During the lockdown, I've enjoyed being part of various quarantine shares of recipes, books and poetry. When you're in a very small bubble, any form of outside inspiration is appreciated.
Of the many fabulous recipes that have come to me via the quarantine recipe swap, chilli features prominently. Maybe we all feel the need to spice things up a bit, perhaps because chillies have the power to soothe and calm us.
Capsaicin, the substance that gives chillies their heat, is found in the greatest concentration in the white pith surrounding the seeds (the seeds actually have no heat at all). In hot countries chillies are the panacea of the poor, thanks to their ability to activate the production of those feel-good chemicals known as endorphins. The hotter the chilli, the bigger the endorphin hit delivered. As anyone who has dealt with some of the fierier kinds of chilli will attest, they can actually blister your skin. In those places where people munch down handfuls of chillies like sweet snack treats, there is a high incidence of mouth and throat cancer. But for those of us who enjoy a little kick of chilli and can cope with briefly breaking out in a sweat, it's one of the easiest ways to get to that chilled-out feeling and certainly requires a lot less effort than going for a run.
Spiciness is not a taste, our tongues can only distinguish salty, bitter, sweet sour and umami. The spicy "taste" is actually a combination of a hot and pain sensation. As far as your brain can tell, your mouth is actually being burned. Chillies repress our ability to taste bitterness and enhance our perception of food being salty, so when you add chilli you don't need to use as much salt.
One of the recipes I received was for Shatta, a fiery Palestinian condiment that rivals sriracha for addictiveness. It's super-simple to make. Finely chop 250g of green chillies, seeds and all and place in a sterilised jar. Add 1 Tbsp salt, cover tightly and put in the fridge for 3 days. Drain off and discard liquid, puree chillies finely, then put back into the jar adding 3 Tbsp cider vinegar and 1 Tbsp lemon juice. Mix to combine, then pour over enough olive oil to cover the chilli puree by at least 1cm. Stir before serving as the oil will firm up when chilled. Mix into vegetables and serve with chicken, seafood or red meats. It's a great thing to make right now, while chillies are in season.
Here are some other ways to enjoy the burn.
Spanish Spiced Almonds
Ready in 20 minutes
Makes 2 cups
Espelette pepper has a particular sweet smokiness and heat that's very appealing. If you can't find it, use chilli flakes or Turkish red pepper flakes ( Aleppo peppers or pul biber) for these addictive spicy nuts.
2 cups blanched almonds
2 Tbsp garlic oil
1 tsp smoked paprika
½ tsp espelette pepper or chilli flakes
1 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 180C. Place almonds in a shallow baking tray. Add oil, paprika, chilli and salt and toss to combine. Spread out in tray and roast until fragrant and golden, 12-15 minutes. Cool before storing in a sealed jar. They will keep for several weeks.
Spicy Corn Fritters with Sweet and Sour Chilli Sauce
Makes 10-12 fritters and ½ cup sauce
Ready in 30 minutes
I often add a slug of Thai sweet chilli sauce to a fritter batter but curry paste delivers a more complex flavour profile that isn't so sweet. The sauce is also excellent with fish, chicken or vegetables.
4 cups corn kernels, frozen, tinned or cooked on the cob
¾ cup rice flour
½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp red curry paste
1 tsp salt and grinds of pepper
Zest of ½ an orange and 2 Tbsp orange juice
¼ cup chopped coriander leaves (or mint leaves)
Oil for frying, about ½ cup
Sweet and Sour Chilli Sauce
¼ cup sugar
½ tsp chilli flakes
1 Tbsp maple syrup
3 Tbsp white vinegar
To make sauce, heat sugar, chilli, maple syrup and vinegar in a small pot over medium heat, swirling to dissolve sugar. Allow to boil, then transfer to a serving jug.
To make fritters, place half the corn in a food processor with eggs, rice flour, baking powder, curry paste, salt, pepper, orange zest and juice and coriander. Process to a puree. Transfer to a bowl and mix remaining corn through batter.
Heat a generous glug of oil in a large, heavy-based frying pan. When hot, drop in small spoonfuls of batter and cook over medium heat, about 2 minutes, until bubbles form in the batter. Turn over and cook for a further 2 minutes until batter is fully set and fritters are crispy and golden. Transfer cooked fritters to a rack with a paper towel on top and continue to shallow-fry batter in batches, adding more oil as necessary.
Keep warm and serve fritters with the sauce, coriander leaves and avocado wedges.
Thai Prawn and Egg Curry
Ready in 30 minutes
This fast-track "cheat's sauce" makes a great base for all kinds of curries. Swap the prawns for chicken, tofu or vegetables as preferred.
1 Tbsp neutral oil
2 Tbsp red curry paste
2 cups store bought pasta sauce
1 cup coconut cream
1 Tbsp fish sauce
400g large prawn tails or diced fish
4 heads bok choy, cut into 2cm pieces or 120g baby spinach leaves
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
4 eggs, hardboiled and peeled
Cooked noodles or rice
Sliced long red chilli, coriander leaves, bean sprouts and lime wedges, to garnish
In a medium pot, heat oil, fry curry paste for 1-2 minutes until aromatic. Add pasta sauce, coconut cream and fish sauce, simmer 10 minutes. Sauce can be prepared to this point ahead of time, it will keep for a few days in a covered container in the fridge.
When ready to serve, return sauce to a simmer, mix in prawns or fish and as soon as the sauce is simmering, cook for 2 minutes then mix in the bok choy or spinach. Bring back up to a boil over a high heat and stir until greens are wilted.
Serve over noodles or rice garnished with halves of egg, chilli, coriander leaves, bean sprouts and lime wedges.