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Sweet and Spicy

August 11, 1994|MICHAEL ROBERTS

Summer's here, and the time is right for spicy food, especially when made with chiles. They make you sweat, which physically cools you off. Chiles also have the convenient effect of reducing your body's ability to sense temperature. What you don't feel can't bother you.

Once you accustom yourself to hot spices, you can easily taste other flavors across them. The most pleasing combinations, in my opinion, pair something hot with something sweet or fruity.

For instance, watermelon with Tabasco sauce is a very pleasing combination. Sweet wine and black pepper make a delicious sauce, and a reduction of orange juice with green peppercorns blended with butter is terrific with fish. North Africans make a condiment called harisa that they add to couscous and tagines (stews), often with dates and figs thrown into the pot.

In Thai cuisine, a soup is commonly made with coconut milk and an incredibly spicy green or red curry paste. This is a different approach from the use of peppers we see in an Indian mango chutney, where the heat plays second string to the sweet mango preserve. In the cuisines of Southeast Asia, the heat is often borne by a thin soup or a delicate, almost clear sauce, while Indian cuisine in general tends to bury peppers in complex flavors. Personally, I always add curry powder and a good dose of Tabasco to commercial chutney, or I make my own spicy chutney when mangoes are in the markets.

In the Western Hemisphere, hot peppers are more often used in condiments and uncooked sauces--salsas. These can range from jalapeno peppers steeped for a few weeks in a jar of good vinegar (wine or Sherry vinegar works best) to a Mexican tomatillo or tomato salsa to a modern salsa of papaya and lime.

In the South and Southwest of the United States, we add our heat mostly through marinades and barbecue sauces. Then, of course, we have the famous bean dishes appropriately named chili.

So during these dog days of summer, cook cool. Don't heat up the house; go outside and grill a steak or a piece of chicken or fish, even some vegetables. Or cook early in the day before it gets hot and serve it later, chilled or room-temperature.

And cool off with a really hot accompaniment.

MANGO CHUTNEY 3 ripe medium mangoes, peeled and diced into 1/4-inch pieces, about 3 cups 1 small onion, finely diced, about 1/2 cup 1/4 cup lemon juice 1/4 teaspoon salt 3 tablespoons sugar 1 tablespoon curry powder 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or more to taste 2 tablespoons cold-pressed peanut oil or salad oil

Combine mangoes, onions, lemon juice and salt in glass or stainless-steel mixing bowl. Cover and set aside at room temperature 3 hours.

Strain mixture by placing strainer or colander over bowl and pressing gently to extract juice. Return mango mixture to bowl; transfer juice to small saucepan. Place saucepan over low heat and cook until liquid reduces and begins to thicken. Immediately remove from heat and scrape into mixing bowl with mango mixture.

Add sugar, curry powder, red pepper flakes and oil and mix gently. Serve chilled or at room temperature as accompaniment for white meats, poultry or shellfish. Makes 2 cups.

HARISA 1/4 cup red pepper flakes 1 tablespoon tomato paste 2 teaspoons ground cumin 1 teaspoon ground coriander 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 cup olive oil 1/2 cup water

Combine red pepper flakes, tomato paste, cumin, coriander, salt, oil and water in small saucepan. Simmer over medium heat, uncovered, 10 minutes. Pour into bowl and chill before serving. Makes about 1 cup.

PAPAYA-LIME SALSA 1 1/2 pounds ripe papayas 1/4 cup flavorless cooking oil 4 serrano chiles, seeded and finely diced 1/4 cup fresh lime juice 2 teaspoons salt 2 medium onions, finely diced, about 2 cups 2 bunches cilantro, stems removed, leaves finely chopped

Peel papayas and halve lengthwise. Scoop out and discard seeds. Chop fruit to size of corn kernels.

Heat oil in medium pan over medium heat and add papayas, chiles, lime juice and salt. Cover and cook until papayas soften slightly, 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Transfer to mixing bowl and add onions and cilantro. Chill completely before serving. Makes 2 cups.

*

Thai curry paste is very, very hot. If none is available, increase the amount of chiles to obtain the heat desired.

THAI CURRY-COCONUT SOUP 2 tablespoons flavorless cooking oil 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped, about 1 cup 1 tablespoon curry powder 2 teaspoons Thai curry paste 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, finely diced 4 cups chicken stock or canned low-sodium chicken broth 2 to 4 serrano chiles, seeded and finely diced 1 teaspoon salt 12 to 16 small mushroom caps 3 cups unsweetened coconut milk 8 snow peas, finely slivered lengthwise 4 sprigs cilantro, leaves only

Heat oil in soup pot over medium heat. Add onions and saute about 2 minutes. Add curry powder, curry paste and chicken and cook, stirring, 2 minutes longer.

Add chicken stock, serrano chiles, salt and mushrooms. Cover. Increase heat to high and bring mixture to boil. Cook 2 minutes longer. Remove from heat. Add coconut milk, snow peas and cilantro and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

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