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Prepping your palate for poblanos

Biting into a hot chili pepper is like bungee jumping. First comes apprehension. Then terror, then relief. And before long, you just can't get enough.

That's what Southwestern food expert Barbara Pool Fenzl says about her region's best-known ingredient. Her friend Jacques Pepin, the French-celebrity chef, has experienced this culinary bungee jump many times. Now he's an admitted "chilihead."

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"I remember ... when I came to this country as a young chef, my palate had little tolerance for spicy foods," he writes in Ms. Fenzl's "Savor the Southwest" (Bay Books, $19.95). "I wouldn't have believed that later on in my life I would differentiate between chipotle, jalapeno, poblano, and Scotch bonnet peppers."

Southwestern food, "appeals to anyone who seeks fresh, colorful, full-flavored cooking sparked with some chili power," says Fenzl. A mix of Mexican, native American, Spanish, and European, this bold regional cuisine has been around for centuries. But only in the last few years has it swept the country. The region's distinctive ingredients - not only chilies, but tomatillos, cilantro, jicama, wild game, and others are now available in markets and restaurants from coast to coast.

At the same time she tells us to "toss out the myth that Southwestern cuisine is a recent, trendy creation," Fenzl also takes pride in its popularity. "We have changed the way America eats," she says, citing salsa's status as America's No.1 condiment. The "wrap craze" is another indication of Southwestern cooking's influence, she adds.

Much credit for putting this region on the food map goes to its highly inventive cadre of chefs. Fourteen of them, many now celebrities, are featured in Fenzl's book, the companion to her current public-television series. Their opinions about Southwestern food, their cooking tips, and of course, their recipes - from creative combinations such as Seared Tuna Tortilla Sandwich and Cornmeal-Crusted Sea Bass With Corn and Tomatillo Salsa to classics like Guacamole and Quesadillas, appear in the book along with many of her own.

At a recent cooking demonstration in Phoenix, Fenzl showed up with Vincent Guerithault and Robert McGrath. Together the trio fed, taught, cooked, and entertained a group of about 200 food professionals, a fraction of those who converged there for the International Association of Culinary Professionals annual conference.

While sampling Vincent's Corn Ravioli with Pesto and Robert's Smoke-Roasted Salmon with Butternut Squash and Pears, someone asked what to do about a mouth on fire. They responded: "Don't put it out with water!" It just spreads the heat. Instead, they suggest eating a starch such as rice or bread, which will absorb the heat.

Like Pepin, Mr. Guerithault is a classically trained French chef. When he came to the US, he hardly knew what an avocado was. He now melds French and Southwestern cooking at his Phoenix restaurant "Vincent Guerithault on Camelback" into such dishes as Duck Tamales with Cilantro Buerre Blanc and Creme Brulee in Sweet Taco Shells. These innovations have earned him much acclaim including the prestigious James Beard regional award for America's Best Chef: Southwest.

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Beaming, the modest Frenchman told his Phoenix audience that they could find his favorites in "Vincent's Cookbook" (Ten Speed Press, $25.95). Hardly a chef exists who doesn't have a cookbook out. McGrath was quick to add that his is in the works. An avid outdoorsman, his Scottsdale, Ariz., restaurant is named Roaring Fork after his favorite river Colorado. Its menu, "part chuck wagon, part campfire, part fine dining," reflects his love of the Western frontier. With a quick wit and cowboy looks, McGrath insists that fun is a key ingredient in Southwestern cooking. "Southwestern cuisine is not just a ceremony;" he says, "it's a celebration!"

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