For palates that have become a bit jaded, take a figurative journey along the fabled spice route for culinary inspiration. Spices from the East offer endless possibilities for pleasing taste buds, especially those that turn up the heat, giving foods a spicy, piquant taste. Nearly every culture appreciates the special qualities of spicy seasonings, a vital component of good food.
Derived from tropical plants, spices are pungent, aromatic vegetable substances that include dried bark, leaves, berries, seeds, buds and roots. When India was the center of world trade, black peppercorns (Piper nigrum) were referred to as “black gold.” Pepper was the most precious commodity sold in the ancient world’s spice markets; today it’s the only spice quoted in the global stock market.
When pepper was scarce, spice traders substituted the spicy-hot seeds of a West African plant called “grains of paradise,” a.k.a. Melegueta pepper or alligator pepper. The spice is making a fast resurgence, gaining cachet in U.S. kitchens and at specialty stores. Other valuable spices traded along the spice route include cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, mustard seeds and cumin.
Since the first New World voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492, the chile pepper (capsicum) has reigned as the undisputed king of heat, setting the culinary world on fire. But the chile isn’t really a pepper at all. When he discovered the fiery-hot berries, Columbus incorrectly called them pimiento, Spanish for “pepper.” No doubt, he was thinking of Piper nigrum – the spicy black Asian peppercorns he was searching for.
Chiles fanned the fires of global trade and became a staple in kitchens worldwide. It is even used in candies, cocktails and desserts of chocolate, another New World taste sensation. Americans love chiles in all their forms: fresh, dried, pickled, smoked or pulverized into powders like hot Hungarian paprika and cayenne. They are the base ingredient for countless eye-popping hot sauces, seasoning pastes and seasoning blends.
Spicy foods are warm and comforting in cool weather but in early fall, when it’s still hot outside, this may seem counterintuitive. Actually, chile consumption raises the body’s internal temperature, which makes a person break into a sweat. Once the moisture evaporates, the body cools down. Chiles and spices are favored in warm climates for this reason.
One of the best reasons for cooking with spicy ingredients is the flavor intensity they add to bland-tasting foods. Even low-fat foods can taste better and may satisfy with smaller portions. Nearly every culture depends on a flavor arsenal of pungent ingredients like garlic, onions, green onions, shallots and gingerroot, a rhizome with healing properties. They are usually sautéed early in a dish’s preparation to add depth-of-flavor. To make a greater flavor impact, stir in a little garlic paste or grated ginger just before the dish is done.
Spicy hot foods are only one part of the heat equation. Balance heat with cooling side dishes and condiments made with yogurt or sour cream. Capsaican, the heat-generating compound in the white membranes and seeds of each chile, isn’t water-soluble, so don’t drink water as an antidote for chile burn. Dairy products and even coconut milk, used in Thai curries, are a more effective counterpoint.
With new familiarity with ethnic cuisines, attention is focused on spicy foods. The rich variety of international seasonings and fresh, local ingredients makes it easy to adhere to the culinary directive, “buy local and cook global.”
Recipes to Try at Home
Asian Meatloaf with Five-Spice Hoisin Glaze
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large red onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon finely grated gingerroot
14 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons naturally brewed soy sauce
2 to 3 teaspoons Sriricha hot sauce or 1 seeded minced jalapeño chile
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 slices bread, processed into soft crumb
1 pound ground beef chuck
1 to 1 1/4 pounds ground pork
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Five-Spice Hoisin Glaze
1 cup ketchup
1/4 cup hoisin sauce
2 teaspoons naturally brewed soy sauce
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon cassia cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder
2 teaspoons Sambal Oelek or Sriricha (Rooster brands)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté onion until tender. Add garlic and gingerroot; cook 1 minute. Set aside to cool slightly. In a large bowl, combine onion mixture with remaining meatloaf ingredients. When blended, gently pack mixture into a large (6 cup) loaf pan or a 10-inch round baking pan. Cover lightly with foil and bake 20 minutes. While the meatloaf bakes, combine the glaze ingredients. Spread half over meatloaf; bake uncovered 20 minutes more or until done. Drain off fat and serve warm. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Stuffed Jalapeño Appetizers
10 medium fresh jalapeño peppers
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
10 bacon strips, halved
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut the peppers in half lengthwise; remove seeds, stems and center membranes. Stuff each half with about 2 teaspoons of cream cheese. Wrap each stuffed chile half with bacon and secure with a toothpick. Place on a broiler rack coated with nonstick cooking spray. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until bacon is crisp. Remove toothpicks. Serve immediately. Makes 20 appetizers.
