The Process

Sometimes creating a fantastic dish is a simple thing. But sometimes it’s a process. A recent potluck birthday party inspired such a process, for I knew my dear foodie cohorts Akbar and Hamilton would be in attendance, and any old schlocky potluck staple wouldn’t do. No, sir. This dish would have to impress. And the guest of honor, Mick, was certainly worthy of something spectacular. Indeed, I’d have to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Braised rabbit? No, too rich. Something light and tasty.

Hmmm, let’s see what’s in the fridge? Lemon confit. Flour tortillas. Chile-herb oil made from the balcony garden’s bounty. Lots of cilantro. Green onions. A few red fresno and cayenne peppers from the balcony garden. Ah-ha! An idea was forming. Settle in and let me walk you through it…

I decided on a fantastic fish taco. Why? Several reasons. Finger foods are nice at a potluck. Fish tacos look festive. I had recently bought a nice ceramic tray that would display them in a delightful manner. The stars were aligning. I put up a message on Facebook inquiring as to where the best place to buy fresh fish was. Lo and behold, several friends pointed me in the direction of the Maine Avenue Fish Market here in DC. Rwah? (Insert Scooby Doo ears here.) Why had I never heard of this place? Right on the waterfront, it’s only like seven minutes from where I live, and it’s stocked with the most amazing assortment of fresh fish and shellfish I’ve ever seen!

I know it sounds kind of mundane, but after admiring the incredible abundance of fresh fish, I decided upon cod for the tacos. Cod is a great fish for tacos, because it takes on a marinade well, and it flakes just right, two characteristics that, for me, make it the perfect choice. I couldn’t resist picking up a dozen oysters while I was there (a half dozen from Chincoteague Island and a half dozen labeled “Virginia”). I couldn’t resist! I also had a relatively new oyster knife at home waiting to be broken in. And believe me, when it comes to shucking, I need the practice. And I love love LOVE oysters (you may not be able to tell, but the pic below is a bunch of delicious oyster on ice).

But on to the project at hand. I mentioned a marinade. I decided on a smoky and spicy charmoula, having recently read a recipe in the May ’10 issue of Saveur. From our friends at Wikipedia: “Chermoula or charmoula is a marinade used in Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian cooking. It is usually used to flavor fish or seafood, but it can be used on other meats or vegetables.” Here’s the recipe (I made a couple of additions, which are noted with asterisks):

Charmoula

3/4 Cup extra virgin olive oil

1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 Tbsp fresh lime juice

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp hot smoked paprika

10 sprigs fresh cilantro, chopped

*10 sprigs fresh parsley, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 red fresno chile

1 shallot, halved and thinly sliced

*1 tsp kosher salt

* pinch of saffron

Puree all ingredients in a food processor. Cover and let sit for at least an hour for flavors to blend.

So let’s get started on these tacos, shall we? I used a 5-inch bowl to cut down the tortillas into a finger-food size. I cut the cod into taco-sized chunks and marinated it in the charmoula for thirty minutes at room temperature before sauteeing it in chile oil. Oh right, the chile oil! I had made that a few days prior, using chiles and herbs from the balcony garden.

This was also inspired by the May ’10 Saveur, but here’s my version:

Herb and Chile Oil

1 Cup extra virgin olive oil

4 cloves garlic, halved

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

2 sprigs fresh thyme

2 sprigs fresh oregano

1 bay leaf

1 fresh cayenne pepper, whole

2 fresh red fresno peppers, sliced into rings

Combine the ingredients in a 1-qt saucepan. Heat over medium heat until an instant-read thermometer reads 200 degrees. Remove from heat and let cool. Oil will keep refrigerated and covered for up to two weeks.

To finish the taco, I made a “salsa” out of candied lemon and chile, again using chiles from the balcony garden. I mentioned that I had some leftover lemon confit in the fridge. Lemon confit is basically fresh lemon slices simmered in simple syrup until they are translucent, or candied. I chopped up a few slices and then sliced some chiles and simmered them in the lemony simple syrup for about ten minutes, until the chile was candied as well. Then I drained the chile and mixed it with the chopped lemon to make a sweet and hot “salsa” to complement to the fish. Clever, huh?

