Chillies are not something I look kindly on.
Nor would you, if you had spent an excrutiatingly painful night tossing and turning in your bed, clutching a fridge-cold beer bottle, much to the apprehension of your mother, in an attempt to stem the burning pain in your left hand, reminiscent of the kind of sensation you might experience were you forced to hold on to the scalding tail of SATAN for five hours.
My bad experience with chillies occurred as a result of a batch of tomato and chilli jam. Five normal chillies went into the pot; five chillies that I had to painstakingly deseed and finely chop. Five chillies that somehow leeched their filthy fiery chemicals into my pores and left my fingers practically cremated. Five chillies that were your average supermarket type, not even a Scotch Bonnet or a Birds Eye. At least then I might have expected such an incident.
I'm just glad I hadn't done the taste test to check how hot my chillies were before I cooked with them. I rather like my tongue, it's useful, and it would have been a shame for it to have been singed off.
No, I hadn't worn gloves. Yes, I am a fool. Yes, I did try every possible remedy for the conflagration occurring in my left hand. I stuck it in half a lemon. I left it in a bowl of milk. I rubbed it with olive oil. I soaked it in soapy water. I scoured it with bicarbonate of soda. Nothing worked to alleviate the intense incineration. My mother called NHS Direct, fearing I was having some sort of allergic reaction. I eventually fell asleep from sheer exhaustion at around 4am, but that was one unpleasant night. It remains, to this day, the single most painful thing that's ever happened to me.
Which makes me a bit of a wimp, really.
Needless to say, I've never been comfortable cooking with chillies. This has extended itself to mean that I've never been comfortable with Asian cuisine. When I say Asian, I'm talking about Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese food, rather than Middle Eastern, which I feel a bit more adept at. I think this lack of confidence stems from two things. Firstly, I've made a lot of stir fries and other Asian dishes which have turned out disappointingly bland. Not in terms of heat or spice, just lacking a certain zest and vibrance which I'd expect from this type of cooking.
Secondly, as you may infer from the above,
I'm really not a fan of chilli.
When I see it in a recipe, I normally mentally discard it from the list of ingredients. Burning tastebuds just don't do anything for me. If anything, chilli detracts from the other flavours in a dish, rather than enhancing them, particularly if it's a delicate ingredient like crab or scallops. Why ruin a perfectly good crab linguine by adding a load of chilli?
I'm sure many of you will clamour to tell me how I'm oh so wrong. Maybe I haven't been trying the right recipes. Maybe I just need to man up and start toasting those tastebuds, recover from the PTSD of my chilli trauma and embrace that feisty little capiscum.
I don't know what put me off attempting more stir fries and the like, but I know what's persuaded me to give them another go, lately.
I recently got a copy of Bill Granger's Everyday Asian cookbook (don't worry, this isn't a shameless plug or a PR-endorsed post - I genuinely want to tell you all how great it is), and I've already made at least five of the recipes in quick succession. They're quick, easy, don't require a myriad of complex ingredients, and so far they have all tasted brilliant.
My favourite was a Vietnamese lemongrass chicken dish, with lots of zesty citrus notes and a golden turmeric-infused sauce. It was everything I'd expect from this type of cooking: fresh, tangy, slightly spicy, moreish, meaty. I absolutely adore lemongrass, for the same reason I adore limes. They both have the freshness of lemon, but possess a more alluring fragrance, somehow; richer, sweeter, zestier. The scent of lemongrass as you slice through its woody fibres with a fearsomely sharp knife is one of my treasured kitchen moments. I love removing its fibrous exterior to reach the tender purple heart within, whose blades can be rubbed between your fingertips to release that intoxicating aroma.
Perhaps it's also because the smell of a freshly cut lime reminds me of a freshly poured gin and tonic, which can only be a pleasant mental association. I do love a spot of gin.
Another brilliant recipe from Bill's book is the salmon marinated in soy sauce, mirin and brown sugar. It's rather like a teriyaki; you end up with beautifully moist fish that flakes apart, its skin seared and stained dark on the outside with salty soy and sweet sugar, giving way to a brilliantly coral interior. It achieves that perfect and satisfying balance between sweet and salty, and is excellent on a bed of sticky rice with some steamed greens.
Sticky rice is my new favourite accompaniment to everything. It feels much more of a treat than regular rice, somehow. Perhaps because it reminds me of sushi which a) I love and b) really is a treat because it's so darn expensive. Perhaps because it's more stodgy than regular rice, and my avid readers will know how much I love my carbs; the stodgier the better.
So a lot of my cooking lately has endeavoured to feature that unbeatable combination of saltiness, sweetness, richness, and a hint of spice. Not too much chilli, not enough to detract from the other flavours, but I'm starting to wean myself onto it. It helps that I have a friend who is an avid grower of all sorts of weird and wonderful chillies, frequently posting photos of his latest chilli-growing exploits on Facebook and regaling me with tales about the individual characteristics of each unique specimen. He's inspired me to be a bit more adventurous.
However, I still wash my hands in an OCD-style frenzy whenever I've been in close proximity to a chilli (I won't talk about the time some chilli crossed paths with one of my contact lenses...let's just say I fully expected to be blind when I finally took my eye away from the cold tap), and I always start by using about an eighth of a chilli where a recipe specifies one. You can always add more at the end if you want more spice; better safe than sorry. My boyfriend, bless his heart, once made me his favourite chicken noodle soup, and proudly dished it up only to find that - for me, at least - it was practically inedible, so hot were the chillies he had used. I spent the dinner alternately wiping the stream of moisture exuding from my nose and eyes and glugging huge gulps of water from a pint glass. In the end I picked out the solid bits of chicken and vegetables and ate them. With water.
