Some Like It Hot

On a recent trip to visit my family, I decided it would be fun to dig through the annals of our family's extensive photographic history. I paused to dissect a familiar pic dating back to age four. My dinner plate is filled with dietary options, with my parents hedging their bets on nature versus nurture. It was time for my orientation. A plump, happy little frank perched plainly atop a white bread bun, loaded with ketchup and untouched. I recoiled from the image of the boiled hot dog. Then, proudly, I noted that in my hands had been the proof that I willingly assumed my genetic role as a heat lover. I was munching on my trial run taco, followed by a sampling of my parent's beefy-hot, corn encased tamales. And just like that, another buffalo wing eater was born into the family.

My mother, whose family has the high Midwestern heat tolerance, would always sprinkle crushed red pepper flakes on her pizza, and Tabasco in her bowls of soup and chili. I admired her lack of water while eating such things. And while I won't turn down an 'atomic' wing or too, I've tried to locate more ethnic, sophisticated and perhaps even trendy (I say this because I found mine at the Chopping Block cooking school shop) hot sauces- and have found sriracha and sambal.
Sriracha, preferably the Huy Fong Foods variety, can taste more than a bit garlicky if not paired with the right food. It's made of a smooth puree of chilies and garlic, for a simple orange-red squirt of a sauce. A little goes a long way, as I often find when I overload my eggs or pad thai. I prefer to counter heavy doses with a bit of vinegar or perhaps some lemon juice.

Now I realized, that for a milder chili sauce, perfect to combine pre-cooking, I should choose sambal. I'll try to break down the difference here and let you decide your own instrument of pain!

I consider sambal a paste or side condiment, rather than a sauce. It has a thicker, heartier texture and often can catch someone by surprise if they happy to eat one of the chunkier chili seeds or bits when incorporated into a stir fry. I almost always use a hefty spoonful to add kick to darker sauces like korean bbq or kung pao hoisin (combos reign at Flat Top Grill's create your own bar in Chicago). It tastes incredible with beef.

Sambal, or Sambal Oelek as it is often labeled, describes the Indonesian mortar and pestle process of creating the condiment. Often, the addition of shrimp paste, onion, lime juice or lemongrass offer a brighter, more maleable flavor than sriracha. I personally am choosy about where I insert too much garlic flavoring in my meals, particularly those with high heat.

And so, it's amazing how the little chili proves a lot goes a long way in cooking. Give it a try next time you sit down in your local noodle shop. Many restaurants offer it on the table to add a little to taste.
A long time ago, when I lived in New Jersey and a few years following that trial taco bite, I discovered a virtual land of hot sauces in Red Bank, at a place called The Pepper Shack.
It was there that I was entranced by the metrics of 'spicy' and the all to scientific Scoville Scale. For those of you who are daring enough to try your hand at it's uppermost notches, all I can say is- 'that's hot!'


The Secret to Soda Bread

After reveling in Chicago's extended St. Patrick's Day festivities over the past few days, I wanted to share one ritual that isn't green, nor does it involve consuming a regrettable amount of beverages. My favorite holiday ritual is the baking of Irish soda bread, a simple, almost savory addition to just about any meal. This year, I decided to take my time and bake it from scratch. This scone-like bread is unique in that it only takes about 45 minutes to make, no yeast, no eggs involved. Easy enough to make me wonder why I only eat it once a year.

While the addition of buttermilk is the defining characteristic of soda bread, the pungeant fermented cream seemingly makes up for any other standard wet ingredients and creating a dense dough in no time. Yet, that's not the trick here. And while raisins or currants are often a sweetening element in Americanized soda bread, purists claim this makes the recipe the European 'spotted dick' instead. In Ireland, true soda bread was a brownish table bread made from baking 'soda', buttermilk, flour, etc. Rather dull. Dried fruits were considered a luxury item originally.

Still again, I'd argue raisins are delightful and I will always include them to please my party guests' tastes, but the true element I can't live without is the caraway seed. These tiny, buglike seeds provide the heavenly aroma of soda bread that whets my appetite even before the first butter-slathered hunk even enters my mouth. The scent is as rich as a folkloric tale of Irish ancentry and might be as heady as a Guinness stout in my book. Almost.

Caraway seeds, or actually fruits, are products of the biennial herb of the parsley family (also sometimes known as the Persian cumin plant). They are tapered on each end and have deep ridges throughout the length of their bodies. Caraway seeds are a defining characteristic of authentic rye breads and help make cheeses like havarti something memorable.

Thought to be the spice used longer than any other in Euroupe, Holland remains the largest producer of caraway fruit today. The Essential oils in caraway fruits contribute that anise-like aroma that is so savory it can't be replicated. The oils (like limonene) are known for yeast-killing attributes, which interestingly enough, makes for denser breads and might be why soda bread doesn't require any yeast in the first place.
To enhance the flavor of caraway seeds (or fruits if we are talking on a literal level now), add them in the last fifteen minutes of cooking. Try them in cabbage soups, krauts, cheeses, breads, pretty much anything that requires a deep, savory element. For dairy, you might want to try toasting them lightly first to enhace their flavors.

For my St. Paddy's treat, I used the recipe below:

2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

1 1/2 tbs sugar
6 tbs solid shortening (I stuck with the recommendation of Crisco, it maintains the color and is easy to mix in)

2 tsp caraway seeds (I tend to make these generous portions)

2/3 cup raisins (yellow or regular, also use as much or as little as you like here)
1 cup buttermilk

Sift the dry ingredients together, then add the shortening and combine with a pastry blender until crumbly. Add in raisins and caraways until thoroughly combined.
Add buttermilk 1/4 cup at a time until the dough is wet but not runny.

