Chiles, fresh or dried, sweet or killer-hot, have been central to my food career for more than 25 years. I didn’t fully realize how the kick and sass of spice permeates my home life until recently. Just for fun, I counted all the containers of chile-spiked condiments in my refrigerator. More than 10 — everything from tubs of Korean gochujang to sliced jalapenos, Mexican chipotle paste and pepperoncini.
The spice drawer continues the story with more than 17 options for upping the ante on home-cooked or takeout dinners. The freezer boasts bags of roasted green and red chiles from New Mexico; habaneros from the neighbor’s garden; and all manner of jalapeno, serrano and finger peppers from our market days.
Curious, no Sriracha in sight. I prefer less sweet, less vinegary, more savory condiments and hot sauces. Indonesian sambal oelek, North African harissa and Mexican salsa macha, for example.
Tops on my current heat list: spicy chile crisp. This not-too-hot combination — red chile flakes, toasted shallots, oil, Sichuan pepper and a touch of sugar — tastes so good I eat it on a spoon.
For the family, I employ the deep red, chunky, crispy condiment on omelets, in stir-fries and over vegetables. For snacks, we spread it over rice cakes, crackers and toasted bread by itself or with cream cheese or peanut butter. A dollop on salad, in chicken soup and over buttered noodles adds zest to the mundane. There’s internet proof that some folks like it on ice cream.
Serious Eats has an excellent homemade version of spicy chile crisp. Though time-consuming to prepare, the recipe makes plenty, about 4 cups. Technically, it keeps refrigerated for several weeks, but the flavor proves so addictive that I have to hide it from the snack king I married, lest it be gone in a few days.
Mostly, I order imported spicy chile crisp online; you also can find it in many Asian markets. Imported from China, the original Lao Gan Ma brand has such excellent flavor and crunch that it’s grown into quite the foodie thing. Note that it contains the umami punch of monosodium glutamate, an ingredient some prefer to avoid.
Trader Joe’s sells an MSG-free version called Chile Onion Crunch; it works well here, but does not have near the complexity of flavor as the Lao Gan Ma or the homemade. Crunch Dynasty, of Virginia, sells pouches of a hot topping with a similar flavor, sans oil; it’s yummy on rice bowls and over steamed vegetables.
Marinate chicken thighs (on the bone with skin) with the oily version and then roast for an easy way to break up chicken monotony. Or, toss diced chicken thighs with the condiment before braising them with bead molasses, fish sauce and shallots. Or, substitute the fish sauce with soy mixed with unsweetened rice vinegar, if you prefer. Bead molasses is available in the Asian section of most large supermarkets; date syrup (made from medjool dates) makes a fine substitute, as do light molasses or dark corn syrup. Served with green beans and piles of rice noodles or cooked rice, this umami-packed, slightly hot dish proves worthy of the effort.
Chicken soup is a welcome comfort anytime — especially when red chile garnishes the bowl. I love to spend a Sunday afternoon making Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s wonton and whole chicken soup from her 2009 classic book “Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking.” For weeknight meals, I simply enrich store-bought chicken broth with chicken breasts, ginger, dates and vegetables, then add baby bok choy and frozen wontons. Oh, and plenty of spicy chile crisp. Everything feels warm now.
CHILE CRISP CHICKEN WITH SHALLOTS AND GREEN BEANS
Start to finish: 1 hour
3 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs (usually 6-8 pieces)
3-4 tablespoons spicy chile crisp or sambal oelek or 1 tablespoon hot chile oil, plus more for serving
2 packages (12 ounces each) fresh skinny green beans, such as Trader Joe’s haricots verts
1/3 cup bead molasses, light molasses, date syrup or dark corn syrup
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1/3 cup fish sauce (or 1/4 cup reduced-sodium soy sauce and 1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened rice vinegar)
6 shallots (or 1 medium red onion), peeled, very thinly sliced
1 chunk (2 inches long) fresh ginger, peeled, cut into very thin matchsticks
Half of a 14-ounce box thin (1/4 inch wide) rice noodles or 4 cups cooked rice
Chopped fresh cilantro and green onion tops
French-fried onions (optional)
Trim any pockets of fat from the chicken. Cut the chicken into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Put into a bowl, and toss with the chile crisp. (Refrigerate covered up to 2 days.)
Heat a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the green beans, and cook uncovered, stirring often, until bright green and crisp-tender, 5-7 minutes. Drain well and cool. (Once they are cool, beans can be refrigerated covered up to 2 days.)
Mix the molasses, chicken broth, fish sauce, shallots and ginger in a large (12-inch) nonstick skillet. Heat over medium heat. Cover the pan, and cook until shallots are tender, 3-4 minutes. (Recipe can be made up to this point 2 days in advance; refrigerate covered.)
Soak the noodles, if using, in a bowl of very hot water to cover until tender to the bite, about 15 minutes. Drain well.
Meanwhile, add chicken to shallot mixture. Heat over medium to a gentle simmer. Cover pan and cook, stirring once or twice, until chicken is nearly tender, about 10 minutes. Uncover and turn heat up under pan so liquid boils vigorously. Boil, stirring often, until pan juices are reduced enough to coat the chicken, about 10 minutes. Stir in green beans to coat well with the sauce.
Pile drained noodles (or cooked rice) onto a warm platter. Top with chicken mixture. Sprinkle generously with the cilantro, green onions and optional fried onions. Pass more chile crisp for guests to add to their liking.
Nutrition information per serving: 427 calories; 14 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 156 mg cholesterol; 43 g carbohydrates; 13 g sugar; 32 g protein; 1,124 mg sodium; 2 g fiber.
WONTON SOUP WITH CHICKEN, BOK CHOY AND CHILES
Start to finish: 65 minutes
4 chicken breast halves on the bone with skin, about 2 1/2 pounds
1 quart low-sodium chicken broth
1 chunk (1 inch long) fresh ginger, peeled, finely chopped
2 ribs celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 skinny carrots, peeled, cut into 1-inch rounds
1 large yellow onion, peeled, cut into 1-inch chunks
6 dried pitted medjool dates, optional
1 tablespoon spicy chile crisp or sambal oelek or 2 teaspoons Asian hot chile oil, plus more for serving
2-3 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce, to taste
2 heads (total 6 ounces) baby bok choy, cut into 2-inch chunks, well rinsed
1 package (8-12 ounces) frozen chicken wontons
2 green onions, chopped
Chopped fresh cilantro
Put the chicken, chicken broth, ginger, celery, carrots, onion and dates, if using, into a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Add enough cool water to submerge chicken, usually about 4 cups. Heat to a boil. Reduce heat to low, and partly cover the pot. Simmer gently, 30 minutes. Turn off heat. Let chicken cool in the broth if you have time.
Transfer chicken with tongs to a cutting board. When cool enough to handle, remove and discard skin and bones from chicken. Tear chicken meat into large shreds.
Return chicken broth to a simmer. Add 1 tablespoon chile crisp (or the alternative) and soy sauce to taste. Add the bok choy and chicken, and return to a simmer. Add the wontons; simmer gently just until they are warmed through, about 3 minutes.
Serve soup in wide bowls topped with green onions and cilantro. Pass more chile crisp to add to your liking.
Nutrition information per serving: 241 calories, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 82 mg cholesterol, 12 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 33 g protein, 320 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.
(Recipe inspired by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s “Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking.”)