With chilies' heat come robust flavors

March 03, 1993|By Daniel B. Wood | Daniel B. Wood,The Christian Science Monitor

SANTA FE, N.M. -- "Smoky, nutty, woodsy, tart," says chef and restaurateur Mark Miller. Then there are chocolate, licorice . . . and even tropical tones -- mango, papaya, wild berry.

New ice cream flavors for Howard Johnson's?

Not quite.

Miller is describing savory tastes of an existing fruit that most Americans think of as only two kinds of vegetable, red and green: chilies.

"American's are hung up on chili peppers as something used solely for heat," says founder, chef, and owner of two of the United States' leading restaurants specializing in modern, Southwestern fare. "But there is an incredible range of flavor in a tradition going back thousands of years."

Flipping through his "The Great Chile Book," one can become conversant with about 89 varieties of the 150 to 200 that have been identified worldwide. Gourmet beware: They have different characteristics dried than when fresh.

There's the pale yellow-green scotch bonnet, used in Caribbean curries, an essential ingredient in Jamaican "jerk" sauce. The yellow-orange manzana is also known as chili caballo, shaped like a bell and carrying black seeds. The huachinango contains white veins and is from Central Mexico. Smoked and dried, it becomes chipotle grande, commonly used in salsas, stews, and sauces. Raising the culinary consciousness of the average American has become a way of life for the former anthropologist.

One day when he was 9, he ate a curry dish at the home of a friend that eventually began a lifelong search for ingredients from around the world. A 30-year quest for "the identity of that fiery, tingling, sensation" took him to such countries as Morocco, Guatemala, Trinidad, Thailand, and Hungary.

Mr. Miller notes that until recently, the European-based food culture of the United States has tended to overlook its subtleties in favor of rich, cream- and fat-based sauces. "The food cultures of Latin America, India, Africa, and the Caribbean tend to be undervalued for reasons of snobbery," he says. But today's demographic trends are putting chilies in the spotlight.

"This is not just a trend," Ms. Miller declares, speaking of the growth of Southwestern cuisine restaurants, ethnic cookbooks, and the sales of salsa. "We are never going to return to the dull, boring, rich, creamy world of the 1950s," he adds. "We are moving to a cuisine that is lighter, healthier, less dairy and animal-based . . . and more spicy."

2` Coyote's red chile salmon hash Makes 8 2-ounce portions or 4 main-course portions.

1 pound fillet of salmon, skinless and de-boned

2 cooked baking potatoes, peeled and diced

2 tablespoons red bell pepper, diced

2 tablespoons yellow bell pepper, diced

2 tablespoons chili caribe (red chili flakes)

1 tablespoon parsley, chopped

1 egg

1 cup fresh bread crumbs

2 teaspoons salt

Place salmon in food processor fitted with metal blade and pulse for 15 seconds. Blanch potatoes in boiling, salted water until cooked but not soft. Drain and shock with cool running water. Mix all ingredients, and form in patties. Keep cool until ready to cook. Saute in clarified butter or light oil until crispy but not dry.

` Savory sausage and apple stuffing

1/4 cup light olive oil

3 pounds pork sausages, not in casings, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 small white onion, diced

2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

4 to 6 serrano chilies, minced with seeds

2 8-ounce packages herb bread crumbs

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup apple cider

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons fresh marjoram, chopped

Heat oil in pan, add sausage. Cook on medium heat until it begins to brown. Add onions, garlic, serranos. Cook until lightly brown. Add apples, vinegar, and cider. Cook for 5 more minutes. Fold in bread crumbs, marjoram, salt. Remove from heat to cool. Mixture should be fairly dry and formed together. When cool, stuff bird.

Source: Mark Kiffin, Coyote Cafe

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