Sometimes you experience something that is so simple, revolutionary and delicious that it truly boggles the mind. It’s almost as though time stands still for oh, so short a period of time and you just want to figure out what in the hell just happened to you.
Recently, I had this moment with yet another food; yes, I know I have a problem, but it’s what I do.
Working for my friend Nino at Good Earth Market in Ocean View last month, he walked me through the menu. Charred peaches? Seen it, done it. Roasted chicken? To die for.
But charred shishitos? When he showed me how to prepare the dish – a process of cooking similar to blistering red bell peppers to peel them – I confidently noted that I’m great at burning the snot out of things, so I knew that I would be able to pull this off.
“Really, though?” I thought to myself. How can these little nuggets of juicy carbon be any good? Well, I was the one who was in for a shock, as with a liberal flourish of Fleur de sel, any bitterness from the chili and char was gone; nowhere to be found. The resulting pepper was warm, immensely flavorful and delightfully spicy, but not too hot.
Since shishitos tend to be a bit on the bitter side, salt is a secret ingredient; it is perfect if you are trying to diminish any bitter undertones (or overtones for that matter) in food, and a lot of research has been done on the topic. However, I will not bore you with that here.
Suffice it to say that a two-ingredient dish can transform a dinner party in an instant. Serving it with some spicy mayonnaise is the final step to making this dish near-perfect. Of course, now that I’ve written all of this, you may be wondering where in the world you are going to find shishito peppers. I’m not going to lie to you; it will prove challenging.
If you shop at markets or good grocery stores, they might be able to sell some raw goods to you. I know I’ve special-ordered some interesting things at Harris Teeter in the past, so ask the produce manager if there is any way that he or she could bring a case in. Otherwise, befriend a chef and talk him into hooking you up.
Back to the peppers, what makes this dish so pleasing is the amount of flavor in the absence of overbearing heat. For me, I don’t enjoy chilies that leave a trail of fire down my throat, in my stomach, and … well … I’ll stop right there. Foods this spicy do nothing for me, and as the reminders are long and stark, I would just assume shy away from the Carolina Reapers and Ghost Peppers.
This is not to say that I don’t like spicy foods; I just like to be able to actually taste the food that I am eating. When subtle nuances are lost to pain and anguish, it is no longer enjoyable but hey, just call me old-fashioned, I guess.
Being able to write about this dish, noting Nino’s contribution to my continued growth and improvement in food, is often the most rewarding part of working with so many chefs in our area. We have some amazing talent, and at the end of the day what matters is that food is prepared correctly. It doesn’t need to have fillers and forty components. We don’t truly need to rely on calcic baths, xanthan gum and guar (although they do come in handy in certain applications).
No, at the end of the day, we just need to take raw ingredients and treat them simply to draw out their special traits. With just a little manipulation, you can prepare a dish that elevates a party, adds a special note to an already-noteworthy evening, or simply fills the snacking void as you binge-watch your favorite series on the telly.
But at the end of the day, sometimes easier is better. And a little char with a little spicy dip can do an awful lot of good.
Charred Shishito Peppers
for four people
12 ounce Shishito peppers
fleur de sel, as needed
1 cup Chipotle mayonnaise (recipe follows)
Lemon and herb, for garnish (optional)
1. These are best if charred over live flame, so if you have to go outside and fire up the grill, then please do so
2. Clean and dry the peppers (don’t worry if there’s a little water … the flame will take care of that!)
3. Simply place on the fire and cook until charred, just like you would char red bell peppers to peel them
4. I usually put a wire rack of the flame and rotate the peppers
5. When the peppers are charred and “wilty,” remove and salt liberally with the fleur de sel. While these are sweet chilies, they tend to be on the bitter side, and salt lends itself to our palate when it comes to bitter foods
6. Serve with sauce and garnish and you’re off to the races. Truly that simple
(about 1 cup)
1 cup Mayonnaise, high-quality
1 Tbsp. Lime juice
1 Tbsp (or to taste) chipotle adobo sauce
Salt & Pepper, to taste
1. Combine all ingredients and adjust to your taste
2. Keep chilled until service