Written by Chris Benjamin. Benjamin, director of food and beverage at the Essex Resort and Spa.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, when it comes to spice, I’m pretty much a wimp. Now my executive chef, David Coolidge, is a spice connoisseur. He makes the meanest chili I’ve ever tasted, and he’s been asked to judge more chili contests than I have cocktails in my bar book.

When explaining spice to me, he is very clear regarding heat vs. flavor. Believe it or not, there is a big difference. Chef Dave is a big proponent of balance. He likes to have a little sweat on the brow, but it’s also imperative to balance the heat with the flavors of the chilies. Straight heat is a turn off, though it has its place at times. The trick is to enjoy the different levels of heat, to add nuance to the dish without blowing out the flavors and overpowering them.

Making drinks that incorporate spice is just as tricky. While there are establishments out there that crank up the heat just so guests drink or eat more, it’s far more rewarding to create a dish or cocktail that embodies the flavors.

Take your basic Bloody Mary. The essential ingredients in any good one are vodka (the booze), tomato juice and lemon juice (the acid), horseradish, Tabasco and pepper (the spice), salt (for salinity) and Worcestershire sauce (the meatiness and slightly bitter). Ask any chef or mixologist worth his or her salt, and they’ll tell you that balance of these primal tastes is critical for the best tasting dishes.

The best Bloody Marys (and we do have a pretty darn good one here at The Essex) incorporate all of the flavors. Another place worth checking out: Hearth & Candle Restaurant at Smuggler’s Notch in Cambridge. My buddy Chef Shawn Calley, he has created a great culinary restaurant as well as an excellent pepper-infused vodka. Made from five different chilies, Chef Calley calls the shot the Jekyll & Hyde. It’s not for the faint of heart. Whether as a shooter or in his Bloody Mary, it will bring sweat to the brow and a tear to your eye, if you’re not careful. As a shooter, it’s perfectly balanced with freshly squeezed lemon and lime juices. This combination brings out the flavor of the peppers, without crushing you with the heat.

By the way, the next time you try something too spicy, you’re better off reaching for a lemon instead of the milk. Acid neutralizes the capsicum spice found in peppers and will cool you down faster than milk, which only “hides” the heat.

I’m including a recipe from Chef Dave for a chili-infused vodka. Try it with a Bloody Mary, your own version of the Jekyll and Hyde, or even try it in cooking. It adds a great kick to chili. Enjoy!

Chili-Infused Vodka
750 ml vodka
1 Serrano pepper, split in half and seeded
1 dried Ancho pepper, left whole
1 dried New Mexican Red pepper
½ lime rind

Macerate for one week. Strain and enjoy (watch out for the heat).

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