YOUR HEALTHY PLATE: Hot Peppers

A while ago I received a container of hot peppers of various interesting shapes and sizes. One day I selected a smooth, green jalapeno, chopped it into tiny bits, and added it to a stir fry. Another time, I sliced a thin, 4-inch, bright red pepper into 1/2 inch segments, marinated it in some olive oil for an hour or so, and then poured the oil over roasted eggplant sprinkled with curly parsley. That gave the sweet eggplant a pleasant bite. No further inspirations were forthcoming, and the rest of the hot peppers sat on the second shelf in the refrigerator, moving closer to the back with each passing day.

Then I received another container of hot peppers. Now what?! What was I going to do with all those hot peppers? It seemed like such a shame to let them grow moldy, and then toss them into the compost. I happen to really like heat, and my love of spice goes back a long way. In fact, when I was a kid my parents had friends, Ted and Freda, who grew acres of hot peppers on their farm in Muncie, Indiana. When we drove out to visit them one summer, I earned the nickname “Hot Pepper” after having carefully compared bites of all the different types. I didn’t want to waste those hot peppers.

Then I remembered about “s’hoog,” a fiery condiment that we had tasted many years ago in Israel. [The ‘h’ in shoog is pronounced as a guttural, like the ‘ch’ in Chanukah. If you can’t make that sound, try calling it skoog.] S’hoog is a wondrous specialty of the Middle East. Everyone makes their own version, and everyone’s version is unquestionably the best. We had one friend who would occasionally stop by to share with us a taste of s’hoog from his small, precious jar, inevitably given to him just that afternoon by his mother. A taste, by the way, is all you need.

A bit of s’hoog makes cheese and crackers very exciting. A spoonful stirred into a pot of soup will make your tastebuds dance and sing. It tastes very good mixed into humus or baba ganoush, and I wouldn’t hesitate to try it on scrambled eggs or in tomato sauce.

So, for the very first time, I made my own s’hoog. It came out more like a paste, a little bit thicker than I remember the Israeli versions.

Wearing rubber gloves, I sliced off the stems of all the hot peppers and then placed them, seeds and all, in the oven at 450F. I shook the pan occasionally, and turned off the heat when the peppers began to develop brown spots and turn a little dusky. Then I slid the peppers into a food processor.

I added a teaspoon of salt, 2 teaspoons of white vinegar, and 1/4 cup of olive oil to the peppers, and then pulsed the processor until the peppers were pulverized. Afterward, I spooned small amounts(one-half to one teaspoonful) of the hot pepper paste onto a small baking sheet, and then stuck the sheet in the freezer. A few hours later, I collected all the frozen lumps and put them into a glass jar, which I returned to the freezer.

Now I have flavor in a jar. Flavor, by the way, is a great way to satisfy tastebuds. The more flavorful food is, the more satisfying. And the more satisfying your food is, the more satisfied you’ll feel when you finish eating it. Through the coming fall and winter, any time I want to turn a soup, stew or other dish into something more powerful, all I have to do is turn to the freezer and shake out a spoonful of s’hoog. Or two or three, depending how adventurous I feel.

For more on hot peppers and capsaicin, the chemical that causes the burn, check out this interesting article from the New York Times.

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