The bottle contained a jolly-looking red liquid and I received it in December, butbottle contained a jolly-looking red liquid and I received it in December, but otherwise it didn’t seem like an item that gentle Santa would offer to innocents.
My brother-in-law handed it to me at a family dinner. Peppers about the size of lima beans floated in the flame-colored brew, which had started life as plain white-wine vinegar.
“You remember those little peppers?” he said.
I did. Back in the summer, he had a plant on his deck that was full of small yellow-and-purple peppers, and he had asked me what to do with them. It was an attractive, bushy plant, which looked a lot like the kind that I’ve seen called an ornamental pepper.
I’ve never grown ornamental peppers because I’d been told they were grown for looks, not flavor. I prefer peppers that are less like a trophy wife and more like a crazy third ex who took everything including the bass boat and the dog.
I park cayenne, habanero, serrano or Thai chile plants in the scarce sunny spots in my yard, where they become leggy but still manage to be abundant. I think hot peppers would grow between the cracks in a sidewalk or in the debris in a roof gutter. That’s how determined they are to spread their heat around. I would gladly have someone mow down my manse’s plague of telephone pole-like pine trees in order to grow some decent pepper (and tomato) plants. But until a studio buys the movie rights to one of my cookbooks (“Deviled Eggs: The Musical!”) and fattens my landscaping coffers, I’ll have to make do with random locations.
I think hot peppers would grow between the cracks in a sidewalk or in the debris in a roof gutter, that’s how determined they are to spread their heat around.
I am particular about my peppers. I have bored the tender of tongue with discourses on the different uses of specific ones and my lack of respect for the ubiquitous jalapeno. Jalapenos have an unripe, “green” flavor to me even when allowed to ripen to red. And they’re just common. People think that if they throw a few jalapenos on a burger or nachos that that they’ve been daring. Sure, if riding the spinning teacups at Disney World is daring.
I’m fonder of serranos, green or red, as an all-purpose pepper. They provide moderate heat and a clear flavor.
No matter what you may have heard, I do want flavor with the heat. And, yes, I do detect the touted fruitiness of the habanero pepper, which is why I like adding it to peach salsa, which I then smear on fish.
Sure, there is a story floating around about the time that, after a terrible day at the office (back when I had to go to an office), I pulled a bottle of Texas Pete from my refrigerator and took a long swig.
First of all, hot pepper sauce is less likely to land you in rehab than vodka. Second, I’m sorry to insult a product of my hometown of Winston-Salem (no, not Texas), but that stuff offers barely a jolt. It’s practically like tomato juice, although I am aware that friends find my evaluations of heat suspect.
I collect hot sauces on my travels all year and put them out at the holiday party that The Hub and I throw each December. Last month, the blazing buffet included bourbon-based sauces from a trip to Kentucky and oddly named ones from The Dali Museum gift shop in St. Petersburg, Fla., like Hallucinogenic Sweet Chili Sauce. There was a key lime-habanero sauce that I think I picked up at the beach, and I ordered two sauces from a Cajun website in Louisiana.
Here’s what usually happens at the party: Someone wanders over to the bottles with a plate of jambalaya or red beans and asks which of the hot sauces is the mildest. The answer is usually Tabasco. “Tabasco is the mildest?” the astonished guest cries, then flees as if from a raging forest fire.
The explanation for my predilection is simple: I have never had a bad time while eating hot food. Never. Even when I couldn’t see through my tears after sampling a potion of chopped brown habaneros, garlic, onions and vinegar that a reader had dared me to eat.
Hot peppers are the amusement park of food.
You feel great when the screaming stops after a scary ride and you realize you’re not dead, right? It’s the same thing with hot peppers. They offer a short but crazy spin through endorphin-filled eating, and you come out being reminded that you’re alive.
I popped the cap on that bottle of red liquid and took a deep breath of earthy, pungent fire. The flavor was the same, with a little sweet edge to the rich heat.
Boy, this will be fun. I’ll buy that ticket to ride.
Moose is a Raleigh cookbook author, award-winning essayist and former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at debbiemoose.com.