Red pepper flakes (Recipe: Laotian chicken and herb salad)
REVELATION: Did you know you can make your own red pepper flakes?
Have you ever thought of doing it?
When it comes to peppers, the labels "mild" and "hot" don't really mean much. Is "mild" a NuMexico Naky (500 Scoville Units) or a NuMexico Big Jim (5,000)? And is "hot" a Tabasco (30,000) or a Thai (100,000)?
Why not create your own blend, mild or hot, smoky or not? You don't even need to use red peppers.
All you need are dried peppers, an oven, a rolling pin, and patience.
Here's how: Start with your favorite dried peppers (commercial blends often rely on New Mexico red or cayenne chiles, but you can use black mulato chiles, too -- I'll never tell). Wear rubber gloves, or remember not to rub your eyes. Remove the stems. If you want a milder pepper flake, open the chiles and remove the seeds; for a more fiery finished product, leave the peppers whole, with the seeds and ribs intact.
Place the chiles on an aluminum-foil lined baking sheet in a slow (200°F/100°C) oven for 8-10 hours, until brittle. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely. Crush with a rolling pin. Store the flakes in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid; they will keep for more than six months in a cool, dark part of your pantry.
Red pepper flakes -- popular in the cuisines of Turkey, Hungary, Korea and Japan, as well as Italy -- give you the heat of hot sauce (such as Tabasco), without the vinegar or added liquid. You can order chile peppers to make your own red pepper flakes from Penzeys or The Spice House.
When it comes to pepper, freshness matters; stale pepper that sits around for months definitely loses its kick. After a year, either replace the spice, or increase the quantity when you cook with it to compensate for the diminishing pungency.
Try using some of your own homemade blend in spicy grilled eggplant with parsley and mint, no-fail tomato sauce, red pepper soup, Mediterranean fish in foil packets, easy corn cakes or Thai grilled chicken with cilantro dipping sauce. And how about red pepper flakes for dessert, in an orange and chili pepper ricotta cheesecake?
Chicken larb (Laotian chicken and herb salad)
Adapted from the wonderful new book, Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America, by Sami Scripter and Sheng Yang, this is light and low-carb. The original recipe calls for toasted sticky rice flour, and in the book you'll find instructions for making this. I substituted toasted bread crumbs. Don't substitute for the fresh herbs, though; they are essential to the bright taste of the dish. Serves 8; can be halved.
3 lbs ground chicken or turkey
Juice of 2 large limes, plus 1 lime for garnish
2 Tbsp rice wine
2 tsp minced fresh ginger or galanga
1 stalk minced lemongrass (remove tough outer leaves, root, and top several inches before mincing)
3 tsp grated lemon zest
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp fish sauce
1-1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp white pepper
3 Tbsp toasted bread crumbs
1 heaping cup chopped fresh mint
1 heaping cup chopped cilantro
Several additional stems of mint and cilantro, for garnish
1 bunch scallions, sliced diagonally
1/2 cup chopped Thai basil
1 large head leaf lettuce (16 leaves, for wrapping)
On a large cutting board, chop the chicken until it is finely minced. Place it in a large bowl, and squeeze the lime juice over it. Add the rice wine and mix with your hands to combine.
In a nonstick frying pan (don't use any oil), cook the chicken, tossing and stirring constantly, just until the meat turns white. Return the mixture with any accumulated juice to the bowl and allow it to cool to room temperature.
While the chicken cools, prepare the fresh herbs. Add the ginger, lemongrass, lemon peel, red pepper flakes, garlic, fish sauce, salt, white pepper and bread crumbs to the cooled mixture. Toss the ingredients together until they are well mixed. Then add the mint, cilantro, scallions and Thai basil. Gently toss everything together.
Break lettuce leaves away from the head, and wash and dry them. Fill lettuce leaves with the chicken mixture, and serve with lime wedges.
More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:
Nasi goreng/Indonesian fried rice
Roasted vegetables with yogurt and fresh tomato sauce