Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Playing with fire

Today, my day off, I awoke with an urge to cook something. Not because I was hungry or bored (though those may well have been factors) but because there's something deeply satisfying about cooking at home. Maybe it's the delicious smells that pervade the house and linger hours after the meal is finished. Maybe it's the resulting Gladware containers that fill the fridge, beckoning friends to sample my creations. Or maybe it's the fact that, outside the restaurant, I can take a leisurely and experimental approach to cooking.

But what to cook? Pasta primavera? Nah, don't feel like walking to the liquor store for a box of wine. Steak carbonara? Hmm...no. All that left-over prime rib I snagged before leaving my last job is frozen solid and would take days to thaw. Ah yes, those habaneros left over from that banging batch of chili a few weeks ago. Perhaps I'll try my unskilled hand at making hot sauce.

Thus, innocently enough, began my fiery foray into hot sauce Hades.

I Googled a few recipes to establish my bearings and to flesh out some grounds rules. Here are the ingredients I decided to go with:

  • About 15 habaneros
  • 1 red pepper
  • 5 sweet peppers (whole jarred)
  • Several baby carrots (for color)
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1.5 lemons, juiced
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Sugar
  • Salt and pepper
  • Oh yea, and a jar of mayo (I'll explain later)

My method:

It became quickly apparent that I would need a food processor to puree all this peppery goodness to the appropriate consistency. But lacking this one essential tool, I decided to mince the garlic, peppers and carrots by hand. After all, I have knife skills that need sharpening and an entire day with nothing better to do.

45 minutes later I had a mound of tiny liquefied vegetable chunks and a blistered callous on my knife-hand. I was careful to wash my hands, knife and cutting board thoroughly after mincing the habaneros; I've worked with these little bastards before and am well aware of their molten potency...or so I thought.

I fired up the stove and melted some butter in a large saucepan. Tossing in the finely minced fruits of the morning's labor, I eagerly awaited that satisfying sizzle, the one that lets you know sugars are carmelizing, cell walls are breaking down and magic is happening. After a few minutes I quartered a lemon and squeezed it into the proto hot sauce to prevent the garlic from burning.

Next, I added a 1.5-count of vinegar, some sugar and S&P. All the ingredients mingling happily in the pan, I put my nose in close and invited my sauce's steamy essence into my unsuspecting olfactory receptors.

Big mistake. I've never been pepper-sprayed, but I imagine it's not unlike the scorching blast that singed my nostrils, eyes and face like a white-hot nuclear explosion.

I staggered backwards, eyes tearing, face burning, clawing my way out of the kitchen. Holy shit, I thought, I've created a monster. Even as I type this, some 4 hours later, my hands and face still tingle and burn from the fall-out. It feels as though I doused myself in Goldbold or Icy Hot.

Note: do not attempt to saute habaneros without at least a level-B hazmat suit.

This beast needed to be tamed. That much was (very) painfully clear. So after composing myself, I added another half a lemon's worth of juice, a splash of vinegar, and a coating of sugar. Now it was time to give my experiment a taste. A small forkful yielded notes of lemony sweetness, shortly followed by an inferno of habanero heat. Not bad. I tinkered a little more, adding salt and sugar in an effort to balance out some of the tartness.

Satisfied that I had created a complex and interesting specimen, I stood back and pondered my work. It looked like a dry salsa, something that would be hard to spread on say, a hoagie or a slice of pizza. It needed to have a saucier, more spreadable consistency. I decided mayonnaise would be ideal both to transform it into a sauce and mellow its heat.

A jar of mayo and some snappy spatula work later, I had a hot sauce that I consider successful. It doesn't fit the image I had in mind before I started, but it works nonetheless. It is tangy and sweet with plenty of heat. I left my camera back in rural PA, so just imagine a mason jar of what looks like orangish tartar sauce: that's today culinary experiment.

Like this idea? Think it's moronic? Let me know.

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