A Passion for Peppers

In an age of faddish interest in spicy foods and hot sauces, some people focus more on who can eat the hottest food (i.e. The Macho Syndrome) rather than how hot sauce can influence the culinary experience by enhancing flavors and nuances. Stores are filled with packaged spicy products with clever names and flashy labels, but this is a spicy side dish that you cannot buy in a bottle.

But first, let me give you the back story…

Growing up with my mother’s (a.k.a Bubbie Wise) excellent Ashkenazic-American cooking, I knew a lot from garlic and onion, but nothing about hot peppers and spices.

However, once the door was opened, I not only entered the room but made myself at home.

Based on the rabbinic principle of “b’shem omro” (literally “in the name of the one who said it” or giving credit where credit is due), my old college friend, Arnie Lewin, not only turned me on to cooking in my senior year at Indiana University, but turned me on to spicy food. The first two dishes that he shared with me were couscous with spicy vegetable sauce and Italian sausage and an Indian curry dish.

In 1971, the year after our graduation, we took our backpacks and hopped on an Icelandic Airlines flight to Luxemburg (that being the only cheap airline at the time).  We worked our way down from Europe to West Africa, via the Canary Islands. In Senegal, Gambia, and Ghana, the food we ate was very simple (roasted root vegetables, fish, and rice) but was always accompanied by some type of spicy hot sauce. The most memorable one being a hot peanut sauce that was served with fish and rice.

On the freighter from Barcelona to the Canary Islands, we met Ali, a Gambian who was returning to his home in Bathurst, and we ultimately ended up staying with his family for 3 weeks. During the first meal we ate together on the freighter, he took out a package of dried cayenne peppers and explained that he never went anywhere without them.

Today, when going to lunch meetings or dinner at friends’ houses, I often bring with me a bottle of hot sauce or fresh hot peppers to slice up. I keep a number of bottles of hot sauce by my desk and grab one if I feel confident I can successfully achieve the art of spicing up my meal while avoiding offense to my host. Some folks, knowing this about me now, even generously provide an assortment of spicy condiments.

My relationship with hot peppers was dramatically upgraded when I began gardening and growing my own back in the early 1970s.  I grow at least half a dozen or more varieties every summer. Some I dry, some I pickle, some I marinate, and some I use to cook with.

A couple of years ago, I had such an abundance of hot peppers, I was trying to figure out some new things to do with them and ended up creating this dish.  For this particular recipe, you can use a range of different peppers (jalapeños, serranos, chiles, cayenne, Thai, etc) but NO habañeros, their flavor doesn’t work in this dish.

So here I am gathered with our family in Los Gatos, California, for our annual Thanksgiving celebration. It is a collectively prepared feast, and my contribution this year is my sautéed hot pepper dish.

In a skillet, heat up a generous amount of olive oil (at least 4 tablespoons).

When it’s hot, put in one large onion, diced.

Then add at least 8 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced.

Cook on a medium flame for ten minutes.

Add whole hot peppers with the stems sliced off (about 18, depending on their size).

Stir thoroughly and cover.

Cook for another 10 minutes.

Add kosher salt (don’t be shy with it) and pepper to taste and about a teaspoon of white vinegar or lemon juice.

Then add a couple tablespoons of white wine and coarsely cut up fresh cilantro and parsley, about 1 cup each loosely packed.

Stir and cover.

Let it cook on a low flame until the peppers are soft (the peppers will continue to soften on their own after taken off the fire so take them off when they’re soft but not mushy).

**Note: you should probably stick to the measurements of the vinegar/lemon juice and the wine. However, all of the other ingredients can be increased according to your taste.

You can eat this dish warm but it’s best at room temperature.

Store it in the fridge and remove it before serving so it warms up to room temperature and the oil liquefies.

It goes well in soup, on pizza, as a side with rice dishes… basically just about everything other than cold cereal in the morning.

A special thanks to Uncle Tom for his delicious and flavorful photography.