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For some, ordering spicy food is an unnecessarily masculinized endeavor akin to buying an oversized truck, a flame-painted speedboat or wearing shorts and no jacket in the winter while pretending to friends it’s “not cold.” Others are so spice-adverse that you’d be shocked to find them eating anything other than vanilla ice cream or iceberg lettuce on Wonder Bread. But in this world of heat freaks and spice prudes, I implore you to live in the middle.
Even if you don’t like spicy food, there’s a good chance you unknowingly enjoy some foods with spice. There’s also a chance that the reason you enjoy these foods so much is because they contain a marginal amount of heat. Consider tacos, curry or your favorite foods from southeast Asia, which—even in their milder versions—use a variety of fresh and dried chili peppers. You can look even closer to home, at the chili flakes or hot sauce added to NC vinegar-based BBQ sauce, the pinch of cayenne in a pot of chili or the pepper grinder on your dinner table.
What is Heat?
Instead of getting picked up by our taste buds, the actively “hot” element in chili peppers—a substance called capsaicin—stimulates nerve endings on the tongue. This causes a warming or burning sensation, depending on how much capsaicin is used and what an individual’s tolerance level is. The more you eat spicy food—or the more your ancestors ate spicy food (yes, it’s genetic)—the higher the threshold where the pleasure of spicy food turns to pain.
The Case for Capsaicin
Many of our favorite foods—the aforementioned tacos, curries, Pad Thai—taste so confoundingly flavorful because they utilize more than just the five basic tastes (sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness and umami). The best, most robust foods in the world also utilize heat, which stimulates more of the tongue, broadens and amplifies flavor, sends more signals to the brain and triggers more endorphins to scientifically increase the pleasure of eating. Even if you start small, taking this as a lesson into your own kitchen is one of the easiest ways to immediately up your culinary prowess.
Capsaicin isn’t the only spicy substance—black and white peppercorns contain piperine, mustard and radishes (especially horseradish and wasabi) contain allyl isothiocyanate, and raw garlic and onion contain allicin—all of which similarly trigger our nervous systems.
Other parts of your body have capsaicin receptors too, so if you’re handling hot peppers, be sure to wear gloves or wash your hands well before touching your face or going to the bathroom.
Embracing the Fire
With the fear of capsaicin eliminated—or at least managed—the world of spicy ingredients can still seem overwhelming: cooks contend with fresh hot peppers like jalapeños and poblanos, chili pastes, powders, oils, about a million hot sauces—and that’s just at the local Food Lion. The semantics of it all can be downright confusing: chipotles are fully ripened, smoked jalapeños; anchos are fully ripened, dried poblanos, and if there are all these specific chili powders, then what the hell is regular old chili powder?
My answer? Don’t worry about it. Just don’t shy away from the recipes that call for hot peppers, and take note of what surprises you. Experiment with new, spicy ingredients when you’re cooking off-book. Over time, you’ll build a fiery arsenal catered to your preferences and experiences.
Calabrian Chili Mayo
The first time I tried Calabrian chili paste, I was a line cook under Chef Jeff Seizer (currently the chef/owner at Royale in downtown Raleigh) at a small Italian restaurant near Madison Square Garden (shout-out to Biricchino). I had never seen the ingredient before, and I had never tasted anything like it. Yes—the chili paste was spicy, but it was so robust and tangy, and the depth of the flavor lingered just as long as the heat did.
I was addicted—stirring it into pastas, soups and mixing it with butter and spreading it on bread. Eventually, I mixed it with mayonnaise and put it on a sandwich with salumi and fresh mozzarella, and then on just about every sandwich I made myself at work for the next two months.
When I moved to North Carolina, I found Calabrian chili paste at an Italian specialty shop in Morrisville called CapriFlavors (it has since moved to Cary), and I have kept it stocked in my fridge ever since. Over the last few years, the ingredient has seen a spike in popularity, mostly among chefs at Italian restaurants. Last week, however, I saw it on display at Trader Joe’s. It’s safe to say that this once-obscure culinary obsession of mine has hit the mainstream, and I couldn’t be happier to share this recipe.
1 cup mayo* (I prefer Duke’s)
1 Tbsp. (or more, if desired) Calabrian chili paste
1 medium clove of garlic, minced (optional)
2 basil leaves, chopped
Fresh lemon juice (squeeze about 1/8th of a lemon)
Salt to taste
*for a healthier option, use half mayo and half Greek yogurt
In this series, local chef Bobby McFarland offers tips on how to cook like the pros. Currently the lead culinary consultant at The Kitchen Raleigh, McFarland loves eating pomegranate, cheese and all things pork. His culinary hero is Alton Brown.
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