July 15, 2016
One hot steamy Sunday afternoon years ago my dad was working intently in the yard when a disembodied voice floated out of our elderly neighbor’s upstairs window: “Edward! Edward! I hope you can’t see me up here. I’ve taken all my clothes off!” Startled out of his reverie, Dad called back, “I swear I won’t look, Dorothy!”
That’s not the kind of “hot” this blog is about, though. Here’s a better example.
When Bob and I were newlyweds, one of my misfires as a new cook was my first batch of chili. I could have sworn my mother told me that a pot of chili takes eight tablespoons of chili powder. If you think this seems just about right, you’re wrong.
We had invited one of Bob’s college friends, Boyd, to come for a Sunday night supper. Unfortunately, the chili was almost nuclear in its intensity. I dumped my serving in the trash, but those guys politely suffered through every bite, pounding down gallons of Coke and ice water. The calendar said November, but it seemed like August as they melted in their sweaters.
After that ordeal, my chili withered into a nondescript tomato-y stew for several years until finally I was moved to study a few “chili bibles”. Gradually I saw the light! My chili was reborn into a much more assertive, but not devilishly hot, concoction. I felt redeemed, and my family gloried in it too. Praise the Lord and pass the crackers!
Now we’re warming up to the real topic of this post—hot chili peppers—eaten alone, in a dish, or as an ingredient in other seasonings and sauces. I can see that some of you are heading for the exits. Wait! Maybe hot peppers and recipes with hot peppers don’t appeal to you, but you might want to know why those crazy friends and relatives of yours like them so much. Also, the featured recipes are not that hot. So, chew on a couple of preemptive Tums, dial down the A/C, and read on.
Why are hot peppers so hot (as in “popular”)? I wanted to know why there is this propensity to torture our tongues with pepper-laced foods, so I did a little research.
Interestingly, the heat of hot peppers is not considered a flavor; the chief sensation is pain, according to developmental psychologist Jason Goldman, who blogs at The Thoughtful Animal. He says, “Healthy, sane humans do not stab themselves in the thighs or bathe their eyes in lemon juice. So why do we so love to assault one of the most sensitive organs in the human body, the tongue, with what amounts to chemical warfare?” He suggests that we do it because it presents no real danger to ourselves and many of us come to like, even love, the burn. Paul Rozin, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, says that at least one-third of people around the world eat hot peppers every day. He also explains that humans seem to be the only species that seeks to experience events most would consider negative, such as riding a roller coaster, watching horror movies, skydiving, etc. John McQuaid, author of Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat, says, “There’s not an obvious biological reason why humans should tolerate it [eating a hot pepper], let alone seek it out and enjoy it. For centuries, humans have eagerly consumed capsaicin—the molecule that generates the heat sensation [in peppers]—even though nature seems to have created it to repel us.” Rozin says that eating hot chili peppers allows us to court danger without risk. It may be a “form of masochism, an intentional soliciting of danger” and he adds, in the aftermath, we experience the “relief of having endured and survived”.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to “go gentle into that good night” without raging against the “mild” and doing something edgy. Even though I’m afraid of heights, roller coasters, June bugs, circus clowns, hotdogs, and driving anywhere outside of Des Moines, I’m starting to get fired up about chowing down on some hot stuff!
Some friends and I recently took a cooking class. Part of the time was spent time on the topic of shishito peppers. I have watched our own grownup kids order them in various restaurants in Phoenix and L.A. Bob and I sampled them too and we thought they were interesting—slightly sweet, smoky, and grassy flavored. However, I didn’t know the rest of the story about shishito peppers. Now, after that cooking class, I understand why they are so intriguing! Read on.
The shishito pepper is the Asian equivalent of Russian Roulette for your mouth. Only one in ten is hot! Pretty wild, huh? So, let’s say you eat three and think they are quite mild, but then you blow out your tastebuds on that fourth one! Sure, it may briefly suck the breath right out of you, but it’s so much safer than, hmmm … capping oil wells? Shishitos are so hot (as in “popular”) that it can be difficult to find them. The only two places in Des Moines that carry them (to my knowledge) are Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. (I asked a Hy-Vee produce manager if they ever stocked them and he said he had never heard of them.) Fortunately, I took a couple of pictures of the last ones I bought at Trader Joe’s when I was practicing making them for the blog. I planned to buy more later in order to show you a nicely arranged platter of roasted shishito peppers with a dipping sauce in the center, but I couldn’t find anymore. Luckily Whole Foods received a new shipment of miniature shishitos! So, my platter of roasted shishitos are “fun-size”.
