Chef Foster: Raw?! Unlock the culinary range of your peppers through smoking or roasting

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I just spent an evening smoking trays of banana peppers to put away for another menu change, and in doing so I’m reminded as to how much more I love peppers smoked and or roasted.

Raw peppers to me miss the point. They’re like a bank robber taking the safe with him, and leaving it unopened, all that potential just sitting there. Peppers are the basis for some of the richest most memorable flavors in the food world. Their ability to range from sweet to hot to deeply floral gives them a culinary range that may be unrivaled.

They can remain hidden in a mole or sofrito or take center stage in a Philly steak or hot sauce. Part of the beauty of Tabasco the sauce is that tabasco the pepper is balanced with acid and fermentation and little else, it’s like tasting the chilie when it’s angry and grizzled, when its lived a little.

In the fall in the Southwest, whole towns are engulfed in a haze of chilie smoke, the legal equivalent of smoking something else. Chilies contain endorphins which quite simply make us happy and excited. The trick is then to adapt that to a restaurant menu and a customer’s plate.

Roasting and smoking in general will accomplish both those goals because it brings out elements of the peppers and chilie peppers that most people like — sweetness, bite, and the compatibility of wood and food. For my palate, the roasting of peppers eliminates the raw bite that can sometimes dominate a dish.

When my students are forced to add color to a plate they will oftentimes throw some raw red pepper on it. The results are usually not good as the pepper works its way into the flavor profile and the texture, while providing crunch also edges other textures aside. Roasting the pepper gives us a chance to peel and seed. It softens the cellular structure to make the pepper pliable, and it concentrates flavor and color.

When our heating element is wood we get the extra benefit of another flavor profile and with certain choices, an elevation of specific elements of flavor that the pepper may possess. A jalapeno that is eaten raw has a small bite of heat and a fairly mild, fruit forward flavor profile. Smoke it and dry it and it becomes a chipotle, rich and deep in raisin like flavor, sweet and versatile as a background flavor for our remoulade, or a cream sauce for a pasta.

Nothing else really needs to be added to the chipotle. The flavor stands out on its own.

No need to go out and buy a smoker, especially if you’re grill handy. Avoid poorly vented kitchens as the act of roasting or smoking peppers produces smoke and gas — pepper gas which will slowly creep into your throat and cause a coughing fit Better to do it all outside like the pros, and do it slowly so the smoke doesn’t overpower the flavors with bitterness, but rather helps the pepper’s flavors develop.

After the skins start to blister and even as they start to peel off, remove the peppers from the grill, place them in a bowl, and cover them until they are cool enough to handle. Once you remove the cover you’ll notice the skins should peel right off, the seed packet can be easily stripped out, and your roasted, smoked peppers are ready to use or store (we freeze them at The Sage Rabbit).

When planning what to do with your peppers consider their heat, their color and the nature of the dish. If I’m dealing with serrano’s or Tabasco’s or even habaneros, I want to include dairy somewhere in my recipe. Dairy is a softening ingredient for the chilies heat, and a good foil for extending color throughout the dish.

Roasting a red bell may not require copious amounts of cream, as the bells have no capsaicin, but the resulting cream sauce is quick and easy, and yields a lightly rose colored sauce that’s attractive on the plate.

When using the chilies for a pan sauce or even a roux based gravy, consider that the butter to finish a pan sauce or the butter in a roux might be enough to balance heat and bring out the sweetness. Know that as the sauce sits, the heat and flavor will develop more fully. When adding the chilies to a vinaigrette, season the vinegar and chilies first as this will give you a clearer flavor profile before the addition of oil. It will even give you the opportunity to sweeten the vinaigrette and take away some of the peppers harshness.

If this fall is your first foray into the pepper business, the best advice I can give you is to keep it simple. Roast some peppers of different heat and flavor, they will all roast and or smoke in pretty much the same way. Then taste a little bit of each one separately and then with another food like beef or pork or chicken.

Start to build your chilies and pepper portfolio and once you get comfortable with that, on we go to homemade hot sauces, which is a column for next time!

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John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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