If it’s true (and I do believe it) that you can only find out what your parameters really are by pushing the envelope, then it’s also all too true that while you’re pushing that envelope, you’re inevitably going to push it too far. Alas. I certainly do, in cooking and in everything else as well. How else am I going to learn if I don’t push it a little…a trifle…too far. I mean, I ask you.
I have to admit, I pushed it a little bit too far last night, making dinner for my dear friend Teri. Now, my dear friend Teri is just about the most wonderful dinner guest you can imagine. The most tolerant. The most non-judgmental. So when I called her this morning, and said, “Oh my god, to think I almost poisoned one of my dearest friends,” she just laughed and said, “I was just thinking about how we had such a good time—neither of us is EVER going to forget last night’s dinner.”
Now that is true. I don’t know how you can forget a dinner that you cough all the way through from the fumes of the dried habanero pepper that somehow got thoughtlessly pounded in with the garlic and cumin seeds and cilantro and black pepper and salt and lemon juice and olive oil, and then used to coat a couple of sirloin tips with the idea of making some gringoesque version of Carne Asada. No, really. You can’t forget it.
Sigh. I won’t forget it. Because that’s what I did. And let me tell you, those fumes from that pounded habanero dried pepper are intense. It was a good thing we had killed a bottle of rosé before dinner; that just made us laugh harder, and made my increasingly intense apologies (the more we coughed, the more I apologized) funny rather than as annoying as they would have been had we both been completely stone cold sober.
Although here’s the thing. I mean, here’s the important thing. It still would have been funny, and fun, and part of our history, even if Teri and I had the same dinner last spring, when she and I experimented with drinking soda water mixed with various flavored vinegars as an aperitif rather than wine—just for the change.
(And delightfully refreshing it is, too, as a drink—our prairie foremothers knew this, and used to serve vinegar shrubs on their front porches in the dog days of summer. Just put a little vinegar in a tall glass, fill with soda water, ice if you like it, stir and sip. The type of vinegar is your call, though my personal favorite is raspberry, closely followed by the alluringly exotic taste of Chinese black vinegar. The Dear Husband likes cider vinegar. Teri likes coconut. It’s all a matter of taste, as in everything else in life.)
That was a nice change, drinking those shrubs. This is what I believe about excess: sometimes you like excess. Sometimes you like moderation. Sometimes you like abstemiousness. It’s up to you to figure out when those times are and act accordingly.
Anyway, last night, we were both into excess, since a period of virtue had made that the most festive way forward. And it was great. Well, it was all great except for that little bêtise of mine involving the dried habanero pepper.
Now, you want to be careful with any kind of habaneros. These chilies rank so high on the scoville unit chile heat ratings that they are probably off the chart. The best way to use the whole, undried variety, in fact, is just to pierce a couple of holes in one, add it to the stew, and then take it out and throw it away before serving the food. Trust me, you’ll taste the spice, but you won’t get scoville’ed out of your seat that way.
So if I hadn’t been so thoughtless—which I think was a symptom of the general ‘let’s celebrate the end of summer’ abandon both Teri and I were feeling—I would never ever ever have pounded a dried habanero in my mortar along with the other marinade ingredients for my carne asada. Because when you heat that dried habanero, the fumes are near deadly. They engage all the senses, and make you cough like a consumptive fiend. No, this is what I would have done instead:
For Nondeadly Carne Asada:
Take some sirloin tips. Pound the following, in whatever proportion you like, or blend in a blender:
Some cumin seeds
Some chile powder
Some dried Mexican oregano
Some garlic cloves
Some green onion
Some fresh cilantro
Squeeze in as much lemon as you like. Then add enough olive oil to make a nice slooshy marinade, add to the sirloin tips, massage the marinade into the beef, let sit for at least an hour, or overnight if you like.
Then barbeque, or do what I did (but WITHOUT the dried habanero) and sear on a really hot cast iron skillet. While that’s happening, slice a couple of onions and toss them with the remaining marinade. When the steak is done to your liking, take it out and let it rest a few moments while you toss the coated onions on high heat in the same skillet. Serve sliced, topped with the onions, and with the accouterments of your choice. Guacamole is nice. Or just sliced avocado with lime juice squeezed on top. A tomato/ cucumber/ onion/ cilantro salad is good, too. Heated tortillas are nice, and you can wrap the steak and salads in one and make a very satisfying taco.
Just skip the dried habanero. And—very important—no matter what you do, remember that who you do it with is the most important point to the meal. What you want is a friend, family member, or loved one, who will answer your apology for any culinary mistakes thusly:
“PS my memory of dinner is a happy one. We laughed so much while we were coughing, and it was still delicious!”
Thanks, Teri. I had a great time myself.