Plan to make them soon so you can play Shishito Roulette with your friends! A great idea for your next party! If you can’t find shishitos, consider using Padrón peppers [of Spanish origin], which are a good substitute, and they have a similar 1 in 10 hotness factor, although that tenth one can be even hotter.
As long as we’re talking about “heat”, let’s briefly touch on the Scoville Scale, which is a standard measurement of a pepper’s hotness. For example, the standard bell pepper lies at the bottom of the scale with 0 Scoville heat units. A jalapeño typically has 2,000 to 10,000 heat units, and the world’s hottest pepper, the Carolina Reaper, has up to 2.2 million heat units. Those mild shishito peppers come in at 50 to 100 units and rise to as much as 1,000 units for those occasional hot ones. (As you can see, in the grand scheme of pepper hotness even the hottest shishito is not that hot.)
According to Dr. Paul Bosland, professor of horticulture at New Mexico State University and author of several books on chili peppers, the assertion that very hot peppers have the potential to damage our taste buds is not true. Bosland says, “We should think of chili heat like we do the taste of salt; easy to overdo in the moment, but not damaging to the mouth in the long term.”
A useful book that you might like to own is The Pepper Scale–A cool primer to the Scoville Scale and the hottest peppers in the world by Matt Bray, available from Amazon.com for about $10. It would make a great gift for the pepper lovers in your life.
Now, let’s say that one day you are feeling rather plucky and you decide to eat a very hot pepper. Regret will likely come next. You may think you should be taken to the hospital on a gurney; however, no medical intervention is necessary. According to chemistry.about.com, your body reacts to capsaicin the same as it would to a high-temperature beverage or food—except of course there is really no actual heat present. The capsaicin binds to sites within your mouth, so your choice is to either remove it or dilute it to lessen the sensation. The best antidote is casein, the main protein in dairy foods. Full-fat sour cream, whipped cream, or ice cream works best because casein and fat help to break the bonds that capsaicin forms on your nerve receptors. An oily food such as peanut butter or mayonnaise can also help. Even acidic foods such as lemons or tomatoes are good neutralizers. And if you want to prolong your misery, drink lots of water! It spreads the capsaicin around “sort of like an oil spill on water,” according to the website.
Here is an excellent video documenting a young boy’s foray into the world of very hot peppers. Jackson Wilson, a curious 10-year-old (whose dad Josh has been a close friend of our son Bradley since grade school) wanted to find out what eating a very hot pepper would feel like. His dad filmed the experiment. The original video is not fuzzy and contains Josh’s funny play-by-play commentary. Because of my technological ineptness, however, I can only seem to embed this as a rather huge non-HD version, with no audio. Even so, I think it still charmingly captures how Jackson, after eating a tiny habanero pepper (which typically measures around 200,000 Scoville units and higher!), copes with the burn. He is one brave boy!
The subject of hot peppers is vast and encompasses many cuisines. Obviously, I have only brushed the surface. I do want to briefly mention one more hip food trend that has continued to grow in the past few years, and that is Sriracha sauce. If you don’t have a bottle of it, get one today! It will look extremely cool sitting on your counter. (No need to refrigerate.) Your friends will think you are a foodie of the highest order. I was so surprised the first time I tasted it in a dip. Yes, it’s rather hot (1,000 to 2,500 Scoville heat units), but it’s not a one-note phenomenon. Made from a paste of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt, Sriracha’s flavor and heat shine through in various dishes. I use it sparingly, although I’m sure there are plenty of you who splash it on with reckless abandon!
Bottom line: Hot peppers are cool! Go forth and eat some!
Don’t fear the following recipes. No paramedics will be required to resuscitate you and your guests. These appetizers have just enough heat to be interesting, and you can always add more if you prefer.
Shishito peppers are so easy to make. They are often served hot out of the oven, without accompaniment. I created a dipping sauce that goes great with them too, especially when you bite into one of those extra-hot ones!
