by Mary June Thompson, Contributing Food Writer. —One of my favorite things about the summer gardening season is growing (and eating) hot peppers. I generally grow 4-6 varieties in my garden, and occasionally pick up some additional varieties from the farmers’ market. Hot peppers are a good choice for a sustainable kitchen garden, as many types, including Thai chilies, cayenne, and chiles de arbol, can easily be air-dried, either on the plant before harvesting in late fall, or by hanging indoors, thus providing hot peppers for cooking throughout the winter season as well.
Most pepper plants don’t need more than full sun, hot temperatures, and adequate water to survive and thrive, so planting some by early June will insure that you have a bounty of hot peppers ready to eat by late summer. A new additional to my garden this year is the Carolina Reaper. I had never heard of it before this spring, and I am very anxious to try its peppers because it beat the infamous ghost pepper for title of “World’s Hottest Pepper”.
From more tame jalapeños to the classic habanero, there are all sorts of varieties to suit different tastes and heat tolerances. Hot peppers are great to liven up numerous dishes, and not just the typical Asian or Mexican cuisine that one might associate with having a higher heat level. Some other great uses for them include adding a kick to less assertive foods that benefit from some extra flavoring, such as sautéed zucchini, squash, or Brewer’s mushrooms; adding to scrambled eggs for a little extra morning zing; using a different dried variety to sprinkle over a pizza instead of the typical crushed red pepper flakes; or infused into a liquid, which is a great way to impart both the heat and flavor of the peppers in a novel way.
Infusing is not a new concept, but it is currently a very popular one with mixologists around the country, with house-flavored vinegars, mixers, and spirits spotlighted in their craft cocktail menus. Infusing a liquor is a virtually effortless thing to do at home, and it works equally well with vodka, tequila, or rum. Best of all, you can use whatever kind of hot pepper is most pleasing to your palate, and adjust the infusing time to create a milder outcome for those who don’t like it hot, as a lesser amount of peppers and shorter soaking time will yield the mildest result, or a more fiery outcome by using more peppers, stronger peppers, and/or a longer infusing time to create a significantly hotter finished product.
Because I love ridiculously hot peppers and experimenting with them, I created a refreshing, albeit fiery hot, cocktail to enjoy throughout the summer. The sweetness of the just-ripe Georgia peaches helps to balance the burst of heat that every sip contains, and the tartness of lime and anise and herbal notes from the Thai basil complement the peach and the pepper flavors as well. (Disclaimer: I infused the vodka for 5 days before making this cocktail, and it was deliciously flavored but HOT. Please consider a lesser infusing time and/or using fewer peppers when making this cocktail if you do not enjoy the burn.) Photos by Mary June Thompson.
MJ’s Thai Fire-tini
Vodka Infusion: In an airtight glass container, add 1 cup vodka and 6 fresh or dried Thai chilies, crushed. Seal and store in a cool, dark place for at least 2 days (for less heat) and up to 7 days for maximum heat. Once desired heat level has been achieved, strain chilies and save for a cocktail garnish or refrigerate to use later in Asian dishes. Use infused vodka in cocktail or return to airtight glass container and store for up to 6 months.
Simple Syrup: In a small saucepan over medium heat, stir together 1 cup filtered water and 1 cup organic sugar. Heat just until sugar dissolves, stirring often. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Chill in the refrigerator and store for up to 1 month in an airtight glass container. (Note: Recipe makes extra simple syrup, which can be used to sweeten fresh lemonade or other cold beverages without the grainy residue that plain sugar would leave.)
To Make the Cocktails:
In a mini (or regular) food processor, purée together the flesh or 2 large (or 4 small) very ripe southern peaches, peeled; the juice and zest from 1 lime; and ¼ cup simple syrup. Transfer to a large cocktail shaker and add the Thai chili infused vodka, 4 sprigs of Thai basil, crushed lightly to release their oils, and ice. Shake until mixture is well chilled. Pour into serving glasses and garnish with thin slices of lime, Thai basil sprigs, and/or Thai chilies, if desired. Makes 4 cocktails.
Mary June Thompson has been cooking and entertaining for nearly two decades. During this time, her cooking style has expanded and evolved from typical American fare to encompass many different types of cuisines, including Italian, French, Greek, Asian, Mediterranean/North African, and Latin American. Focusing on obtaining the best available ingredients and preparing fresh, healthy dishes with bold flavor defines her cooking style, regardless of cuisine.
—Mary June Thompson, Celebrate Knoxville, June 1, 2015.