Again, these chillies were regular supermarket specimens! The kind marked 'Medium'! (Whose idea of 'medium' heat are they working to? A volcano's?) It seems there are some rogue chillies on the loose amidst Tesco's suppliers. Perhaps the suppliers have a little in-joke about it, putting a few Dorset Nagas in there just for kicks, imagining the eye-popping pain they're going to be causing those hapless Tesco punters and cackling merrily.
Serves me right for shopping at Tesco, I suppose.
In the spirit of all recipes sweet, sticky, salty and spicy, I bring you these Asian-spiced pig cheeks. In a fever of excitement about this amazing new ingredient, I ordered ten from the butcher a while ago. They've been sitting in the freezer for ages, and a couple of weeks ago I had a sudden urge to unearth them and release their full potential. This utterly simple but incredibly delicious recipe does them full justice.
(If you're not sure about cooking with pig cheeks, read my article for lovefood.com here - it's a good introduction to a rather scary-sounding ingredient, and tells you why you really should be seeking out this incredibly underrated, and very economical, cut).
The real joy of this recipe is the marinade; it's rich with salty soy sauce and warming sesame oil, spicy chilli, sweet honey, the tang of mirin and rice vinegar, the fragrance of garlic, the gorgeous warm aniseed note of five spice, and the zesty freshness of ginger. I'm quite proud of it because I invented it myself, (based on a bit of internet scouting - the excellent James Ramsden has a simpler version here - and inspiration from Bill Granger's book). I don't normally follow recipes by the book, but I tend to with Asian ones because I have no idea about Asian food and wouldn't feel comfortable experimenting. This, however, has a bit of that good old Nutmegs, Seven experimental flair to it, in that I added a few things to jazz it up a bit.
The pig cheeks sit in the marinade for a while to soak up all that lovely flavour, then you just sear them in a hot pan before putting them back in the marinade to braise/roast for a couple of hours (it will look like a lot of meat, but they shrink more than you'd expect).
The result is a dish full of gorgeous nuggets of tender meat, so soft you can pull the fibres apart with a spoon, yet deeply rich in flavour. The marinade reduces to a sticky sauce, so dark and mysterious it can't help but promise an intense hit of flavour.
It does: it's incredibly salty, sweet and spicy all at the same time, with a really wonderful fragrance from all the different spices in the five-spice. Anise is very good at cutting through rich foods, so it works particularly well here. You really don't need much sauce - just a drizzle over the meat. Although you think the dish might be a bit dry, the sauce is so intense that a comforting canvas of white rice or noodles provides the perfect contrast. Some crunchy greens on the side are also good for texture and flavour contrast, as well as a little chopped coriander and spring onion scattered over the finished dish to add freshness.
I am really proud of this recipe. It ticks all the boxes, delivering massively on flavour but also on texture. It's rich without being cloying, leaving you feeling refreshed rather than weighed down. It's also a lot spicier than I anticipated, but I really enjoyed it because the spice was balanced by the sugar in the honey. I feel I'm finally breaking boundaries, facing my fears. Soon I might actually heed recipes that tell you to include chilli, instead of just ignoring them (although I'm a bit traumatised by a Jamie Oliver recipe that suggests putting two chopped dried chillies in a pasta dish for four. He clearly isn't using the same dried chillies as I am, because I once ruined a casserole for eight by including HALF of one).
Any leftover meat from this, incidentally, is delicious the next day (if you're not avid carnivores, you might not want a whole three cheeks each - two can be adequate, as they're so rich). I had mine warmed up and served with couscous mixed with chopped apricots and dates, coriander and a segmented orange. Sounds weird, but works really well.
Have you ever had any chilli-related disasters? Any tops tips for alleviating chilli burns?
Sticky Asian-spiced pig cheeks (serves 4):
- 12 pig cheeks
- Rice (or noodles) and greens, to serve
- 4 spring onions, finely chopped
- A handful of coriander, finely chopped
- For the marinade:
- 2 tbsp mirin
- 1 tbsp rice vinegar
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- 1 tbsp runny honey
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 tbsp Chinese five spice
- 3 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 thumb of fresh ginger, grated
- 1 red chilli, finely chopped
Mix together all the marinade ingredients in a shallow ovenproof dish (preferably one with a lid) and add the pig cheeks, turning in the marinade to coat them. Cover with cling film, refrigerate and leave for as long as possible - overnight is good, but even a few hours is fine.
When ready to cook, pre-heat the oven to 160C (150C fan oven). Heat a non-stick frying pan, remove the cheeks from the marinade and sear them in batches until browned all over. Return them to the marinade, stir to coat, then put the dish in the oven for two hours, covered (if your dish doesn't have a lid, use foil). Keep checking it every half hour or so to make sure the marinade isn't starting to dry out - if it is, add a little water.
When the sauce is reduced and sticky and the cheeks are tender, place the meat with the sauce on a bed of rice or noodles alongside some steamed greens (broccoli, pak choi, cabbage or spring greens all work well). Sprinkle with the coriander and spring onions, and serve.