Roasted Shishito Peppers with Calming Ponzu Aioli
Roasted Shishito Peppers with Calming Ponzu Aioli
- 1 (6-ounce) package shishito peppers (may also use Padrón peppers)
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt and pepper to taste
- 1 cup Hellman’s mayonnaise
- 2 teaspoons mirin (I used Kikkoman)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ponzu sauce (I used Kikkoman)
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves (can use shiso—Japanese basil—if preferred)
Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Put the peppers in a bowl and coat with olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread on rimmed baking sheet and bake for 6 to 8 minutes, or when they start getting a slight char. Stir together the remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Remove from oven promptly and place on a platter alongside the dipping sauce.
My friends Michele and Tom Brown are excellent cooks! They enjoy entertaining in their gorgeous back yard, and they have a portfolio of great recipes. This one for Buffalo Cauliflower has been adapted from realhousemoms.com. Reminiscent of Buffalo wings, they have far fewer calories but are still hot, spicy, and addictive!
- 1 medium head of cauliflower, cut into bite-sized florets
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon garlic salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 2 tablespoons butter, melted
- 2/3 cup Buffalo hot sauce (The Browns use Frank’s Red Hot Wings Buffalo Sauce)
- Salad dressing for dipping sauce
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Whisk flour, water, and next three seasonings. Add the florets and coat well. Spread evenly on a cookie sheet that’s been coated with cooking spray. Bake for 15 minutes. Flip once, halfway through cooking. Stir together butter and buffalo sauce. Add baked cauliflower and toss to coat. Return to cookie sheet and spread evenly. Bake again for about 25 minutes or until crispy. Flip once. Remove from oven. After resting for 10 minutes, place cauliflower on a platter and serve with a good dipping sauce, such as blue cheese or ranch salad dressing.
My sister Kris Gourley is well-known around her Wichita suburb for her amazing homemade salsa. I call it The Tomato Tornado … get it? … Kansas? … it’s a bit “dangerous”? She doesn’t really share that recipe, but she has another salsa recipe that I adore—Black Olive and Pepper Salsa. It is so easy to make and it is one of my all-time favorites. Sometimes I even eat it without the tortilla chips!
Black Olive and Pepper Salsa
Black Olive and Pepper Salsa
- 2 (4-ounce) cans chopped black olives
- 2 (4-ounce) cans chopped green chilies (If you like it really hot, you can add 1 or 2 tablespoons [or to your taste] of finely chopped jalapeño peppers, but we usually don’t)
- 2 (14 1/2-ounce) cans petite-diced tomatoes, drained
- 2 or 3 bunches green onions, thinly sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, pressed in garlic press or finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons garlic salt
- Fresh-ground pepper
- 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Tortilla chips
Mix everything together. Chill or serve immediately with tortilla chips.
And finally, here is a cheesy pepper and tomato spread that I created a few years ago. It’s not ridiculously hot; it just leaves a little glow inside your mouth.
Chipotle Pepper, Tomato, and Cheese Bake
Chipotle Pepper, Tomato, and Cheese Bake
- 1 (15-ounce) can petite-diced tomatoes, drained
- 3 tablespoons chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, diced
- 1 (4-ounce) can diced green chilis
- 1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
- 1 (8-ounce) package shredded mozzarella cheese (or Colby-Jack)
- 2/3 cup onion, diced
- 1 teaspoon garlic salt
- Crostini or crackers
Mix all ingredients together and spread into a 10-inch round or square baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until bubbling. Serve with crostini or crackers.
Do you ever worry that your party guests sometimes seem bored? The solution, of course, is to serve spicy hot appetizers. They can really pump up the excitement in the room! I hope you understand that you cannot expect these hot peppery morsels to save an entire evening, though. You may have to put some effort into making yourself more interesting. Here are some helpful ideas. Learn to play jai alai. Brush up on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Read War and Peace. Become an expert on the history of lead pencils. Master the hammered dulcimer. Raise weasels. Memorize Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade. Your parties will be memorable, I promise.
Thank you for dropping by! The next post will be published on July 29th. I hope you will watch for it, and read it, as well!—Tracy