Off the top, a warning that this piece contains mature subject matter, and reader discretion is advised. That out of the way, I can tell you that one Saturday afternoon a while back, after I had baked the week’s bread, and the kitchen was back to near-normal, I thought it might be a kick to craft my own version of some really, really hot, Tabasco-like sauce. More later.
For reasons known only to some very clever people who have the time to study these things, most all of humankind likes to take a run, from time to time, at a taste, or tastes, that are tongue-tingling hot and spicy. For some, it’s a Bucket List thing, like climbing Everest. But more than likely — and I know you’ll agree — it’s in our genes. Until we’ve fried our brains, tongues, and tummies to the point of no return, we all — well, most of us — will keep on soaking ourselves silly with the heat of spices that good old Mother Nature so willingly provides. And enjoying it time after time.
Mustard, wasabi, the chili family and more. Stir them in, or splash them on, and familiar, unadulterated tastes are kick-started into stratospheres of taste excitement. Yep, that’s the word. Excitement. Right in the privacy of our own dining rooms, we can legitimately blow our brains to pieces with a splash, a dash; a spoonful of the spicy stuff that our DNA forces us to eat. Again and again.
I could go to jail for this, but when she was very, very young, I used to take turns to get up in the middle of the night to feed formula to my darling, first-born daughter. On the label of the can it read that this stuff should be mixed with water that has been boiled, then cooled to body temperature. (Remember the squirt on the wrist from the bottle?) While this time-consuming, boiling-cooling thing was happening, it was often my secret practice to trot baby round the kitchen on my hip, on adventures of great taste. Salt, sugar, ketchup, mayo, and yes, a finger gently dipped for sucking into a range of spices. I sampled the darling with cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, mustard, ginger, paprika, garam masala, and more. Was it painful for baby? Amazingly, all I got were smiles; an indication that even as infants we are delighted to discover that spiciness is waaaay more exciting than boring formula. My daughter survived, thrived, and has matured into a spice-loving adult, none the worse for her early-life, pre-dawn adventures. And yes, I’ve eluded the slammer! (Even if later on, I fed wasabi to my grandson and watched, as through tears he said: “More!”)
But back to the Saturday thing. I have read, and now know, that for non-oral tissues, the burning produced by capsaicin, the irritating chemical in chili peppers, can be very painful. We are told that when preparing peppers, it is wise to wear rubber gloves or hold the peppers in a paper towel or plastic wrap. Fingers that have handled hot peppers should be washed thoroughly and kept out of the eyes and other sensitive tissues, including those of the pelvic region. If you should get capsaicin on sensitive tissues, flush quickly with lots of water to reduce the irritation. Which meant that after the bathroom call I had midway through my chili-grinding adventure, I had to flush and ice-cube my pelvic region for the rest of the afternoon and on into the evening! Now relax. That was the mature part.
Spices, not to be confused with gentler herbs, have been peppering up the world for thousands of years. They have been used as currency, opened up and established trade routes, added to other foods to make us sweat and cool us down in hot climates; to preserve food, especially meats that may have gone beyond their shelf life, and any number of other things that needed a kick into a new world of fire, brimstone and/or outrageously great flavour.
I have close to 20 spices in labelled jars on a Lazy Susan in the cupboard adjacent to my stove. Because they are readily accessible, I use them often. Not necessarily in set recipes, but because each is able, in some magical way, to enhance what I’m doing. I’ve bought some of the spices from technicoloured street vendors in foreign lands; I generously grind nutmeg from a necklace of “nuts” from Grenada, and have mortared and pestled my way to some of the best curry mixes this side of Uttar Pradesh. Saffron? It’s the taste of the earth, and I love it!
Spices are affordable, non-fattening, non-harmful, good-for-you critters that deserve more ‘ink’ in our cooking ways. And spicy food isn’t always about red-hot heat and Saturday-afternoon pelvic-region agony. It is simply a guaranteed adventure into realms of great, always-exciting taste.
your own curry
There are some of us who avoid store-bought curry powder. I am one of them. I don’t like the taste of fenugreek or curry plant, so this mix is my answer, and possibly yours, to a great curry taste.