To add some crunch, I julienne sliced some pancetta and crisped it up in a saucepan and then mixed it with some fried capers. After assembling the tacos, I added some final color and crunch by scattering over some fresh cilantro, minced red onion, and sliced green onion. Here’s the result:

Don’t they look festive? Not to brag, but I think they were a hit. here’s the “after” photo:

Oh, a quick confession before I go. Remember those oysters I bought at the seafood market? While the cod was sauteeing, I stood there at the counter and shucked six in a row and downed them right there at the counter. For breakfast. It was only 10 am, so I can’t even call it brunch. It wasn’t easy either. Those suckers from Virginia have tough shells, and they don’t let you in easy! (You shouldn’t read too much into that last statement — or should you?)

There will be more on oysters soon – October is oyster month. But I should mention for those of you that get a bit squeamish at the thought of those slippery little suckers sliding down my throat in all their raw glory: Enjoying oysters is a bit of a process, too. It takes time. I used to date an opera singer in Santa Fe who introduced me to oysters when I was in my early twenties. I tried them, I didn’t particularly like them, but I didn’t dislike them either. Little did I know: the process had started. Over the years I would try them again and again, and then one day it would just hit me: I loved oysters, I craved their brininess, their sweetness, their pure ocean taste. For you, the process may start with oysters Rockafeller, or enjoying a fried oyster here and there, or sampling a raw oyster and shrugging and thinking “I don’t get it.” One day, you’ll be just like me, craving these little buggers and seeking them out. The process has begun.

SpiceBoy’s Take 5: Hot Stuff

Hey, Hot Stuff! This “Take 5” is all about the five spicy foods I can’t live without. Boy, it wasn’t easy to list just five, so just take this list as a sampler of the first few things that came to mind. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Tabasco sauce

Everybody’s favorite, it’s the mother of all hot sauces – what list of spicy foods would be complete without old school Tabasco sauce? Produced by the McIlhenny Company of Avery Island, Louisiana since 1868, Tabasco sauce is made from the tabasco pepper and aged in oak barrels for three long years before it’s ready for your scrambled eggs or Bloody Mary. You’ve seen that familiar little bottle your whole life on every other restaurant table, but did you know that Tabasco sauce is now available in a PERSONALIZED GALLON JUG ($44.95) at the online Tabasco country store?

http://countrystore.tabasco.com/prodinfo.asp?number=00061

A GALLON of tabasco sauce?? Come on, can you imagine a cooler gift for the chile-head in your life? I for one would be just THRILLED to find a big ‘ol jug of the Chipotle flavor under my Christmas tree this year (hint!). The chipotle variety Tabasco sauce is smoky and complex, and just perfect in Texas chili or atop huevos rancheros. In addition to the Chipotle and Traditional varieties, Tabasco is now available in even more exciting flavors: Asian Sweet and Spicy, Habanero, Green, and Garlic.

While your taste buds are all atwitter, why not click here to print a 50-cent coupon for Tabasco sauce:

http://www.tabasco.com/specialoffers/

2. Fresh Poblano Peppers

Lately, I’m very excited to see that poblano peppers are becoming a staple in more and more grocery stores and farmers markets all over the place. With their gorgeous, dark emerald skin and moderately spicy flesh, they deserve a place in your kitchen. Poblanos have a mild heat, with a rating of 1,000 – 2,000 on the Scoville Heat Index (as compared to a jalapeño’s 3,5000 – 8,000). They are great on the grill, and I use them in place of green bell peppers on meat skewers or to accompany a London broil. Once you get a sense of their flavor, you’ll love experimenting with them. Try poblanos in this simple, ultra-creamy and spicy soup recipe, one of SpiceBoy’s favorites. As the recipe’s originator says, you can use up to three poblanos in this soup – use one for a “slight kick,” three for a “rowdy taste.”

Creamy Roasted Poblano Soup

Serves 4 – 6

1 large onion, chopped

2 Tbsp unsalted butter

3 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, cut into chunks

Up to 3 poblano peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded, and chopped

1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt (Fage brand yogurt works well)

Salt and pepper

Over medium heat, cook onion in the butter in a saucepan until soft, about 5 minutes.  Add the stock and cream cheese. Stir until the cheese is melted; do not let the soup boil. Cool slightly and add the roasted poblanos; puree the mixture (I use a hand-blender). Add the sour cream or yogurt and heat through but do not boil. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Serve garnished with a lime wedge, pepitas (roasted pumpkin seeds), and grated manchego cheese.

