We’ve all seen those menus in restaurants –– Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese — where the heat level of certain dishes is marked by a small chile symbol. Usually, one chile is mild, two chiles means hot and three chiles, well, have a pitcher of milk handy to douse the fire. What in the devil’s name is it that fires up the heat in those dishes? The simple answer is chile peppers in one form or another.
Back in 1912 Wilbur Scoville developed a method to measure the heat level of chile peppers. Without getting all scientific about it, the heat of chile peppers is now measured in Scoville units. Sweet bell peppers have no heat at all — zero Scoville Units. At the other end of the scale, the habañero pepper averages 375,000 Scoville units (there are some peppers that go even higher on the Scoville scale, but for our purposes here, they would be of little use, considering that those chile peppers are so hot your taste buds would have to wear asbestos suits to survive).
Jalapeño, poblano, ancho, pasilla, Anaheim, chipotle, serrano: all of these chile peppers are in a Scoville range that is quite acceptable and can be used (common sense prevailing) to lay some interesting heat on various pasta dishes and pizza, which brings me to that little jar of crushed red pepper flakes on the table in many Italian restaurants, often referred to as the “Pizza Pepper” or “Pizza Picker Upper.”
Cajun and Creole restaurants go with bottles of hot sauce on the table (there is a Cajun restaurant in Chicago that has a “Wall of Fire,” something like a thousand bottles of different brands of hot sauce). My point is that it’s pretty easy to fire up any dish on your menu (or the customer can add their own heat with some of that “pizza pepper,” also known as crushed red pepper flakes, which is a blend of chiles (ancho and cayenne), seeds and all.
But don’t fry your brain in the process. All you have to do is sample different crushed red pepper flakes, chile powders and hot sauces in various dishes before turning up the heat for your customers. Medium heat to one person might be too mild for another and vice versa. When I have chili, I want the heat level to be at the point where my nose runs and my eyeballs sweat. One the other hand my wife wouldn’t touch chili that hot with a 10-foot fire extinguisher. To heat his own, I say.
Two Pasta dishes that cry out for crushed red pepper flakes include linguine con vongole (linguine with clams) and Orecchiette with rapini (“small ears” pasta with rapini a.k.a. broccoli rabe). I am including a recipe for one of those dishes.
As far as stoking the fire on a pizza, it’s as simple as adding a dash or two of hot sauce or crushed red pepper flakes (to taste) to your basic pizza sauce. Be sure to make your customers aware of the fact that this is a special sauce that carries some heat. Note that fact on your menu and list the pizza accordingly. For example, you can use “Pizza Arrabbiata” or “Pizza Diavolo.” The first translates as “angry” or “hot.” The second as “Devil,” as in hot as the devil.
Linguine with White Clam Sauce
Yield: 4 servings (scale up in direct proportion)
1½ cups minced or chopped canned clams
2 cups clam juice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (or to taste)
2 teaspoons dried thyme, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 pound linguine
Put the clams and clam juice in separate bowls or containers.
Put the olive oil in a saucepan set over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté, stirring, until the garlic is lightly browned. Add the clam juice, parsley, red pepper flakes and thyme to the saucepan. Salt and pepper, to taste. Bring the sauce to a simmer.
Cook the linguine in a large pot of boiling, salted water until it is al dente. Drain.
Just before you drain the pasta, add the clams to the saucepan just to heat through (if you add the clams too early they will get rubbery).
Divide the pasta among four heated serving bowls. Pour an equal amount of the sauce and clams over each portion. Serve with crusty Italian bread for sopping up the sauce.
Chef’s Notes: You can make this into Linguine with Red Sauce by cutting the amount of clam juice in half and adding a cup of marinara sauce to the clam juice.
Makes one 14-inch pizza (scale up in direct proportion)
8 ounces basic pizza sauce
1 tablespoon chopped chipotle peppers in adobo sauce*
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
1 14-inch pizza shell
10 ounces cooked hot Italian sausage crumbles
4 ounces shredded Monterey Jack cheese
4 ounces shredded cheddar cheese
Chopped cilantro for garnish (optional)
Mix the pizza sauce with the chipotle peppers and cilantro. Spread the sauce evenly over the pizza crust. Top the sauce with the sausage crumbles. Blend the Monterey Jack with the cheddar. Spread the cheese evenly over the sausage and sauce. Bake. Garnish with cilantro just before serving, if desired.
Use caution when working with the chipotle peppers. Remove them from the can with a fork, place them on a plate and chop them using a knife and fork. If you have to touch the peppers with your hands, use protective gloves. The smoky flavor of the chipotle is what makes the sauce. However, if canned chipotle peppers are not available, use fresh jalapenos.
I buy chipotle peppers in adobo sauce in my local supermarket. A little amount goes a long way.