Layering in heat
I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll say it again: I love hot-and-spicy food, and when I'm in the mood, the hotter, the better. But nowhere is it written that fiery fare need be one-dimensional. If a shot of Tabasco sauce makes it good, five shots does not necessarily make it better.
The finest hot dishes, it seems to me, relate in a quirky way to the finest wines: Complexity and intriguing variety of flavor in a well-rounded package make hot-and-spicy dishes more interesting, just as - in a similar-only-different way, complexity, depth of flavor and balance make the best wines stand out.
To accomplish this end with fiery dishes, I like to "layer in" flavors, blending two, three or more sources of peppery heat, each bringing a slightly different flavor and style of heat to the mix. It's not necessary - and is often counter-productive - to go for crazy, palate-scorching fire with this procedure: The secret is to use discreet doses of each component, just enough to add up to a complex piquancy that tickles the taste buds but doesn't pummel them with a baseball bat.
Paul Prudhomme, the New Orleans chef who made Cajun cookery popular in the 1980s, got it right in his 1984 "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen," when he wrote, "There are many results to be had from peppers, and of course 'heat' is one of them. But the ultimate purpose of peppers is to achieve flavors, and these flavors are sensations in the palate that come at different times - when you first put a bit of food in your mouth, when you're chewing it, after you've swallowed it. Each kind of pepper works differently, and when they are balanced correctly they achieve an 'after-you-swallow' glow. They are also played off against the other ingredients in a dish."
Since discovering Prudhomme's techniques, I've often sought to apply this principle when I cook other hot-and-spicy cuisines. Here's a simple recipe for the Chinese Ma Po Tofu (a dish that I made in a slightly different form for the June 12, 2003 <i>30 Second Wine Advisor FoodLetter</i>). In this slightly simpler version, I layer in six different forms of heat at various points during the quick stir-fry: Sichuan and black peppercorns in a dry spice mix; dried red-pepper flakes and small whole red chiles; Chinese chili garlic sauce (or other Asian cousins), and Chinese hot bean paste. Surprisingly, while the finished dish is hot, it's more subtle than painful, with a warm blend of complex flavors that inspires an endorphin rush.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
1 teaspoon (5g) Sichuan peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 large cloves garlic
1 inch (2 1/2 cm) fresh ginger root
1/2 teaspoon dried red-pepper flakes
4 small Tsien Tsien or other whole Asian hot red chile peppers
2/3 cup (160 ml) chicken broth
2 tablespoons (30g) Chinese hot brown bean sauce
1 teaspoon Chinese chili garlic sauce, Vietnamese <i>sriracha</i> sauce or Malaysian <i>sambal oelek</i>.
2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 green onions (scallions)
1 teaspoon cornstarch
8 oounces extra-firm tofu
2 tablespoons peanut oil
8 ounces (250 grams) ground pork
1 teaspoon sesame oil
In stir-frying, it's best to have your ingredients prepared, chopped and assembled and your rice steaming before you fire up the wok, so begin by organizing the flavor ingredients and putting them in small bowls in a convenient place near your wok.
1. Toast the Sichuan peppercorns in a small, dry skillet, then crush them into a coarse powder with the black peppercorns and sea salt in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle.
2. Peel and mince the garlic and ginger root and put them in a small bowl with the dried red-pepper flakes and whole hot chile peppers.
3. Heat the chicken broth in a cup and stir into it the hot brown bean sauce, chili garlic sauce and the soy sauce.
4. Cut off and dispose of the root ends of the scallions and any wilted leaves, and chop the rest.
5. Dissolve the cornstarch in a small amount of cool water.
6. Carefully cut the tofu into 1/2-inch cubes.
7. Now you're ready to stir-fry. Heat a dry wok or skillet until it's screeching hot, then swirl in the peanut oil and heat it over a high flame until it almost smokes. Stir-fry the ground pork, breaking it up into small bits, until it loses its raw color. Add the garlic-ginger mix with the dried red-pepper flakes and whole chiles and continue stir-frying until well mixed. Stir in <i>half</i> of the ground Sichuan and black peppercorn mix.
8. Add the liquid ingredients, reduce heat to medium, and bring back to a simmer. Add the tofu and continue simmering until it's warmed through; then stir in the cornstarch, a little at a time, until the sauce thickens somewhat. Cook for 15 to 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Flavor with the sesame oil and the rest of the Sichuan and black-pepper mix, garnish with the scallions and serve.
I generally prefer beer with fiery dishes, but as recently discussed in the Sept. 13, 2006 <I>30 Second Wine Advisor</i>, "Fire Extinguishers," your best bet if you're choosing wine is something slightly sweet, low in alcohol, high in acidity, or perhaps with a bit of fizz. With this dish I used the recently reviewed sweet Italian red wine, Bernardi "Camauro" Cagnina di Romagna ($12), which went well enough to quench the flames. I still think it's better with beer, though.