(From The Best American Recipes 2004 – 2005, adapted slightly by SpiceBoy)

3. Trader Joe’s Sweet Chili Sauce

Ok, something this bright orange and viscous can’t possibly be good for you, but look at it this way – you’re not drinking the stuff. (At least I hope you’re not!) In a 10.1-ounce bottle for only $1.25, this super sweet and spicy chili sauce is one of the deals of the century, and I find it to be superior to the sauce you get in restaurants. With tiny flakes of red chile pepper suspended in the sweet, vibrant-orange sauce, it packs a real punch of heat – and it’s really fun to look at, too. This chili sauce is fantastic with dumplings, and a tiny dollop is really nice on a cracker with some goat cheese, too!

4. Maesri Curry Paste

In convenient 4-ounce cans, these indispensable curry pastes will have you whipping up dishes that trump your favorite take-out place in no time at all. Available in over ten varieties, I’ve tried a the basics over and over: red (my favorite), green, yellow, panang, and masaman. Touting themselves and “The True Taste of Thailand,” all I can say is these spicy and savory curry pastes impress me as pretty darn authentic. Here’s my recipe for a super-simple red curry that you can have on the table in a flash with just a few ingredients – even leftovers. I use leftover chicken and whatever fresh and frozen vegetables I happen to have on hand:

SpiceBoy’s Easy Red Curry with Chicken

Serves 4

1 boneless, skinless chicken breast, cooked and cubed

2 cups cooked basmati or jasmine rice

2 Tbsp vegetable or peanut oil

1 small onion, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, sliced

1 – 2 Tbsp Maesri red curry paste (depending on desired heat)

1 14-ounce can coconut Milk

2 Tbsp brown Sugar

1 Tbsp soy sauce

2 Tbsp fish sauce

1 Kaffir lime leaf (optional)

3 cups assorted fresh and/or frozen vegetables (I like frozen peas and green beans, fresh red bell pepper, spinach, carrot and/or zucchini)

Fresh cilantro or basil leaves, for serving (optional)

Heat the oil in a wok and stir fry the onion and fresh vegetables until slightly cooked. Add the garlic and stir-fry for a minute. Stir in the curry paste and toast it up for another minute or so. Stir in the coconut milk, brown sugar, soy sauce, lime leaf and fish sauce, and mix it all together and bring it to a simmer. Simmer for a bit to allow the flavors to blend and the sauce to thicken slightly. At this point, I add any frozen veggies I am using. (NOTE: I always add frozen peas and fresh spinach at the very end, since they only take a minute to cook). Before serving, add in your cooked chicken just to warm through, and taste the sauce for seasoning. Add more soy sauce, fish sauce, or sugar as desired. Remove lime leaf and serve over rice, garnished with basil or cilantro.

Helpful hint: After using a tablespoon or two of the curry paste, you’ll have some leftover. I freeze it in a snack-size ziplock bag. If you’re going to do this, be sure to remove all the air and label it with a marker – the red and yellow look very similar, and can also be confused with leftover chipotle peppers in adobo, which I also freeze this way – welcome to SpiceBoy’s world!

Check out Maesri brand on the web, with tons of products and lots of cool recipes:

www.maesribrand.com

5. Sriracha

Also known as “rooster sauce” (and sometimes “cock sauce” – for the rooster on its label),  Sriracha is a Thai hot sauce named for Si Racha, the central Thailand town in which it is produced. It is sweet, pungent and spicy, made with hot chile peppers, sugar, salt, vinegar, and lots or garlic. You can often see it served as a condiment alongside phở, the Vietnamese soup, as well as Japanese teriyaki, though it is Thai in origin. I find it truly addictive; I love it with Asian style soups (including Chinese won ton soup) and all manner of noodle dishes. Stateside, it has been consistently gaining popularity, appearing in more and more Asian restaurants. It’s versatility knows no bounds. You can find it at the hot sauce bar at the DC-area Mexican franchise California Tortilla, and I once saw it in a pizza parlor. It even has its own fan page on Facebook!

Confessions of a Chile-Head

Guest Cook: Paula B., Minot, North Dakota

What we’re exploring: The Supermarket

What we found: Habañero Chiles

Why use them: They pack a super-punch of delicious heat, perfect for chile-heads like my friend Paula and me. They’re also super-cute!

