers have become larger and juicier and the "heat" (ergo capsaicin) levels have dropped.

This is due in part to breeding milder fruits better suited to wider North American tastes. But capsaicin levels also depend on growing conditions. High temperatures and drought increase capsaicin production, and current commercial crops are well-irrigated.

According to State Symbols USA, Texas - home to the edgy South by Southwest music and media conference that just wound up - remains the biggest producer of jalapeños in the U.S. In fact, the jalapeño was named Texas's state pepper.

But places with milder climates, like California, for instance, are catching up. Heck, you can even grow chillis in B.C., but depending on what happens in summer, if it ever happens, you may not get a lot of heat in your chillis.

As for the effect that sets you tingling even though you can't claim a bit of fame as Whistler's own celebrated Human Thermometer, it can be explained quite scientifically and is in no part due to the cold.

Capsaicin affects the body's temperature regulation, says McGee, making us feel hotter than we actually are - middle-aged men and women beware - and so turning on our cooling systems, such as sweating and increased blood flow in the skin. It also turns up our metabolic rate, so that we burn more energy and retain less energy that's stored as fat. Capsaicin may even trigger brain signals that make us feel fuller and more satisfied as we eat and, therefore, less likely to eat more.

What? An ingredient that might actually help us eat less of the meal it's in and, once we do eat it, trigger our bodies to burn more of the calories we're eating? I feel a late-night TV infomercial tsunami coming on. But this one could be based in real science.

But don't wait for the telemarketers - grab your favourite salsa or bottle of Tabasco sauce and get yourself all hotted up.

Here's my favourite salsa recipe, passed on at a very late-night party by an old Whistler friend who said it was from Que Pasa. That might be an urban legend, like the Neiman Marcus cookie recipe and, given his state at the time, it likely is. But that simply adds to its appeal.


Late night salsa

1 796-ml (large) tin of tomatoes - whole, not crushed

3 or 4 fresh jalapeños, leave the seeds in (I now use serrano chillis)

Half a bunch of cilantro

3/4 of a bunch of green onions

Garlic - 2, 3 or 4 cloves, to taste

Salt and pepper

Jam it all in a blender and whirl away. Presto heat-o.