Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Hot Sauce. I did it my way.

First, why bother?

Hot sauces are cheap and readily available in an absurd number of varieties. And doesn't the idea of handling hot peppers seem best left to people who get paid for accepting the risk as a job hazard, or those who actively solicit pain?

Let's put reservations aside for a second. I have often read labels on hot sauce bottles and found myself wondering how difficult it could be to create a personalized version of what is, for me, a crucial condiment.

It started at Union Square Market.

My wife, Kathy, and I have been growing pepper plants on our East Village rooftop deck this summer. The plenitude of serranos has been alarming. Bought as mere seedlings at Union Square, they required nothing but water and potting soil. Whammo! A month later the branches were hunched over, weakened by quantities of beautiful, shiny green peppers. Serranos start out mild and then turn scarlet and transform into something more piquant. I find them more flavorful than jalapeƱos, but they're in the same heat zone.

An almost unheard-of culinary combination: Fast, Easy and Good.

Although planted for aesthetics, I began to harbor fantasies of doing something with our bumper crop. When I spied an article by Melissa Clark in the New York Times on August 25, Playing with Fire: Hot Sauce (link below), I was prodded into action.

On a visit to good friends in Medford Lakes, NJ, in early September for an annual peach-picking and home-canning weekend, I brought along a bag of our fresh red serranos and a copy of Melissa Clark's food column. Let it be said that millions of people around the world prepare their own hot sauce daily. In fact, my Swiss neighbor claims that his Peruvian father attained local fame for spreading a particularly lethal homemade hot sauce concoction on bread and eating it with gusto in public. While the concept of homemade hot sauce had been entirely alien to my North American upbringing, I felt I was now sufficiently psyched for the challenge.

During a trip to the new and quaint Medford Lakes Farmers Market, inspiration struck. Piles of tiny Scotch bonnet peppers in alluring colors caught my attention. Scotch bonnets are essentially useless to all but masochists who savor the concept of searing their own lips off, but I found myself buying a basket.

Next purchase was a fat clump of fresh ginger root. In the Caribbean, if you eat jerk chicken or Jamaica patties, you'll find that Scotch bonnets, garlic and ginger will make their presence known without apology. I love Jamaican food and am somewhat of a ginger freak. In fact I often stop into the basement of Grand Central Station specifically to pick up a few curry beef patties that I will drip sparingly with a tiny plastic tub of special gingery hot sauce, a blend that the ladies behind the counter will unfailingly warn me about and which can be relied upon to make the eyes water. After handling this elixir, you must be diligent about not touching your eyelids (or any other, let's say, tender parts of your body) for hours. My intent was to create a sauce of my own that possessed character, but one that less hazardous to soft tissues.

The customized result.

My recipe follows, a minor modification of Melissa Clark’s Red Chilli sauce, but one that lends it a Jamaican inflection. Melissa Clark's stroke of genius is in the addition of regular red bell peppers to both dilute the heat from the serranos and cut down on the added sugar that many recipes recommend.

If you wish to follow in her footsteps, or my own, hot peppers abound at farmers markets, or even supermarkets, throughout fall. You could substitute jalapeƱos for serranos, but of course, your sauce will be green. Which is fine.

WARNING: Do wear gloves when you’re chopping, and do not breathe in the steam above the cooking pot. Do use a food processor or blender to pulverize the ingredients into a slurry. You may want to cook at night– expect non-hot sauce appreciators to comment on the savory, choking fumes. Taste as you go, but take tiny bites. Even after removing all seeds and white ribs from the insides of the serranos, the sauce initially came out blisteringly hot and required the softening addition of another two red bell peppers. Let the sauce steep in the fridge for 3 days in a covered container.

I would describe mine as along the lines of a sriracha, but far less ketchupy. It has great depth of flavor and a vegetal earthiness that hums a tune of warm exotic climes, with a brightness that pasteurized commercial hot sauces simply cannot deliver. You will eat this stuff. You'll be unduly proud. And as you brag about it you'll feel distinctly fake, knowing that the cooking process was ridiculously easy. But you will want to share your sauce, if only to gather more praise.

Ideal with scrambled eggs, pad thai, shrimp, fish, sausage, rice or anything else that could benefit from a tangy spike. I’m going through my first large jar far too quickly.

Here's Melissa Clark’s recipe for Garlicky Red Hot Chilli Sauce, along with her inspirational article: Playing with Fire: Hot Sauce

My variation:

Watsonator’s Jamaican-Accented Red Serrano Sauce

  • 1/3 cup (10 or 12) hot red serrano chili peppers, veins and seeds removed
  • 2 scotch bonnet fiery hot peppers, any color
  • 4 red bell peppers, medium sized
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 5 large garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3-inch hefty piece of fresh ginger root, peeled
  • 1 cup white distilled vinegar

Wearing gloves, chop all ingredients coarsely, add vinegar and simmer on stove for 7-10 minutes, cool 10 minutes. Place in food processor and pulse at least ten times until you have a smooth yet textured slurry, adding more vinegar and salt if needed.

Pour into a mason jar or other covered container and refrigerate for 3 days to marinate. Will keep for months. Freezes well, too. Sauce is hot, but not searing.