Cost: Extremely low, especially since just one or two will knock the socks off the whole village

So a couple times a year I get to see my friend and colleague, Paula B., who hails from the mysterious land of Minot, North Dakota. You may have read about this place in a storybook or seen it in a science fiction movie, I don’t know. I’m not sure what or where it is, exactly, but she says she lives there.

In the land of Minot, they practice this ancient ritual called “canning” which I have heard of, but have never practiced. I think I first learned of it from a cave drawing or a petroglyph or something. Anyway, Paula still does it because where she lives she can’t always get the freshest or best-quality produce year-round. It’s a way to preserve produce for later in the year, and also a way to set aside delicious jams, jellies, veggies, and more.

Paula and I tend to see each other at work-related events far from either of our homelands, and we always make time to compare notes on recipes and our love of chile peppers. On a recent business trip to Orlando, Paula brought me a fabulous gift of her very own Peach-Habañero Jam, labeled “XTRA SPICY” and even offered to share the recipe!

Peach-Habañero Jam

3 pounds ripe peaches, peeled and quartered

l/2 medium-size orange, quartered and seeded

2 Red Savina habañeros, (seeds and all)

4 cups sugar

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

3/4 Cup honey (the lightest, mildest you can find)

1. Combine peaches, sugar, and honey in a Dutch oven; stir well. Cover and let stand 45 minutes. Position knife blade in food processor bowl; add orange quarters and chiles. Process until finely chopped, stopping once to scrape down sides.

2. Place orange, habañero chiles, and an equal amount of water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil; cover, reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes or until orange rind is tender.

3. Bring peach mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Increase heat to medium-high, and cook, uncovered, 15 minutes, stirring often. Add orange mixture. Bring to a boil; cook, uncovered, 20 to 25 minutes or until candy thermometer registers 221 degrees, stirring often. Remove from heat; stir in almond extract. Skim off foam with a metal spoon.

4. Quickly pour hot mixture into hot, sterilized jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace; wipe jar rims. Cover at once with metal lids, and screw on bands. Process jars in boiling-water bath 5 minutes. Yield: 6 half-pints.

This jam is fantastic. It has a great backdrop of heat that goes nicely with the complex sweetness. I enjoyed my fist taste with some creamy brie (see photo) and it was a worthy pairing.

Let’s talk about habañeros. Apparently they are often mistaken for Scotch bonnet peppers. These two are easily confused because they are similar varieties of the same species. They are also similar in appearance and heat level. So what’s the difference? How do you really know if what you’re buying at the supermarket has the correct label of habañero or Scotch bonnet? My opinion? They’re so similar, who really cares?

I love heat. I ate hot chile on a nearly-daily basis for the ten years that I lived in New Mexico, and I built up quite a tolerance. However, these peppers intimate me and bring out my inner wuss. I use habañeros or Scotch bonnets in only a couple of recipes, such as my jerk pork. A half to one whole pepper spices up about 8 servings. (I may share that recipe at a later time, but I warn you in advance, it’s not authentic.) I also make a simple pineapple salsa with habañero, lime, and cilantro to top fish tacos.

So let’s talk about just how HOT habañeros are. The scale used to measure the heat of chile peppers is known at the Scoville Index – named for Wilbur Scoville, a chemist who developed a method to measure the “heat” of the chile pepper (I’m sure it’s very technical to understand, so let’s not bother, ok?) Let’s suffice to say that the Red Savina Habañero mentioned above places at 350,000 – 575,000 heat units on the Scoville scale, as compared to a jalepeño, which scores 3,500 to 8,000 (wow – big difference!) That’s some serious heat, folks.

It was once explained to me that capsaicin, the chemical in chile peppers that makes us taste heat, attaches to the tongue in such a way that the molecule is not “knocked off” when we drink water. That’s why cold water really does nothing to dilute the heat. However, fat molecules will dislodge the capsaicin from your tongue, so milk will cool down your mouth (or, even better, ice cream). Sour cream, of course, will also have that cooling effect to ease the burn brought on by chile heat, which is probably why we see it paired with spicy Mexican dishes. Or think of a cooling yogurt raita served alongside a spicy Indian dish. Or the creamy brie mentioned above, served with Paula’s spicy jam. Is this making sense now?

Anyway, I’m not exactly Mr. Science, so you may want to check my facts before you quote me on any of this. All I know is I loves me that hot chile pepper kick from time to time!