Bland can become bold when you give your meals a spicy kick

By / Magazine / May 17th, 2017 / 1

I’ve always thought it a bit tacky that no matter what the meal — and before they even taste it — some people have a need to shower what’s in front of them with a fiery splash of Tabasco, Frank’s Red Hot, or any number of an endless array of Technicolor, mostly red capsicum-based sauces.

These are the same people who by rote, generously snow their food with salt, again as the plate arrives. You could be one of them, and if you are, what you’re doing may have been a lifelong kick, but remember, it’s also an insult to the chef. At your home, or out on the town, whoever cooked it has seasoned your meal, tasted it, and served it ready for the palate.

But all of that said, it’s sometimes fun or necessary to give a meal a shot of salt or something hot. That’s after you’ve tasted it. Same with a lot of things. What is sushi without wasabi, fish and chips without more vinegar, bangers without mustard, and on and on. For whatever reason, it’s a treat now and then to turn up the thermostat of tongue-tingling heat — pleasure, and certainly pain.

Why, when it hurts, do we keep coming back to this stuff? Why, when I sadistically mixed a blob of wasabi with soy and fed it to my very young grandson, did he flinch for just a minute, before smiling and saying: “More!”

On the same note, I found these learned words in a Wall Street Journal piece about spicy food: “For some reason apparently unrelated to survival, humans condition themselves to make an aversion gratifying.” Precisely. Which is why the chili or the mustard, in all of their mixed-up glory, have ofttimes been heroes of the table.

The story is often told that in certain corners of our world, hot sauces are added to meals, not because they are treats, but are provided to disguise the taste of food, that because of a lack of refrigeration, has gone “off,” and are needed to be brought back to an edible state. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it’s a cruel urban legend.

It’s not always that heat can make a mightier meal. Your cupboard or fridge is likely loaded with possibilities for pairings that can turn the ordinary into something special. I’ve often mixed honey and mustard as a brush for a fillet of salmon; roasted a rack of lamb with a topping of peanut butter. Yes, I had it one night at a suburban Vancouver restaurant, and it worked and continues to work beautifully.

We do all of these things because while meals in all of their nakedness are perfectly elegant, there comes a time when they need a lift. There was a first time when the roast beef needed horseradish, when lamb discovered rosemary, pork united well with apple sauce, poultry with a jammy variety of sweeteners, and curry with a chunky chutney.

It was a brave person who first ate a tomato, but it’s a clever you who will discover that bland can become bold. Leave the salt until after the first taste. Replace it with a taste that’s your very own.


Canada’s ethnic mix is rapidly changing. Not just new faces, but the foods that come with this change. Traditional tastes will remain, but there will be new entries onto our menus that were bill of fare in the home countries of our new arrivals. Like harissa, a hot chili pepper paste most closely associated with Tunisia, Libya and Algeria. Remember what I said about rubber gloves.

1 red pepper
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp caraway seeds
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
1 small red onion, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
3 hot red chilies, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 1/2 tsp tomato paste
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt

Place the pepper under a very hot broiler, turning occasionally for about 25 minutes, until blackened on the outside and completely soft.

Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to cool. Peel the pepper and discard its skin and seeds.

Place a dry frying pan over low heat and lightly toast the coriander, cumin, and caraway seeds for 2 minutes. Remove them to a mortar and use a pestle to grind to a powder.

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat, and fry the onion, garlic, and chilies for 10 to 12 minutes, until a dark smoky colour and almost caramelized.

Use a food processor to bring together all of the paste ingredients until smooth, adding a little more oil if needed. Store in the refrigerator.


The commercial variety is famed for its rooster on the label. I picked up a bottle in Vancouver’s Chinatown, and went to the web to find a recipe. “Chef John” said that not only is making your own sriracha at home possible, but it’s really fun and there’s hardly any work involved. “Serve it on just about anything.”

1 lb red jalapeño peppers, stems cut off
1/2 lb red serrano peppers, stems cut off
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tbsp kosher salt
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup distilled white vinegar

Chop jalapeño and serrano peppers, retaining seeds and membranes, and place into a blender with garlic, brown sugar, salt, and water.

Blend until smooth, pulsing several times to start. Transfer purée into a large glass container. Cover container with plastic wrap and place into a cool dark location for 3 to 5 days, stirring once a day. The mixture will begin to bubble and ferment.

Scrape down the sides during each stirring. Rewrap after every stirring and return to a cool, dark place until mixture is bubbly. Pour fermented mixture back into blender with vinegar; blend until smooth.

