Heat things up with spicy foods

  • Article by: REBECCA SODERGREN , Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
  • Updated: February 12, 2014 - 3:58 PM

We’ve lost count of the number of days below zero, and it’s almost Valentine’s Day. That makes two good reasons to turn up the fire in the kitchen.

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Farmer Digonta Saikia shows a "Bhut jolokia" or "ghost chili" pepper plucked from his field in the northeastern Indian state of Assam.

Photo: Manish Swarup, Associated Press

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A winter with unusually cold temps got you down?

There’s one surefire way to heat yourself up: Add spice to your cooking. And just in time for Valentine’s Day.

And who better to tell us how to turn up the furnace on our food than owners of spice stores?

If you want to go all-out hot, Greg Mancini, owner of Pittsburgh Spice & Seasoning Co., suggests ghost peppers. He’s heard of only one thing hotter — the aptly named Scorpion Powder — though he doesn’t sell that one.

But ghost pepper will give you all the heat you need and then some, he said, noting that it checks in at a million Scoville units, the heat measurement used for peppers. By comparison, crushed red pepper flakes that you might shake onto your pizza measure about 30,000 to 40,000 Scoville units.

“I’m telling you, you can just touch a toothpick to ghost pepper powder and put it to your lips, and it’ll burn,” he said.

Indian cuisine is, of course, capable of packing a wallop. There are garam masala and chile powder blends that are quite hot, as well as hot chutneys.

Con Yeager Spice Co. in Pennsylvania sells a dehydrated African bird’s-eye chile as its hottest offering.

“These are things you don’t just pick up and eat,” explained Rodney Schaffer, Con Yeager’s director of technical services, though African bird’s-eyes are still only about a tenth as hot as ghost peppers. He suggested adding African bird’s-eye chiles to a pot of soup or chili during cooking but then removing them before serving. (In one of today’s recipes, Shrimp Pili-Pili, crushed dried African bird’s-eye chiles are used to flavor a marinade.)

Penzeys Spices sells two spices that are among their hottest. One is chile pequins, which are very small but pack a lot of heat and resemble African bird’s-eyes chiles. The other is berbere, an African spice blend commonly used in doro wat or other African stews (see recipe for Spicy Berbere Lentil Stew). Penzeys has a berbere blend that is fairly hot, although some spice shops make it milder.

Con Yeager blends spices and seasonings for the meat and poultry industry, including grocery chains and sausage factories, as well as selling retail spices. Workers must wear gloves and goggles to protect themselves from the hot stuff — good to note for home cooks, as well.

You can add the spice to chicken wings and pots of chili, of course, but there’s so much more. Check out these recipes, including adding chile powder to your breakfast.

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