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?


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:


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:


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!


Strip Mall Saigon

Though it’s lesser-known than some other Asian cuisines and has fewer dining options, Vietnamese food has so much to offer the curious chow hound, with its fresh, healthful Buddhist slant and its curious Cantonese and French influences. When sampling Vietnamese cuisine, you may detect a harmony of taste sensations, or find yourself struck by the delicate balance of flavors. This is no mistake – Vietnamese cooking is designed around the very concepts of balance and harmony, appealing to the five senses, and playing off yin and yang. The Asian principle of “five elements” influences Vietnamese cooking not only in appealing to the five senses, but efforts are made to incorporate the traditional five colors (white, green, yellow, red, and black), as well as five spices, and five types of nutrients, all in the name of balance and harmony. Sounds like hard work, but all that effort seems to have created a cuisine that is really something special. And it’s really quite fascinating (and delicious) to learn about!

For those unfamiliar with Vietnamese cuisine, a great introduction can be had at the artful and friendly Falls Church, Virginia restaurant, Present (6678 Arlington Blvd, 703.531.1881). This unassuming strip mall staple was named one of the area’s 100 Very Best Restaurants by the Washingtonian, and was given three starts by the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema (and he’s not exactly giving those stars away!)

I’ve been eating Vietnamese food for many years now, but my dear friends Mac and Christopher, who dined with me, were new to this type of cuisine, so it was fun to see their reactions to the fresh new flavors and presentations. Mac had never seen the traditional Vietnamese-style summer roll, with bright pink shrimp visible through the  semi-transparent rice paper. However, the star of the appetizer round was Present’s “Smokey Petal,” a delicate and meaty sauté of baby clams and herbs, served in an impressive, edible rice cracker bowl (pictured above).

I should mention that it had stormed quite heavily the day of our visit, and the restaurant had lost power for a while, which resulted in a bit of confusion with the service. However, the staff is very friendly and helpful. Knowing that Mac was new to Vietnamese food, our waiter let him know he was ordering the wrong spring roll, and urged him toward another choice. Hmmm. Upon serving our entrees, when the waiter noticed that the chef prepared the tamarind duck for me instead of the orange duck I’d ordered, he assured me that the tamarind duck was a better dish anyway. Why worry? (While this would anger some diners, I’m pretty easy – and I was torn between the orange and tamarind duck to begin with.) In all, the three of us were quite pleased with Present’s offerings, and found the service and decor to be pleasant and charming. We shall return.

Shortly after moving to DC, my friend Justin introduced me to another Virginia strip mall favorite offering Vietnamese fare: the popular local chain Phở 75 (1721 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22209, 703.525.7355, among many other locations). Pronounced “FUH”, phở is a traditional Vietnamese soup – spiced beef broth, noodles, and shaved onion, with your choice of meat, such as brisket, eye of round steak, or even tiny meatballs, all for under 8 bucks for a large bowl. Adventurous eaters may want to try the tendon or tripe! Here, phở is served with delicious accompaniments such as fresh lime, anise-y Thai basil, crunchy bean sprouts, and jalapeño slices. (I’ve heard that these accompaniments are not exactly culinarily authentic, but they sure make for a great eating experience!) Squeeze bottles of Sriracha hot sauce and hoisin sauce are shared on each table. Something interesting: I’ve heard that, traditionally speaking, phở is the only Vietnamese dinner dish served in individual portions; all other Vietnamese dishes are meant to be served family-style.

Be warned, you are coming here strictly for the food. The restaurant is about as charming as a warehouse, and you’ll likely have to wait a bit. But it will be well worth it.

To be sure, one of the perks of being a Washigntonian is our proximity to all of the great Asian communities of northern Virginia – and the fantastic markets and restaurants therein. However, there are some great choices right here in the District as well, including the Vietnamese offerings at Phở 14 (no affiliation with Phở 75, 1436 Park Road NW, Washington, DC 20010, 202.986.2326). On an unassuming block in Columbia Heights, Phở 14 offers the traditional soup for $7.95 – 8.95, as well as a decent selection of other Vietnamese fare, including salads and rice dishes ($8.95 – 10.95), as well as stir-fry and vermicelli dishes with meat selections that run the gamut from tofu to pork meatballs to chicken to squid ($7.95 – 13.95). You can also try another famous Vietnamese dish at Phở 14, the bánh mì sandwich (starting at just $3.99), a must-try for any aspiring international foodie.

Bánh mì is actually the name of a type of French-influenced Vietnamese baguette, but it has come to be known as the type of sandwich served on it as well. The sandwich is packed with savory delights – pickled carrot and daikon radish, cilantro, mayo, a touch of soy sauce. Again, we see the French influence in Vietnamese food with a surprise ingredient: liver pâté. Your choice of several varieties of meat are available to make a traditional bánh mì: beef (pictured below), pork, chicken, fish or tofu. Bánh mì sandwiches have an almost cult-like following, and Phở 14 provides a worthy contender at a great price. (In fact, in addition to the bánh mì’s unique and fantastic flavor, the sandwich’s loyal following may have something to do with its budget-friendliness as well! I don’t think I’ve ever seen one priced over 6 bucks or so.)I hope I’ve piqued your interest enough that you’ll add Vietnamese food to your list of things to try if you haven’t tried it already. Your first taste won’t be your last – phở sure!