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A Few of My Favorite Things: Pepper Vinegar and Sichuan Dipping Spice

Peppercorns

Recipes don’t need to be big, daunting processes. Sometimes they’re so simple it’s probably not quite right to call them a recipe. However, it’s the simple, little items that make a good meal great. Additional flavors, things you can add that maybe others at the table don’t want (they have their own foibles, I’m sure). Spice blends, sauces, zesty liquids and more.

Here are a couple I especially enjoy…

Whenever I have chicken, beef or pork satay I like to have a dry, peppery dipping mix ready. It’s so simple too! I mix a tablespoon of Sichuan peppercorns with two tablespoons of cumin seeds. I take a small, cast-iron skillet and put it over high heat. When it reaches the smoke point (don’t put any oil!), I push it off the heat and toss in the seed mix. In just a minute or so on the hot, iron surface, the spices become very fragrant. I then tilt the skillet and pour the seeds off to a plate to cool. I mix a tablespoon of black peppercorns (or varicolor mix, if you have it) with a tablespoon of sea salt (or kosher) and put that with the cooling seeds.

When the whole shebang’s at room temperature I use my spice grinder (an old coffee grinder, actually, that’s been retired after the gift of a Cuisinart grinder some years ago) to process the blend into fairly fine particles. By pulsing I can leave a little bit of texture without turning it all into dust. To turn up the fire, blend in a teaspoon of Cayenne (or Kashmiri chile) powder to the final mix.

This blend is fairly zesty, and is best made fresh. It’ll keep a few days in a sealed, plastic container, though. I find this blend to be a nice addition to the classic peanut sauce (mild or spicy) that most Americans expect to find when they eat satay. Heck, I’ll even do without the peanut sauce, most times.

Cumin Seed

When I was a kid, I saw my dad using vinegar straight from a bottle that nowadays I would say originally held Tabasco pepper sauce. He made the vinegar himself, using peppers he grew on small bushes in the front flowerbeds. Little, round, colorful chiles. He sometimes put in red Serranos or the like, if his bushes weren’t productive (or out of season). He’d put in white and malt vinegar, seal it up and let it sit for a few days. He used that zesty vinegar on many things, from collard greens to roast beef sandwiches.

It’s not tough to get the same effect today, and I have a jar or two of zesty-infused vinegar around myself. I use a blend of vinegars for mine; 4:2:1 White:Red Wine:Balsamic is the ratio I like. I put whatever fresh, hot chiles I can find in. One of the tricks is to cut a slit or two in any chiles that are bigger than your fingernail, to let the vinegar work in and extract the flavors. This vinegar can stand on your dinner table, ready to use, in a bottle with a dripper-type top. You don’t want to get too much on anything, including your skin! Boy, does it add flavor to your meal, though.

Here’s a neat trick: You can add whiskey (Bourbon!) or liqueurs to make unique flavor blends. Or skip the vinegar and go straight to the alcoholic liquids. Once the chiles have given up their spicy goodness, though, in say a couple of weeks, I’d suggest you filter them out and stopper up the beverage, then store in the dark. If you use tequila, for instance, you can then make an unusual margarita. Or use vodka and you’ll have a super-duper base for your Bloody Mary. Not to mention, these liquids can be used in cooking too; with sufficient cautions to your diners, of course…

Enjoy the (Easy Flavor Payloads) Heat!

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