Ah, a day without some kind of pepper would be so...well, spiceless! I hadn't really thought about this before, but I'm pretty sure it's true--at least for me. I could have a meal without it, but, a whole day? Maybe it's because where I grew up, it was everywhere-- that ubiquitous aroma of roasting peppers in the air, that fierce bite in all the salsas.
When I was three or four years old, the maids used to punish me for my various forms of mischief by rubbing a cut green serrano chile on my tongue. If I had been especially naughty, they would rub it on the rim of a glass of water, and hand it to me when I screamed for relief. I really hated chile then, and it's a wonder I ever came to love it, but love it I do.
Not long ago, I discovered two chiles I hadn't seen or tasted before: ají amarillo and ají panca, from South America. What may be difficult for people who don't like spicy food to grasp is the wide variety of flavors among different chiles. Some dried ones are dark, like chocolate; others are smoky, or sweet; nearly all the fresh ones are vibrant, piercingly pungent, with a long-lasting burn.
This soup I made last night had a roasted sweet red pepper base, with no heat to it at all--which would have been fine (a pepper is a pepper). But I tend to look for ways to broaden the flavor profile in dishes, so I added a healthy dose of these two newly discovered chiles, in ground form. I also put in a bit of Spanish smoked paprika, with which I've become especially enamored over the last few years, for the amazing dimension it adds to just about anything it's permitted to touch.
It all began innocently enough. I sautéed some onion and garlic in a little EVOO until soft, and then added quite a bit of roasted red peppers, coarsely chopped. As soon as the peppers began to bleed their luscious juices into the pot, I added the chiles, smoked paprika, Celtic salt, and freshly ground Balinese shade-grown Lampung black pepper (not trying to show off, really, I had just run out of the nondescript peppercorns I normally fill the mill with, and these were all I had).
When the liquid was nearly all absorbed, I added vegetable broth and a couple of bay leaves. I simmered the soup for about 20 minutes, until the vegetables were tender. While this was happening, I grilled a few ears of white corn. I cheated, actually, by placing them directly over the gas flame on my stove. This method works brilliantly, charring just the tips of the kernels and heating the rest. When they were nicely blackened, I took them off and wrapped them in foil to finish cooking in their own heat.
Once the soup was done, I let it cool a bit and then puréed it all (minus the bay leaves, of course) in the Vitamix, and returned it to the pot. As it reheated, I cut the corn kernels off the cobs, directly into the pot. I didn't have any cilantro, which would have been ideal for this, so I went out onto the deck and cut a few chives. When the soup was hot, I took it off the heat and stirred in a splash of lime juice. Then I ladled it into bowls, set a few avocado dice in the center, and snipped the chives around.
It was pretty spicy, I'll admit--a little too spicy for my wife (she's from central Illinois, after all). She didn't miss a beat. I had some water boiling at the time, so she quickly cooked up a few brown rice ziti and put these into her soup, spreading the spice around and making it just right for her. She even did this with the leftovers and took it to work today, for lunch.
I was already thinking about the next spicy thing I would make.