Add some kick this frigid winter with spicy foods
Chilli peppers hanging from cord in kitchen, close-up
Add a little zing to a sweet dish with spicy rum butter topping French toast. (Rebecca Sodergren/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/MCT)
The unusually frigid temps this winter got you down?
There’s one surefire way to heat yourself up: Add some spice to your cooking.
The owners of several spice stores gave us hot tips on the best ways to turn up the furnace on your food.
If you want to go all-out hot, go see Greg Mancini, owner of Pittsburgh Spice & Seasoning Co. He sells ghost-pepper powder and ghost-pepper sauce. He’s heard of only one thing hotter — the aptly named Scorpion Powder — though he doesn’t sell that one.
But ghost pepper will give you all the heat you need and then some, he said, noting that it checks in at a million Scoville units, the heat measurement used for peppers. By comparison, crushed red pepper flakes that you might shake onto your pizza measure about 30,000 to 40,000 Scoville units.
“I’m telling you, you can just touch a toothpick to (ghost pepper powder) and put it to your lips, and it’ll burn,” he said with a hint of glee.
Why is it so darn hot? A research team including scientists from the University of California-Davis announced just last month that they can answer that question a bit more fully now because they recently succeeded in sequencing the genome of the hot pepper.
The new reference genome also helps scientists understand how hot peppers ripen and how they resist diseases, according to a Jan. 19 advance online publication of the journal Nature Genetics. As far as heat level goes, it was already known that a pepper’s heat strength is caused by naturally occurring chemicals called capsaicinoids. But the genome sequencing project helps scientists better understand how these compounds are synthesized in the pepper plant.
For us regular folks who just want some warmth without going all scientific, Indian cuisine is, of course, capable of packing a wallop. Bobby Reddy, owner of Manpasand Spice Corner stores in Green Tree, Robinson and McCandless, said he sells garam masala and chili powder blends that are quite hot, as well as hot chutneys.
Con Yeager Spice Co. sells a dehydrated African birds-eye chile as its hottest offering.
“These are things you don’t just pick up and eat,” explained Rodney Schaffer, Con Yeager’s director of technical services, though African birds-eyes are still only about a tenth as hot as ghost peppers. He suggested adding African birds-eye chiles to a pot of soup or chili during cooking but then removing them before serving. (In our recipe, Shrimp Pili-Pili, crushed dried African birds-eye chiles are used to flavor a marinade.)
And Frank Locante, manager of Penzeys Spices in the Strip, sells two spices that he would consider among his hottest. One is chile pequins, which are “very small but pack a lot of heat” and resemble African birds-eyes. The other is berbere, an African spice blend commonly used in Doro Wat or other African stews (see recipe for Spicy Berbere Lentil Stew). He said his berbere blend is fairly hot, although some spice shops make it milder.
Locante doesn’t carry what he calls “incendiary” spices such as ghost pepper. Most of his hotter spices consist of chili-powder blends that can be prepared in varying levels of sweetness, smokiness and heat.
Schafer, too, said he has a bigger trade for the not-too-spicy spice blends, noting that sales of ancho and chipotle have risen in recent years, and Con Yeager’s “Wing Dust” has “almost a cult following - it’s not terribly hot but very flavorful.”
Con Yeager, based in Zelienople, blends spices and seasonings for the meat and poultry industry, including grocery chains and sausage factories, as well as selling retail spices. Workers must wear gloves and goggles to protect themselves from the hot stuff. Mr. Mancini also sells spice blends to food service distributors and chain restaurants for use in dishes such as chicken wings. He noted that especially when they’re dumping spice powders into trays for mixing, his workers wear masks and gloves because “you do not want to get this stuff in your eyes.”
Aside from those chicken wings and pots of chili, however, the spice store owners didn’t offer many usage suggestions for their spice blends. By now, you’ve probably broken out your chili recipe several times this winter, so we tracked down some more unique ways to spice up the menu, including adding chili powder to your breakfast.