Position in a round on a greased baking sheet, hatch two deep lines in a cross down teh side (both for looks and traditionally, to ward off the any evil sprits!) Bake at 375 degrees for about 40-45 minutes

Slice and serve warm or cold with Kerrygold Irish butter.
Top O' the Morning to you!


A Slice of Heaven...

To be completely truthful, beyond the promise of sunshine and snorkeling, the incentive for planning our winter vacation in Key West was the prospect of dessert. Creamy, tart and tangy key lime pie to be exact. We vowed we'd order nothing but key lime pie, a task that proved far too easy in the land of the Florida state pie. The beauty of such an indigenous treasure is that everyone wants a piece of the pie- with their own unique interpretation to share. Using a New York Times article devoted to the parrothead dessert, we mapped out our own 'must try' list and embarked on a daily Key Lime adventure.

Key limes, as opposed to Persian Limes, are smaller and slightly more yellowed, perhaps contributing to their tart juiciness. Sometimes called bartender limes, they provide an intense citrus splash to every margarita and G&T they touch. About the size of a golf ball, the key limes are indigenous to the Keys region. The earliest recorded key lime pies were created before the 1930's, when tankers began importing produce and milk to the islands. Prior to this time, without true means of refrigeration, key lime pie was created out of necessity with its now characteristic silky-sweet condensed milk filling. The citrus was enough to curdle the condensed milk and egg yolks, making this an easy no-bake pie. The remaining egg whites often went into the merengue topping. Many classic recipes stick to this approach.

For an easy, no bake recipe using supermarket ingredients, check out Real Simple's Key Lime Pie recipe. After making this for a barbeque last summer, I would recommend freezing for about 4 hours or overnight if you plan to travel with it. It's important that the heavy cream in the recipe has a chance to firm into a custard. Try it out with key lime concentrate or stick to the recipe's frozen limeade concentrate.

Our first stop in Key West, after a quick grouper sandwich down the road, was Pepe's Cafe. Like most successful Key West establishments, it's as worn as a washed up piece of sandalwood and is still packed with a mix of well informed tourists and suntanned locals. A late entry in our key lime pie crawl, the slice that followed was so large and gooey it was served in a bowl. The dessert set the bar high for the rest of the trip, with it's delightfully tangy filling, covered by tons of sundae-style whipped cream (a bit too much, if you ask me) and encased in a crumbly, buttery graham crust that tasted every bit homemade.

The key lime bug has bitten...what's next? The following evening, we headed to a much lauded backyard restaurant rumored to have inspired local hero Jimmy Buffett- Blue Heaven. The wait was long, as they don't take reservations for dinner hours, as wild roosters and cats meandered around the heels of hungry diners.

The key lime pie was what brought us here tonight, and while it made our jaws drop when it arrived, we weren't as pleased with the outcome. Piled so high it looked like a dessert suitable for a Dr. Seuss Who, the meregue was sticky and tough, not airy like it usually is....perhaps too much marshmallow in the mix? We concluded the whipped confection was cleary compensating for a, er, meager showing of the good stuff- a filling missing it's signature punch . The atmosphere and the scene were great, but not enough to settle our appetites yet...

The next night, we sought a new dessert venue to continue our key lime crawl...and decided to brave the caberet/ transgendered scene at La Te Da on Duval, where Alice's rumored pastries still reign supreme. Sitting on the porch on a cool evening, the most unique pie slice arrived, with creme fraiche piped along the edge- alone a treat with the fresh strawberries scattered atop. The pungeant (borderline neon yellow?!) key lime custard found a pleasantly unusual counterpart with bittersweet chocolate, hidden between the filling and the crunchy graham bottom. Imagine a perfectly smooth bit of citrus dissolve on your tongue, crunching a bit of graham, only to have the lasting taste of dark chocolate linger in an aftertaste. Very odd spin on tradition, but if s'mores and limes mingled, this is the way to do it.

Straight off the cruise ship, streams of tourists seemed to flock to one of the many Blond Giraffe outposts. Operating as one of the few key lime pie factories on the island, I thought it might be a turn off. Mass produced pie? I shuddered and thought of the sorts of key lime offerings I would find in the freezer case back in Chicago. With this in mind, we continually ignored the prominent Duval Street outpost until the last night of our trip. After all, we did admire the look of their merengue. Blond Giraffe was home to everything from key lime cookies to ice cream, juice to lollis, but almost everyone that sets foot on Key West leaves with either a whipped cream or merengue slice. Being partial to the merengue ourselves, we brought our last taste of Key West back to the room to enjoy on the privacy of our balcony. And how surprised we were that the last pie, a factory production, was the best, most quintessentially Floridian Key Lime pie out there. Pepe's will still hold a special place in our hearts, as the pie that blissfully set the tone for a sun soaked, lazy vacation. But Blond Giraffe has mastered the art of balance- a soft yet structured graham crust, cradling pleasingly sweet-tart filling (there's the condensed milk-tart key lime combo you want) and an impossibly ethereal cloud of marshmallow toasted topping.

Key lime pie is something to be done right or not done at all. If it takes another trip to the Keys to find more, so be it. After all, it's far too depressing to pack our bags and leave this island oasis. But first, one more slice for the road...