Fun with Chiles

This will shock none of you, especially if you know me in real life, but I’m something of a wimp.

Roller coasters? Terrifying. Horror movies? As if. (Though I do love Rosemary’s Baby, but mostly for Ruth Gordon). And, in the culinary department, I’ve been avoiding chiles for most of my adult life. Sure, I can handle a few pickled jalapeños in my nachos–and, as everyone knows, they’re a key ingredient in Eggs Adam Roberts–but the idea of cooking with raw, un-pickled, fiery chiles has never appealed to me. Until recently…

I’m a regular, these days, at the Sunday farmer’s market in Atwater Village. Having just been to New York, where I sauntered through the Union Square farmer’s market which, in September, is really at its peak (with gorgeous tomatoes, etc.), it’s fun to notice the things that we get here in California that my east coast brethren have to live without. For example, citrus. Our farmer’s market has tablefuls of lemons, limes, blood oranges, grapefruits, all for super cheap. You won’t see that in New York. (Though New York has something we don’t have: seasons!) Anyway, this is all leading to something that we have here that you guys don’t have there…

Chiles. At least, I don’t think you have that there. I’ve never seen chiles at a New York farmer’s market. But we have tons, currently under netting because of flies, which makes these chiles seem like a colorful, naughty bride. [Note: I realize now that this is mostly a picture of peppers, but the chiles are on the left…]

Maybe it was something in the air, but on this last trip to the farmer’s market, I decided to just go for it and buy a bunch of chiles. And, funny enough, when I got home to read the Sunday Times, there was this article (seen in the top picture) about how chiles are good for you (anti-cancerous and all that). So the universe was telling me it was time to get over my chile-phobia.

Here’s what I made first: a soup kind of thing with Fresno chiles. Observe.

That’s onions, garlic, and chopped Fresno chiles all sauteeing together. To that, I added canned cannellini beans.

And, finally, a chopped heirloom tomato.

Cooked that all down together with some salt and then topped with basil.

Actually, that was less a soup kind of thing and more like the bodega beans that Rachel Wharton once taught me how to make. And they were most excellent; the heat was there, but distributed nicely through the dish, so it was warming rather than punishing. I was really into it.

Next up: a pasta with raw tomatoes, one of my favorite things to make in the summer / end of summer / great tomato period that we’re in right now. Generally, you just chop raw tomatoes (heirloom, preferably) and toss them with olive oil, a splash of vinegar, salt, pepper, and some basil. But this time around, I added chopped Fresno chiles too.

Then I boiled orecchiette in lots of salted water and when it was just al dente, I stirred that into my raw tomato sauce.

Topped with Feta to mitigate the heat, this, again, had just the right balance of chile-heat…

But was I being too wimpy with my chiles? Did I dare try a spicier one? Like the Thai bird chile that the woman who sold me these chiles warned me was “very, very spicy”?

That’s it on the right along with some garlic. I was about to make sausage and clams, on the suggestion of the fishmonger / butcher at McCall’s, who told me to brown some sausage, add some garlic, then wine, and finally clams. What he didn’t know was that I was also going to add THE SPICIEST CHILE IN THE WORLD. (OK, one of the spiciest.)

OK, so I chickened out a little. I didn’t add a whole Thai bird chile. Just a little. I was scared.

Oh, I also went my own way and added cherry tomatoes…

And, finally, the clams…

What can I say? This dinner was pretty excellent (especially with a baguette to mop up the sauce). And, without tooting my horn too much, I think I added the perfect amount of Thai bird chile. Still just a warming heat, but nothing too punishing.

And so ends my post about cooking with chiles. Are you impressed? Do you feel like I need to take it further? Hey, I’m doing my best. I once watched five minutes of The Strangers with Liv Tyler and almost had a panic attack. I can handle Thunder Mountain. But I’ll get there with chiles, eventually. Or maybe I’ll just embrace the fact that when it comes to chiles, scary movies, and roller coasters, just a little goes a long way.

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  1. The Strangers is hands down the scariest movie I have ever seen. I wish I had only watched 5 minutes…

    Love that you’re branching out with the chiles. We actually do have these in NY! I just pickled a bunch from my garden last night.

  2. Til now, I only cooked with mild canned hatch chilis. However,I recently started cooking from Made In India and have braved the world of chilis. I started with serano, which doesn’t seem to be too harsh. Just warmth. Now I’ve graduated to an unnamed red chili that added more heat, but still manageable. One lesson learned, use protective gloves or your fingers will radiate heat for a day or two.

  3. I always have to wear gloves when chopping chillies… or I end up with burning hands and then rub my eyes! I am also a bit of wimp when it comes to chillies – think I’m getting worse as I get older!

  4. One of the things I enjoy about adulthood is being able to recognize that I don’t like scary movies or roller coasters and be totally ok with it. I’m a little paranoid about using chilies because I have made the mistake of chopping a chili barehanded and then using the same hands to remove my contacts – excruciating. I applaud your efforts, though.

  5. In thanks for your good humored and generous ideas, ruminations, and photos of celebrations great and small, may I suggest the book Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter? Its themes of screenwriting, moviemaking, stardom, love, and loss closely relate to personal experiences you’ve mentioned, and Walter writes so well. (I myself marked passages on pages 60-1 and 305 as exceptionally insightful.)

  6. If you cook them down, those Thai chiles make some awesome homemade hot sauce. If you can get your hands on some Hatch chile peppers, they have some great depth of flavor too.

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