February 06, 2009

The triumphant return of F5: Feel the burn!

A few years back, I decided to devote the four Fridays of February to some strictly personal stuff about my guilty pleasures. I named the series F5: Four February Fridays of Fabulous Frivolity. Unfortunately, I never managed to get the series to go the distance or on time. Recently, however, I discovered that Blogger has implemented a scheduling feature: by post-dating a blog article, I can write it well in advance and forget about it, and it will automagically appear at the appointed time. So I really have no excuse this year.

When I was little, my dad's brother lived nearby, and we would pay his family a visit a few times a year. My aunt had grown up in India; hence, curry was inevitably on the dinner menu. While I love curried food now, I didn't really like it until I was a teenager. But I did like the papadums that she served with it. (I still do - crispy, flat wafers of lentil flour, fried in oil until they puff up and turn crispy.) After three or four of these, I had a noticeable burn in my mouth. And that was my first experience with hot food that I can remember: I didn't much like it, but I put up with it.

I think the turning point, when I actually came to like the sensation of hot food, came some years later at summer camp. One of the counselors, who sat at my dinner table, had brought a bottle of Tabasco sauce with him. (Rumour had it that he and another counselor would secretly enjoy peanut-butter-and-Tabasco sandwiches after hours.) While I had often seen Tabasco sauce in cartoons, usually used as a weapon, I had never tasted it. With a single drop on the tongue, I felt like I had been napalmed. Not a pleasant experience. But the flavour - what there was of it in the instant before smoke began pouring out of my ears - was wonderful, and I wanted more, and I determined that I would learn to love the heat. My mother's single bottle of Tabasco, which she had probably had for years, was drained in only a few months as I began to find different uses for the stuff. (A few drops go very well with celery, and coincidentally I also began developing a taste for tomato juice.) She wasn't impressed, but the sauce was so old it had turned brown, so I was really doing her a favour. And thus my transformation into a committed chile-head was complete.

During my latter years of high school, a I attended a picnic held in honour of a visiting missionary and some of his students from India. Amongst the various dishes on the table was a veggie plate. And on this plate were some little, shiny, green peppers. "How cute," I thought, and took two back to my seat. I bit into the first one. It was cool, crisp, fresh, and tasty. So I finished it off quickly.

Bad move.

Living in a small town with a limited selection of fresh produce, how was I supposed to know what a jalapeño pepper looked like?

Of course, jalapeños have a fairly slow burn, so it was a few seconds after I had devoured the second pepper before I started feeling the heat from the first. For the next ten minutes, I sat in my seat and suffered. And sweated. And endured the snide remarks.

Fortunately, you build up a tolerance for capsaicin (the chemical that makes peppers hot), and jalapeños don't often have much effect on me anymore. And that's fine: although I'm an unrepentant chile-head, I don't really seek the thrill of hotter and hotter food. I feel that the heat should enhance and complement the flavour of the dish rather than be an end in itself. You can keep your suicide wings; make mine hot or even medium.

That doesn't mean I don't have a good selection of hot condiments in my pantry. I love hot sauces: chipotle sauce with chile, for example. My sister spent some time living in the Caribbean, and she has brought me bottles of two Antiguan sauces: Judy's and Suzy's. Bother are intolerably hot on their own, but both go very well with eggs. A Canadian sauce named Prairie Fire is good for adding heat to dishes without altering their flavour. And, of course, there's good old Tabasco Sauce.

Generally, though, I don't spike my cooking with hot sauces, unless the recipe specifically calls for one. I'd rather use an appropriate spice, like cayenne powder, or better yet, fresh peppers. There's no comparison between a pot of chili that has been simmering on the stove with fresh habanero or jalapeño peppers, and one that has just had a teaspoon of Tabasco dumped into it. I also recently discovered canned chipotles in my local grocery store, and they are good for giving food a rich, smoky flavour. (The sauce they are packed in makes an interesting addition to salad dressings, too.)

This, apparently, is my hobby - I don't have too many friends who like spicy food. So if you're over for dinner, I promise not to firebomb you. Too badly.