Horseradish & Tarragon Cream Sauce
1 cup homemade or quality mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
2 to 3 tablespoons prepared white horseradish, well drained
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced fresh tarragon or dill
1 cup heavy cream, chilled
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
In a medium bowl, blend mayonnaise, sour cream, horseradish, lemon juice and tarragon. In a chilled, medium mixing bowl, whip cream just until stiff; fold into horseradish mixture. Cover and chill overnight. Serve in a glass or ceramic bowl; avoid silver, which will tarnish. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.
Pair this sauce with beef fondue, roast beef, grilled fresh trout or salmon. If made a day ahead, use light sour cream to help keep the sauce stable.
From Susan Fuller Slack’s cookbook, Fondues & Hot Pots, (The Berkley Publishing Group)
Spicy Braunschweiger and Horseradish Paté
4 slices crisp-cooked bacon, drained and chopped
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely minced
8 ounces cream cheese
1/3 cup mayonnaise
4 to 6 ounces quality brand braunschweiger or ground ham
2 to 3 tablespoons prepared horseradish, to taste
sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
freshly minced parsley
In the skillet used to cook the bacon, drain off all but 2 tablespoons fat. Or substitute 2 tablespoons clarified butter or canola oil. Sauté onion on medium-low heat until soft; add garlic and cook 1 minute. Cool mixture. Blend together cream cheese, mayonnaise and braunschweiger. Stir in reserved bacon, horseradish, salt and pepper. Spoon into an attractive serving bowl; garnish with parsley. Serve with rye or pumpernickel toast points, crusty sliced French bread or crackers. Mixture can be spooned into a bowl lined with plastic wrap. When thoroughly chilled, unmold on a serving plate; garnish with parsley. Makes 6 servings.
Spaghetti with Arugula-Basil Pesto
2 packed cups fresh arugula leaves, stemmed
1/2 cup fresh basil
1 large clove garlic, smashed
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (more if needed)
1/4 cup fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano (more to garnish)
1/8 teaspoon each sea salt and black pepper, or to taste
3/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes or 1/2 to 1 seeded, minced jalapeño, to taste
3/4 pound spaghetti
Blanch arugula in a small pot of boiling water 10 seconds; drain and chill in ice water. Press out water and pat dry. In the blender, process arugula, basil, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil until smooth. Add 1/4 cup cheese, salt, black pepper and pepper flakes. If too thick, drizzle in a little more oil. Use at once or refrigerate until needed. To prepare spaghetti, cook in a large pot of salted boiling water until tender yet firm to the bite. Drain well, reserving about 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Toss spaghetti with pesto, to taste; sprinkle with pasta water, if needed, to add moistness. Garnish with additional cheese, if desired. For a heartier entrée, serve with grilled shrimp, chicken or salmon. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Spicy Peppered Pork
1 to 2 tablespoons coarsely ground black peppercorns, to taste
1 tablespoon dried rosemary, crushed
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne, to taste
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
4 pounds pork loin roast
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, combine pepper, rosemary, garlic salt, cayenne and brown sugar. If fat has been trimmed from the roast, rub with oil. Coat the meat all over with the spice mix. Place into a shallow roasting pan and roast in the oven 1 to 1 1/4 hours or until the pork reaches an internal temperature of 145 degrees. Test with an instant meat thermometer. When done, remove meat from the oven; let it rest 10 minutes before slicing so the juices can be redistributed. The temperature will rise to about 150 to 155 degrees for medium doneness. Makes 6 servings.
Note: The key to tender pork is not to overcook it. USDA guidelines say pork can be cooked to medium-rare at 145 degrees.
Fall Salad with Spicy Creole Vinaigrette
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon Creole or Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
1 tablespoon finely minced shallot
1 small clove garlic, finely minced
2 teaspoons mild Hungarian paprika
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne, to taste
Put all the ingredients into a medium jar; shake until well blended. Let stand at room temperature at least one hour or refrigerate for longer storage. Makes about 1 cup vinaigrette.
Serve with a salad of crisp green lettuce. Top with orange and avocado slices with toasted pecan halves. The vinaigrette is also good drizzled over sliced ripe tomatoes.
Chili Seasoning Blend
3 dried ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded, torn in pieces
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 rounded tablespoon cumin seeds
1 rounded tablespoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon smoked hot paprika
2 to 3 teaspoons dried garlic powder
1 tablespoon dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Add pieces of chile, peppercorns and seeds; dry roast a few minutes until aromatic, stirring constantly. Turn off heat and stir in cayenne, paprika, allspice and oregano. Put spices into a spice blender or coffee blender and process until ground to a fine consistency. Pour spice blend in a small jar with a tight-fitting lid. Keeps for about 6 months. Makes about 2/3 cup.
