Thursday, June 30, 2011

It's Getting Hot in Here

I have a rather serious obsession with hot sauces.  I have no idea where it came from, or when it started, and truth be told, it extends to all things that can be called condiments (rubs, shakes, spreads, dips, I love it all!)  I took stock recently of the sauces that line our refrigerator door.  Lets just say that I found proof that I may in fact be a hot sauce hoarder.  I just can't get enough.  On this year's vacation to Barbados, I sweat the entire plane ride home, fearing that the 5-ish bottles of hot sauce I collected from various local shops might collide and turn my summer wardrobe into a capsaicin soaked mess that I would have to wash wearing rubber gloves and a gas mask! Luckily, I found no such fate when I unpacked my suitcase!

So, yeah, I like it spicy!  To date though, I still have not come across a sauce that can rival the addictive heat of the Thai Chili Sauce made at the former Restaurant L where I used to work.  This sauce had a sweetness up front that seemed innocent enough, but the fire that followed left you with only two options; weep like a child, or keep eating more to delay the inevitable burn.  It's been several years since Restaurant L closed, and I still miss that sauce.  It crossed my mind again last week when I saw that the Boston Globe Magazine published a summer BBQ menu featuring Thai flavors.  The recipes looked good, but cried out for a spicy kick.  No time like the present, I thought, to stop longing for an old friend, and try making my own Thai Chili Sauce!! 

It seemed a daunting task. I do have a recipe (at its loosest definition) that I cobbled together from watching the sauce be made, but I had never thought that I could replicate that magical green goo myself.  I am pleased to report that a wee bit of kitchen intuition and some elbow grease resulted in a pretty close replica. Here's what I came up with:

20 Thai chilies (I wanted to use all green, but Matt insisted we add some color! So I thew a few red ones into the mix!)
1 Peeled clove of garlic
10 Cilantro leaves
3 Limes (juiced)
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1/2 Tsp fish sauce (more on that later)

Cutting board
Mortar and pestle (again, more on that in a bit)

Cut the stems off of the chilies.  Place the garlic clove, all 20 chillies and the sugar into the mortar (bowl) and grind the heck out of the whole mess until you have broken the chilies into fairly small pieces and the garlic has been pulverized.

Next, add the lime juice, fish sauce, and cilantro into the mix and stir gently.

Transfer the sauce into something for storage or serving.  It's a good idea to use a glass or ceramic receptacle because the acid in the lime juice can react with anything plastic and do some strange things to it. (Ever used a plastic container to store tomato sauce?  That's what we're talking about here too!)

Ta Da!

I served my sauce with some white rice and a version of the Thai grilled chicken that was featured in the Globe.  I also made the cucumber salad from the same article.  The link to these recipes is right here if you are interested in preparing the whole meal.

I caution you though, the portion sizes are a bit wacky in the recipes so I scaled the ingredient quantities back a bit, you might want to consider doing the same.  For instance, what 6 people do you know that can consume 8 cucumbers in one sitting? Just sayin...

I think I will make this again in the future and use it as a condiment for rice dishes, stir fries, grilled meats, and maybe even Asian style soups.  Did you know that adding a little bit of spice to any meal can provide a little help for those of us with a portion control issue?  Many studies show that the phytochemical compound that makes peppers spicy (capsaicin) can make us feel fuller faster.  What a bonus!!!  Most unfortunately, this particular sause doesn't seem to keep for more than a couple of days, as the cilantro tends to turn brown.  At just pennies to make though, I think I'll be grinding up a batch quite often!  If you are not planning on using it right away, I would omit the cilantro from the recipe and add some in just before using it.  It might keep a bit longer that way.   

A quick note on some things listed above that I promised to clarify...

I absolutely hate snooty recipes that assume the reader has access to exotic ingredients and/or fancy equipment, so, I pledge here and now to always explain myself if I feel that I am treading dangerously into the realm of food snobbery.  That being said, I am fully aware (having grown up in very rural Vermont) that not everyone has access to a swell Asian market like the Super 88 here in Boston.  Fish sauce and for that matter Thai chilies may be hard to come by.  If you are having trouble locating peppers called "Thai chilies" you can substitute another small chili pepper (here's a hint for you: As a rule, the smaller the pepper, the spicier it is!)  I wouldn't use a jalapeno, because their flavor tends to be a bit too bitter, but a habanero might work nicely, or even a fresno.  Fish sauce is a very popular ingredient used in many types of Asian cooking.  It was once described to me by a friend from Laos as "liquid Asian table salt," which is basically how it is used.  A little goes a LONG way, and trust me when I tell you not to smell it on its own.  Just trust me.  If you can't get your hands on fish sauce, it's quite fine to omit it all together, but if I were you, I'd add about a quarter teaspoon of soy sauce, or better yet, Worcestershire sauce as a substiture.  Unorthodox, I know, but worth a try.  I've heard many rumors about how fish sauce is made, including one that describes a process involving hot sun and train cars full of rotting fish.  I think it's best not to think too hard about these things, and accept that sometimes food is just delicious, and we don't need to wonder why!

Lastly, about this mortar and pestle business.  Yes, I have one, and yes, I really used it to grind up all of those chillies with my very own elbow grease.  If you don't have one, or are possibly not interested in a little manual labor, you can, of course, use a blender or food processor.  True confession... I bought mine years ago because I thought it looked cute!  I never intended to use the thing, it was a kitchen decoration as far as I was concerned!  Now I have seen the light!  I use it all the time to grind small amounts of spices and create sauces like this one.  I say it is definitely worth the investment (and it can be a small one...I got mine at Marshall's for around $9.)  Just think about it...isn't something that has been used for centuries by many many different cultures worth having in your home?  No one had a George Foreman grill 100 years ago, but they were using a mortar and pestle in Italy to make pesto (hence its name) and in Mexico to make guacamole, and in India to grind spices for curries and garam masala.  Just sayin...that's staying power!