For this recipe you may have to visit a spice store. Then mix 2 parts each coriander, cumin, cardamom, ginger, garlic powder and onion powder. Add 1 part cayenne or chili powder, and “monsoon balti” or masala, both available at South Asian stores. This is the part that you can make hotter to your taste.
I use this mix in “curried rice,” which really is cooked fried rice, mixed up with bacon, ham, or leftover chicken, maybe a handful of shrimp, and some Asian-accented vegetables stir-fried on the side. Easy and quick.
The only allusion to spices with this smooth and tasty comfort standby is that I load the top with grated nutmeg. Mind you, I load lots of recipes, savoury and sweet, with grated nutmeg.
1 tbsp custard powder
2 tbsp flour
3 tbsp sugar
4 tbsp skim milk powder
Mix the ingredients together in a saucepan with water until smooth.
Add about 2 litres of boiling water and a dash of lemon essence, and stir until thickened.
Pour into a serving dish and sprinkle generously with grated nutmeg.
Serve hot or cold, as is, or as a topping for pie or fresh or canned fruit. Yum.
armenian nutmeg cake
I snaffled this from a friend in Sydney. It tasted great at a late afternoon party in a house overlooking one of the northern beaches.
125 g butter
2 cups self-raising flour
2 cups brown sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup milk
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground ginger
1 cup walnuts, chopped
Preheat oven to 350˚F.
Grease and line a 23cm round springform pan. Rub butter into the flour until mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in brown sugar. Mix well.
Press half the mixture into prepared pan. Dissolve the baking soda in the milk.
Pour into remaining crumb mixture with egg, spices and walnuts. Pour on top of crumb mixture.
Bake for 50 minutes or until cooked. Stand 10 minutes before turning out.
It may be a bit down-market, but as some do with ketchup, I often include a salsa to brighten up just about any main course. This has been in my collection for years. Origin unknown.
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
4 green chilies
1 can tomato sauce
1 tbsp chili powder
1/2 tbsp cumin
1/2 tbsp oregano
Sauté onion and garlic until onions become transparent. Blend onion, garlic and green chilies and return to saucepan.
Add tomato sauce and spices and simmer about 10 minutes. To one can water or chicken stock add 1 tablespoon cornstarch.
Add to sauce and simmer a few minutes longer. Serve over chilies.
chocolate spice bread
My summer reading included David Lebovitz’s lovely The Sweet Life in Paris (Broadway Paperbacks), a city he knows well, and has savoured in many of its “glorious and perplexing” corners. His pain d’épices is a “honey-rich spice bread,” that is “dense and packed with flavour.” David says he serves wedges by themselves, with dark coffee, or with slices of fresh or poached pears.
7 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into pieces
200 g bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 1/4 cups flour
3 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp whole anise seeds
2 large eggs at room temperature
2 large egg yolks
1/4 cup honey
2/3 cup sugar
Preheat oven to 350˚F.
Butter a 9-inch round cake pan, line the bottom with parchment paper, and butter that as well. Dust the insides of the pan with flour or cocoa powder and tap out any excess.
In a double boiler or a large, heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, melt the chocolate and butter together, stirring until smooth. Let cool to room temperature.
In another bowl, sift the flour, cocoa, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and salt. Add the anise seeds.
In the bowl of a standing electric mixer or with a handheld mixer, whip the eggs, yolks, honey, and sugar until thick and mousse-like — about 5 minutes on high speed.
Fold half of the whipped eggs into the chocolate and butter, then fold in the remaining egg mixture.
Add the dry ingredients one third at a time, using a spoon to sprinkle them over the batter and folding until the dry ingredients are just combined.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake 30 to 35 minutes, until the cake feels barely set in the centre, but still moist.
Remove from the oven and let cool for 15 minutes. Tap the cake out of the pan and cool completely on a rack.
Wrap the cake in plastic and let stand at room temperature for 24 hours to let the flavours meld.
David says that if well wrapped, the cake will keep for about a week at room temperature, or a month in the freezer. Check out his great Paris-based blog, www.davidlebovitz.com