August 30, 2012 |

2011 August: SPICE IT UP!

By Pasquale Bruno, Jr.

The heat is on! More customers these days are clamoring for hot and spicy this and even hotter and spicier that. Between pizza, pasta, sandwiches –– even salads –– it seems as if the heat in the kitchen is here to stay.

If I were to say that the only true way to heat things up is through peppers alone, I would be dead wrong. Yes, peppers can spice things up a bit, but there are a number of ways to raise the temperature. And, unless you know your peppers from top to bottom (and the degree of heat they put out), you just might put off your customers. Here is my short list of chili peppers and their relative heat (based on the Scoville scale) –– starting with the mildest and leveling up to the hottest:

Sweet bell peppers (regardless of color) are the mildest peppers out there. They are as versatile as can be, but don’t expect to spice things up with bell peppers.

habañero (very hot, so use it with caution)

I am not here to complicate your life, though, so giving your pizza a kick is as easy as this: buy bottled giardiniera (a.k.a. Italian relish). Usually this relish comes in two heats — mild and hot. The mild might be too tame for our topic here, but the hot version has everything you could ask for and more. To spice it up for a pizza, simply mix giardiniera into the pizza sauce you have set aside for a spicy pizza. Then simply spread this hopped up sauce over the pizza crust, add cheese and bake. The oven heat will ramp up the heat of the giardiniera, so do a couple of taste tests to determine how much to use.

To expand on this, here is a recipe for an extra-spicy tomato sauce. Give it a try. I think you will like it.

Extra-spicy Tomato Sauce

Yield: 2 cups or enough sauce for two 13- to 14-inch pizzas (scale up in direct proportion)

1 large clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cups canned plum tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
1 tablespoon canned chopped chipotle peppers in adobo sauce*
Salt, to taste

In a large heavy saucepan, sauté the garlic in the oil over moderate heat for 2 minutes.

Empty the tomatoes and their juices into a mixing bowl and crush the tomatoes with your hands. Add the tomatoes to the saucepan. Add the oregano and chipotle peppers to the tomatoes. Bring the sauce to a steady simmer over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally. Simmer for 18 to 20 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened and has reduced to about 2 cups. Add salt to taste. The sauce can be prepared ahead and kept covered and refrigerated for 4 to 5 days. Let the sauce cool for at least 30 minutes before using.

* Use caution when working with chipotle peppers. Remove them from the can with a fork. Place them on a plate and chop them with a knife and fork. If you have to touch the peppers with your hands, use rubber gloves. The smoky flavor of the chipotle is what makes this sauce so interesting. Adjust the (spicy) heat accordingly.

Another quick way to spice up a pizza: after you have ladled and spread your pizza sauce over the crust, take a bottle of siracha (hot chili sauce available everywhere). Swirl a circle or two over the pizza sauce (siracha is hot, so test the heat level a couple of times). Add your other toppings and bake. Some of the top chefs around the world use siracha as their “secret” ingredient.

Pizza Arriba!

This is a pizza with a “good burn.” The extra-spicy sauce takes care of that. Prep the sauce and the beef ahead.

Yield: one 14-inch pizza (scale up in direct proportion)

1 tablespoon corn oil or vegetable oil
1 pound ground beef
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons minced cilantro
Salt, to taste
1 cup extra-spicy tomato sauce (see recipe above)
¼ pound each shredded Monterey Jack and mild cheddar cheese (total about 2 cups)

Put the vegetable oil in a sauté pan set over medium-high heat. Add the ground beef and cook and stir for 2 minutes. Add the cumin and cilantro. Cook and stir for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the beef is cooked through. Add salt, to taste. Drain the excess liquid from the pan and set aside to cool.

Spread the sauce over pizza. Spread the cooked beef evenly over the sauce. Combine the two cheeses and sprinkle over the beef. Bake. Garnish with additional chopped cilantro as needed.

To spice up a dressing for a sandwich, try adding a shot or two of hot pepper sauce to mayonnaise and combine well. Spread it over cooked chicken breast for a spicy chicken sandwich.

Toss chopped or cubed cooked chicken breast with siracha sauce and use it for a very tasty hot and spicy pizza.

To make a flavorful hot sauce for a burger, combine (to taste) mayonnaise, steak sauce and siracha. Spread it over a burger, add cheese, bacon, etc.

To spice up any pasta dish, simply use crushed red pepper flakes.

Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.