Spicy Rice-Stuffed Chiles
7 to 8 large poblano chiles, about 4 1/2 ounces each
1 cup uncooked long-grain white rice
1 3/4 cups chicken broth or water
1/2 teaspoon tumeric
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 small diced red bell pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 pound bulk spicy hot Italian sausage or chorizo
1 cup canned black beans, rinsed, drained
1 cup corn kernels
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
sea salt and black pepper, to taste
shredded Monterey Jack cheese with jalapeños or sharp Cheddar, for topping
fresh or prepared spicy salsa
1 cup sour cream blended with half bunch cilantro leaves and lime juice, to taste
Roast chiles on their sides over a hot charcoal fire or on a heavy baking pan placed about 3 inches under the intense heat of a hot oven broiler. Turn often to blister evenly all over. Chiles may even char slightly. Put them into in a large covered pot to sweat for 10 minutes. Pull off skins; cut chiles open to remove seeds. (If you are the least bit sensitive to capsaicin, wear a pair of thin latex gloves.) Pat dry and place on a baking sheet; coat lightly with vegetable spray. Cover loosely with plastic wrap.
Bring broth to a boil in a medium saucepan. Stir in rice, tumeric, cumin and salt. Cover and cook over low heat 15 minutes or until broth is absorbed and rice is tender. Let stand off heat 2 minutes; fluff with a fork and turn into a large bowl.
Heat olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Sauté onion and bell pepper until soft. Add garlic and sausage; cook until meat is crumbly and done. Stir in black beans, corn and cilantro. Cool slightly; stir into rice. Season to taste. Carefully stuff each pepper with rice filling; sprinkle with cheese. (Chiles can be covered and chilled several hours; bring to room temperature before heating.) Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Heat chiles 10 minutes or until hot and cheese melts. Serve with salsa and cilantro-cream. Makes about 6 servings.
Seafood Fra Diavolo
3/4 pound cleaned fresh shrimp, patted dry with paper towels
1 tablespoon Cajun or Southwest seasoning blend
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 red jalapeños, seeds and membranes removed, thinly sliced
1 cup diced onion
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 1/2 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes
2 cups tomato sauce
2 tablespoons tomato paste
8 little neck clams
1/2 pound mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
1/2 pound cooked lobster
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 pound cooked linguine
Sprinkle shrimp evenly with seasoning blend. In a sauté pan over medium-high heat, heat olive oil. Add jalapeños; stir 10 seconds then add shrimp and cook for 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Remove shrimp from pan and set aside. Add onions to pan and cook until softened. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in pepper flakes then add tomato sauce and paste. Stir and cook the sauce until the flavors come together, about 5 minutes. Add the clams. Cover and cook 1 minute. Remove lid and add mussels to the pan. Cover and cook 2 minutes. Add cooked lobster and reserved shrimp. When mixture is hot, stir in the cooked pasta and serve. Makes 4 servings.
Recipe from Carol Pedersen
Polly’s Mexican Chocolate Gelato
6 ounces quality dark chocolate, chopped in small pieces
2 cups whipping cream, divided
9 ounces of granulated sugar
2 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon brandy
1/4 teaspoon cayenne, more if desired
Put the chopped chocolate into a medium-size bowl. Pour 1/3 cup of the whipping cream into a small bowl and heat in the microwave. When hot, pour over the chopped chocolate. Allow mixture to sit a few minutes for chocolate to melt. Use a hand mixer or immersion blender on low speed to incorporate the melted chocolate into the cream.
In a large bowl, whisk together the remaining 1 2/3 cups cream, sugar, milk, vanilla extract and brandy. Whisk the chocolate-cream into the milk mixture along with the cayenne. Set the bowl of gelato base into a shallow ice-water bath until it is ice cold. Freeze in an ice cream machine, following the manufacturer’s instructions.
To freeze gelato without an ice cream machine, pour gelato base into an appropriate freezer container and cover. Freeze one hour, then whisk the slushy base thoroughly to break up ice crystals forming around the edge of the pan. Cover and freeze two more hours. Remove and whisk thoroughly or stir with a sturdy spatula. Cover and freeze another hour then repeat the stirring. By this point, a hand-held mixer or immersion blender may be easier for beating the frozen gelato. Store in the freezer an hour or two to ripen, then enjoy as soon as possible.
Recipe from Polly Ailor Tullock
Food Styling by Susan Fuller Slack, CCP