Strain mixture through a fine mesh strainer into a saucepan, pushing as much of the pulp as possible through the strainer into the sauce. Discard remaining pulp, seeds, and skin left in strainer.

Place saucepan on a burner and bring sauce to a boil, stirring often, until reduced to desired thickness, 5 to 10 minutes. Skim foam if desired.

Remove saucepan from heat and let sauce cool to room temperature. Sauce will thicken a little when cooled. Transfer sauce to jars or bottles and refrigerate. Chef John notes that this version is probably a bit spicier than the “rooster” sauce.

street stall green chicken curry

Serves 4

This is an encore recipe that was presented to me by nephew Dave, who got it from a street vendor in Bangkok. This curry doesn’t need a chutney to make it sing, because it already has all of the tastes that will bring you back for more.

750 g chicken thigh fillets
200 g green beans
1 cup coconut cream

curry paste

3 small chopped green chillies
2 green chopped shallots
2 cloves crushed garlic
1/2 cup chopped lemongrass
1/4 cup chopped coriander
2 tbsp oil
2 tbsp water
1 tsp shrimp paste
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp turmeric

Prepare the curry paste by blending ingredients smoothly together. Cut the chicken into thin strips, and the beans into bite-sized pieces.

Cook the curry paste on medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add the chicken and beans and cook for another 5 minutes, or until the chicken is tender.

Stir in the coconut cream and simmer uncovered for another 5 minutes, or until the mixture begins to thicken. Serve with steamed rice.

mango chutney

Yields about 8 cups

The best of accompaniments for a curry, this recipe, which I’ve made many times, suggests that the mangoes should be green, but it doesn’t really matter. And be careful when you’re cooking the mixture, it can quickly stick to the pan if the heat is too high.

1 cup distilled white vinegar
3 1/4 cups sugar
6 cups peeled, sliced mangoes (about 10 medium)
1/4 cup peeled, freshly grated gingerroot
1 1/2 cups raisins
2 chili peppers, seeded and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup sliced onion
1/2 tsp salt

Boil vinegar and sugar in a large pot for 5 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and cook about 30 minutes or until thick. Pack into clean, hot jars, leaving 1/2-inch head space, seal. Process in boiling water bath about 10 minutes.

blasted cauliflower with eggs

My kids have said on occasion that my choice, when it comes to making leftovers presentable, or for making the ordinary more interesting, has been to “put an egg on it.” So I was quite surprised when on one occasion they presented me with a recipe book by Lara Ferroni with exactly that title. (Sasquatch Books, Seattle). I know cauliflowers cost the earth, but Lara’s simple recipe makes the big spend worthwhile.

1 head cauliflower
1 tbsp olive oil, and more for drizzling
1/4-1 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 tsp dried mustard
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 hard-boiled eggs

Preheat oven to 450˚F.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut the cauliflower into medium florets and in a large bowl toss them with the oil, red pepper flakes, pine nuts, raisins, mustard, salt and pepper to taste. Spread in an even layer on the parchment sheet.

Bake 30 to 45 minutes or until caramelized on the edges. Transfer to a bowl.

Chop the eggs and sprinkle them over the cauliflower mixture, along with another drizzle of oil. Serve immediately.

Some like it hot!

I’ll try to stay on topic, but I’ve written before in this journal that I’m a persistent, impetuous and perfectionist canner. Show me a tree or a bush with its fruit near prime, and I’m there to pick it, slice it, and seal it into glass jars — to mix it into a yummy slurry, or to watch it drip more slowly than melting ice into what will be jelly for the morning toast. It simply has to be. The joy of something extra and different.

Challenged by a cheerful family of shiny chilies, I decided to brew up a litre or so of my own ‘Tabasco,’ or version thereof. No recipe. Simply my trusty 10-inch knife, a chopping board, and to make a finer mix, the food processor. Chopping onions and suffering the tears is one thing. Chopping and handling chilies is a whole other story of tears, waves of blinding, all-absorbing pain, and a bathroom visit that ever since, has been a story to amuse the lads at the gym, but which I will always remember as a great kitchen fail. Chilies, regardless of their versatility, must be handled with the greatest care, and rubber gloves, whether you’re making harissa, sriracha or your own version of Tabasco. They not only recommended, but for your own safety and comfort, are essential.


Our West Coast wordsmith Duncan Holmes likes to cook all parts of the meal—hot and cold apps for the eyes; big, generous mains, where timing, color and taste come together on sparkling, white plates—and there’s always enough for seconds. But it’s at dessert time when he really shines. Not with precious fancy dancy, but with a melt-in-your-mouth-pastry apple pie. Granny Smiths, of course, and French vanilla ice cream.

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