Burning Down The House
I think of myself as having an adventuresome palate. I like flavor and complexity in my food, I'm almost an omnivore (okay, I don't like licorice and I'm not crazy about okra or tripe), and I'm partial to the foods of Italy, France and Greece. But eating all types of food wasn't my birthright. Raised in New England I may have learned how to crack a lobster with my hands, but I had no childhood pit barbecues, backyard craw fish boils, or spicy foods.
Geography once meant culinary destiny but not any more. We now live in a global village and between technology, the media, travel, and the UPS truck, our kitchens can cook anything. Using local ingredients we can make dishes that originated a continent away and we're no longer prevented from bringing the world's tastes to our dinner table. We just need an appetite.
Which brings me to heat. One of my first experiences with the all-powerful chili pepper was when I was in graduate school and a classmate from Colorado made a Tex-Mex dinner for some of us Yankees. I brought my younger brother, whose palate at the time was as pallid as mine. As he took his first bite of what had been described as a mildly seasoned enchilada, his face turned red and his eyes filled with tears, resembling a cartoon character whose head explodes with steam.
I eventually came to appreciate the pain-pleasure thing of eating heat but I've remained, by many standards, conservative. I keep bottles of Louisiana Crystal and jars of dried peperoncini in my pantry to season tomato sauces and leafy greens. I'll squirt Sriracha Sauce into a cup of Hellman's mayonnaise to quickly make a fabulous sauce for seafood. I add Harissa, the North African red chili paste, to couscous and wasabi paste to marinades. And I learned in culinary school how Tabasco is an alternative to freshly ground black pepper when you want to brighten a pale blanquette de veau (or mashed potatoes or vichyssoise) without adding little black specks.
Then there are the hot sauces. We use them for instant personality in soups, chili, on scrambled eggs and to garnish pizzas, to give a kick to burgers and sandwiches, added to barbecue sauces, and even, as someone recently told me, on oatmeal and breakfast grits. I keep a bottle of Frank's Red Hot Sauce, which is relatively mild, if only to add it to black beans and rice.
But there is a world of hard-core sauces about which I knew very little. Whenever I'd stand in front of a row of these brightly labeled bottles with names like "Pain Is Good," "Tropical Tears," "Comatose Heat," and "Pain & Suffering" I'd be afraid to even pick one up for fear it would burn my hand.
That was about to change.
The Hot Sauce Tasting
Bob Levine is a fellow home cook, a co-conspirator in the hunt for great ingredients, and someone who is fearless in his kitchen. Or I should say kitchenS because he lives and cooks both in New York and Paris and also writes a food blog called "Bobby Jay On Food."
A couple of weeks ago Bob invited me and three other of his friends, all enthusiastic home cooks, to his New York kitchen to participate in a hot sauce tasting. He had purchased 14 different sauces from the Austin, Texas-based merchant Tears of Joy (TearsOfJoySauces.com), choosing strategically so to have a range of heat and variety of flavors. Added to his selection were sauces Bob already had in his pantry that he calls the old standards -- regular Tabasco, Green Tabasco, Tabasco with chipotle, and Sriracha.
He organized the tasting using the 10-pepper scale developed by Tears of Joy to guide its customers when making purchases. As Bob pointed out, this is far more useful than the Scoville Scale that was invented in 1912 by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville to measure and rank the amount of capsaicin in peppers, the chemical compound that creates the heat we experience. The Scoville Scale may be scientific, but when making a food choice, a one-to-ten scale helps forecast what you're going to actually experience better than knowing that a jalapeño has a 2500 Scoville score and a habanero's is about 500,000.
Bob's other preparations included paper plates, plastic spoons, baskets of taste-neutral and as we would learn, comforting pieces of pita bread, corn chips, and matzoh, plus slices of a tender and egg-y brioche loaf one of my fellow tasters had baked.
We opened some beers -- a proven neutralizer for excess capsaicin and far more fun than drinking milk which also counteracts the heat -- Bob handed us scoring sheets with the name of each sauce and its Tears of Joy score, and we began to take spoon-tip tastes of the sauces. Despite Bob's meticulous work to organize the sauces from mild to scorching, I got confused and began at the wrong end of the scale, making my first taste a sauce called Scorned Woman Original Hot Sauce.
The pain was instantaneous. Sharp, clean, and relentless. I didn't know if I should swallow or spit. I was sure that I was tasting smoke -- coming from the surface of my tongue. But I had pride and manners. As I watched my fellow tasters fill their paper plates with little puddles of red, green and yellow sauces, boldly dipping their spoons and swiping pieces of pita, I felt like a culinary wimp. So I took a deep sip of beer and pressed on.
In the coming hour -- pacing is very important if you're going to avoid being cruelly sick -- I managed to taste all 14 of the sauces. I also ate half of the brioche loaf. My favorite sauce was one that was not hot at all called Salsa Lizano. Called the classic sauce of Costa Rica, it is fabulously flavorful, tangy, and complex with a taste that combines sweet, smoke and vinegar. It even has its own Facebook page. Given the number of Hispanic markets in New York I am on the hunt to find a local source for Salsa Lizano and when I do, I will let you know.
I also really liked the hot sauces that included green peppers, especially green habanero, because the flavors were much more complex and interesting. I plan to add this kind of sauce to my pantry to add to a meatloaf glaze or a marinade for pork. In our tasting the one I really liked (and Bob gave me to take home) was Marie Sharp's Green Habanero Sauce, which rated 7 out of 10 peppers.
Many hot sauces come from small producers in the Caribbean and these will often include sweetness from ingredients like mangoes or tamarinds, making them good choices for marinades or added to dipping sauces. Less appealing were those soured from pickled peppers and citrus, and ones with lots of garlic and chipotle because it seemed these flavors would easily mask anything to which you added them; better to add garlic and chipotles to the food as it's cooked and then use a simpler hot sauce as a condiment. The ones I liked the least were those with pure fire because along with the scathing heat was an unmistakable bitterness.
We finished the tasting with a bowl of an excellent turkey chili that Bob had made while we compared our scores, picked our favorites, talked about the arrival of spring produce and CSA shares, and recovered from so much fire. All in all, a huge success.
Bob has written his own account of his hot sauce tasting at his blog. See the link below.
I've read that with regular consumption of peppers and chilies that our mouths can become resistant, making it easier to tolerate higher and higher degrees of heat. I've decided to not test that theory for fear I'd become a genuinely Scorned Woman.