Hot enough for ya?

I’m famous for my collection of hot sauces, and I’m particular about how I use them. I don’t just throw the heat willy-nilly. Vinegar-based sauces like Tabasco or Crystal are good for gumbo or jambalaya, where the tang cuts the richness. They’re also Louisiana sauces, so they’re traditional. Hot sauces that include the gutsy habanero – yes it’s really that hot – and fruity, tropical flavors go well with marinades for chicken, or in deviled eggs. Yes, I said deviled eggs. If you can’t take the heat, get out of my picnic.

I’ve become quite fond of chipotle-based sauces, which often aren’t extremely hot but are very flavorful. The smoky taste gives a kick to bottled salsa and barbecue sauce.

I want heat, which is why Texas Pete is a waste of refrigerator space. It’s practically tomato juice. I can drink it right out of the bottle, and have done so at the end of a frustrating workday. But, I want flavor, too. I see no point in the super-searing sauces that use chemical extracts of capsicum to stoke the fire – they’re all about the need to prove one’s toughness, not good flavor.

I was excited to see the range of flavors at the second annual North Carolina Hot Sauce Contest in Oxford last Saturday. (Check here for information on next year’s contest.) I was one of the judges assigned to select the most flavorful sauce and the hottest sauce. We were armed with an array of fire extinguishers for the palate: crackers, beer, wine, water, an excellently prepared smoked pork shoulder (also to see how the sauces paired with meat) and a can of whipped cream. The whipped cream proved to be the most valuable tool in our attempt to maintain the ability to taste through a dozen or so sauces. Milk-based foods, such as cream and cheese, are best at removing the capsicum oils from the mouth.

We sampled our way through such goodies as Squeal Like a Pig, Texas Hold ‘Em, Mile High and Toad Sweat, which was actually made as a dessert hot sauce (it was really good with the whipped cream). Some of the sauces were good, but not really hot sauces; more like seasoning sauces. Others were mere variations on the Tabasco theme.

After some pretty heated discussion (ha,ha) we selected Bailey Farms Chocolate Habanero as our favorite. Before you get excited, there’s no chocolate in this sauce. The name refers to the variety of habanero. With my love of chipotle, I picked up a bottle of Anne Bonny’s Booty as well. And I found one of my longtime favorite sauces, Flying Burrito Flounder Juice, which uses habanero and sweet potatoes. Better watch out if you eat deviled eggs at my house.

The hottest sauce was a fearsomely fiery brew called Spice It Up. I took three tastes before the delayed reaction to this habanero-laden bottle of evil kicked in, requiring me to down about a cup of whipped cream. Like I said, I like some flavor with my heat, so it wasn’t my personal favorite. It was the top-selling sauce of the day, though, so there must be a lot of people out there with something to prove.

Summer's waning, at last

I can’t see the end of these 90-degree temperatures soon enough. About this time every summer, I am sick of the whole thing. Tired of my summer clothes. Weary of the hot blast when I open the front door. Don’t get me started on humidity-inspired frizz.

This year, it also means the end of the weekly surprise boxes of fruits and vegetables from the CSA I joined. So that’s sad. That’s all that I’ll miss, as I walk around in my summer grumps, checking the weather report for a breath of cool air to look forward to. Thank goodness we finally got some.

Last week brought some delightful fingerling potatoes. I was in an Italian mood, so I made a recipe I hadn’t used in a while. Technically, it calls for waxy red potatoes, but who cares.

Boil the potatoes until they’re tender, then peel and slice thinly. Cook them in a large frying pan with olive oil, salt, pepper and chopped fresh rosemary, stirring to prevent sticking. When they’re crunchy brown, eat ’em up. They’re like Italian hash browns.

Pasta imposter

The next-to-last CSA box of the summer contained a vegetable that brought back memories of my early attempts at cooking vegetarian food; that favorite of low-carb fanatics everywhere, the spaghetti squash.

Now, the only way this vegetable would taste like spaghetti would be if you’d never eaten pasta before and didn’t know any better. I’d have to be pretty desperate for carbs to pour a good marinara over the stuff and hum “Bella Notte.” But if you work with its unique qualities, spaghetti squash is pretty good.

The squash must be cooked before it spaghettifies. You can microwave it, but I prefer to cut it in half, scoop out the seeds and place it cut side down on a non-stick baking sheet. Then, bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 45 minutes, or until a fork easily pierces the skin. Use a fork to rake out the pulp, which emerges in thin threads; hence the name.

The result is pale yellow, crunchy and sweet-tasting; in flavor like a cross between acorn and summer squashes. It’s ready to eat as-is, but many recipes put it in casseroles with cheeses and tomatoes and bake it again. My original go-to recipe for spaghetti squash was from “The Moosewood Cookbook” by Mollie Katzen, that Bible for vegetarians in the ’70s. It had a lot of cheese in it, as I recall.

I was feeling carnivorous, so I made a spicy sauce of tomatoes, olive oil, hot Italian sausage, garlic, parsley, oregano and plenty of aleppo pepper.

I simply stirred in the spaghetti squash. I thought the spiciness of the sauce would work with the sweetness of the squash, and I was right. The crunchy texture of the strands also provided a nice contrast to the richness of the sauce. And I didn’t have to wear Birkenstocks to cook it.