Hard to believe that Summer has yet again evaded us here in Ireland. I say ‘evade’ because we didn’t have a Summer to which we could bid farewell upon its departure. It’s been a busy period though and I’ve traversed the country for work and play, leaving precious little time for writing, taking photographs and cooking.
In December 1983, American avant-garde and New Wave band Talking Heads played three nights at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. Director Jonathan Demme was on hand with his team to film the concerts, which were then edited into the wonderful concert movie that is ‘Stop Making Sense’. From the opening drum machine and acoustic guitar of ‘Psycho Killer’, the magic of the band is slowly released on the viewer and this post’s title track appears six songs in. Originally appearing on the album ‘Speaking In Tongues’, it was to be their biggest selling [and only Top 10] single, peaking at number 9 in the Billboard charts.
Fear not, I haven’t suddenly developed an unhealthy interest in arson, but I will be writing about heat and burning in this post, all food-related.
They’re feared, they’re respected and they’re full of flavour. They’re chilli peppers, and they’re always close to hand in my kitchen. From China to Spain, taking dozens of national cuisines in between, chilli peppers have been bringing heat to food since at least 7500BC. Back then, they were bringing heat to the gastronomes of Ecuador and other Central and South American countries, but weren’t introduced into Europe until Christopher Columbus brought them home. Even then, they were considered to be more of a botanical curiosity than foodstuff, until monks in Spanish and Portuguese monasteries discovered their culinary potential and began to use them in place of black peppercorns [which were so costly at the time, they were frequently used as currency].
I’ll never forget an acquaintance of mine daring me to eat some dried Thai bird’s eye chilli peppers. He reckoned that he’d previously eaten twenty eight of them in one go and wanted to see if I could beat that number. Now, I was considerably younger when this gauntlet was thrown down, but not entirely subscribed to the stupidity channel, so I turned him down. He went ahead regardless, eating seven before he hit the deck, gasping for water. Another braindead acquaintance gave him a pint of water, which only served to exacerbate the effect of the capsaicin [the active ingredient in chilli peppers] by spreading the oils and thus, the heat. Oh, how we laughed. Eventually.
Cooking with chillies need not be a fearful experience, as long as you know – or at least have an approximation of – the heat of the variety you plan to use in your dish. For simple suppers or lunches, or where there are going to be guests whose tolerance to heat might not be as high as ours, we’ll use the readily available, bog standard red chilli, which is to be found in almost every supermarket. They’ve got a good flavour but come low on the Scoville Scale – the measurement of a chilli’s spicy heat. In other words, they’re not going to leave you needing to keep your loo roll in the freezer.
We tend to eat a lot of Asian food and the chillies used are considerably more pungent than the aforementioned variety. You may have had jalapeño peppers on pizza or nachos in the past. If you considered them to be hot, bear in mind that they rate between 2,500-5,000 on the Scoville Scale [the red chillies from above come in under 1,000], whilst a Thai Bird’s Eye variety rocks up around the 100,000-225,000 mark. In my experience of cooking with the Bird’s Eye, I start with half a chilli [including seeds and membrane], then add to this as required – it’s easy to add to the heat of a sauce/dish, but difficult to cool it down. Your dish should pack a good punch, but should not be so obnoxiously spicy as to mask the taste of the other ingredients and burn the face off yourself.
For the prawn dish in the second photo, I finely chopped a clove of garlic, then a red chilli and softened them in a little oil. Whilst doing this, I cooked some fresh tagliatelle, strained it and left it with some of the cooking liquid in a covered pan until the dish was ready to serve. To the garlic and chilli, I added some frozen king prawns [don't be precious about using frozen prawns - they've got bags of flavour and are handy to have in the freezer], warmed them through, then added a splash of cream. Twist of black pepper and a pinch of salt and you’re done.
Less than ten minutes from start to table, making – as it did for me – a perfectly tasty supper for one with a pleasant tingly chilli flavour.
We’ll be heading West to Connemara at the end of the month and my intention is to do some serious cooking and writing, taking photos of the marvels I’ve created along the way. Oh, and drinking. I intend to try out some recently acquired – and previously untested – fine red wines over the course of the ten days.