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I Spice: Cayenne

Fresh cayenne pepper. (Linda Perry)

The heat goes on here at I Spice, as you can see. But please know that even with cayenne, it isn’t just about the heat.

I spoke with Ardie Davis, barbecue expert extraordinaire, who released three books earlier this year: “25 Essentials: Smoking” and “25 Essentials: Grilling” (The Harvard Common Press), and, with co-author Paul Kirk, “America’s Best BBQ” (Andrews McMeel). Davis told me of his love/hate relationship with cayenne: “Done in moderation, I love it. Done to excess, I hate how it overpowers other flavors in a dish and numbs my palate."

Recipe Included

The pursuit of off-the-chart Scoville units is not my game. In fact, remember Mark Twain’s famous observation about how using the right word makes a difference as dramatic as light from a firefly versus lightning? It also can be applied to cooking; I loved his explanation:

"Cayenne has the potential to deliver culinary lightning. When you don’t use it, your dish may be as unremarkable as a firefly’s twinkle in a lighted room. Use just enough and your dish will be as remarkable as lightning in a lighted room. People will pay attention, with a tingle on their lips and smiles on their faces. “Cayenne makes almost any dish better,” he said. I agree.

In the summer, Davis grows his own cayenne peppers. He and I both buy name-brand ground cayenne in small quantities from local supermarkets. Buying in small quantities and using it as needed eliminates the need to store it. A few weeks after our chat, he e-mailed me, super excited that he had found a really good cayenne mix in a shop Cambridge, Mass., near the East Coast Grill, with spices on one side of the store and ice cream on the other: Christina's Homemade Ice Cream, Spice & Specialty Foods, Raymond L. Ford, Proprietor.

Flavor is important, of course, but another reason to use cayenne is for your health. Books have been written about the healing power of this spice, including “The Healing Power of Cayenne Pepper” and “The Health Benefits of Cayenne.” I turned to Deborah Chud, a doctor and food columnist for Radius Magazine and author of the interactive healthful-cooking Web site, A Doctor’s Kitchen, for her opinion on the healing powers of cayenne. First, of course, I had to find out whether she liked the spice. “Chili peppers are like wine and chocolate, in that subtle distinctions in flavor become more obvious as you expand your experience of them,” she told me, adding that for her, cayenne has a particular affinity for vinegar and so she uses it in vinegar-based sauces. It’s ideal for barbecue sauces, for example.

Now onto the health benefits. One of the great ironies of cayenne’s history, she told me, is that in the old days, physicians would put patients with peptic ulcers on a bland diet. “Now we know that chili peppers, including cayenne, not only do not cause peptic ulcer disease, but they may actually help prevent it by reducing bacteria and stimulating an increase in beneficial secretions by the cells lining the GI [gastro-intestinal] tract.”

She also advised that cayenne may be helpful to people who wish to lose weight because of its effect on the metabolic rate. (Consult your doctor about the uses of cayenne in the settings of specific medical conditions and also for preventive care.)

I turned to my ever-amazing social network for more tips on using cayenne, and as always, the folks didn’t disappoint me.

* Food writer Kendra Bailey says she stirs a pinch of ground cayenne into her pimento cheese at the very end.

* Food blogger Lisa Lawless adds it to her pumpkin puree when making pies: “It points up the other spices in the dish like allspice, cloves and cinnamon,” she says. Lawless adds a pinch so that it is just enough for a noticeable warmth of flavor accenting the pumpkin. She provided a link to another lovely recipe for caramel popcorn with a kick.

* Chud (of A Doctor's Kitchen) provided some great suggestions on ways to include the magical spice to your diet: “I've seen cayenne used in everything from oatmeal to ice cream. However, the easiest ways are: 1) sprinkle a little on your sandwich at lunch; 2) add it to cream cheese when you eat a bagel; 3) add some to your favorite salad dressing -- it's great in blue cheese, ranch and oil-and-vinegar dressings; 4) add it to your favorite barbecue sauce, and 5) add it to your favorite stews and soups.

* And, of course, I'm always fond of any live-and-learn lessons. Roz Cummins, a Boston food writer, posted this on my Facebook page: "I can tell you what NOT to do with cayenne! Don't saute pecans on the stovetop with a touch of cayenne in the pan. It creates a noxious gas! Live and learn!"

I had e-mailed her for a recipe because nuts with cayenne sounded awesome. “I wanted to see if I could make spiced pecans that I would finish by dredging in powdered sugar," she said. "I toasted the pecans in a pan on top of the stove and then sauteed them in a combination of canola oil and honey, to make them sticky so that the powdered sugar would stick to them. I wanted to add some heat to the flavor, so I put a pinch of cayenne pepper into the pan as I sautéed the pecans. The oils from the cayenne pepper got into the air and created a kind of noxious gas. My throat was really irritated and my eyes were stinging, so I had to take the pan out of the kitchen and put it on the porch.

"The next time I wanted to make this recipe, I sauteed the pecans without any cayenne pepper. Instead, I added a tiny pinch of cayenne pepper to the powdered sugar and I got the effect that I wanted: pecans that were sweet but hot. I call them Nuts in White Satin.”

To add some cayenne to your diet, use this Spiced Remoulade as a sauce or dip, or make some zippy Cheese Cookies to have on hand when friends stop by. Or try the accompanying recipe for a heavenly/devilish pasta.

-- Monica Bhide

Pasta Santo (Saintly Pasta)
4 to 6 servings

Cookbook author Ardie Davis created this recipe especially for I Spice readers to show off the taste of cayenne.

MAKE AHEAD: Make the cayenne butter in the morning, and you’ll be able to make this quick dish for dinner. Experiment by adding roasted eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, onion and squash, and a sprinkle of grated Parmesan cheese atop each serving. Or try adding chunks of grilled boneless, skinless chicken.

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (plus more salt for the pasta cooking water)
16 ounces organic whole-wheat rotini (may substitute your favorite dried pasta)

2 fresh cayenne peppers (1 red and 1 green), stemmed, seeded and cut crosswise into very thin slices (may substitute slivers of red bell pepper for less heat), for garnish

Use a fork to combine the butter, ground cayenne and salt in a small bowl until well blended. Cover and let sit for 8 hours or so at room temperature.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions until al dente. Drain, but do not rinse; transfer to a large serving bowl.

Add the butter mixture and toss until the mixture has melted and coated the pasta evenly. Garnish with fresh peppers. Serve hot.

Per serving (based on 6): 392 calories, 12 g protein, 54 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 211 mg sodium, 8 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  November 6, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, chili peppers, recipes  
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Post-Script to our chat: Hello, Monica. I love your article. And, just in case your readers think I was exaggerating about the ice cream...Last night, I was in a local ice cream parlor with my husband and their "flavor of the day" was El Diablo, chocolate ice cream with CAYENNE PEPPER (and plenty of it!). It was out of this world!! Deborah Chud,MD

Posted by: dfchudmd | November 6, 2009 11:04 AM | Report abuse

"Nuts in White Satin" Gotta love that Roz!!

Cayenne - just a tiny bit - in hot chocolate is delicious. Most of the other suggestions add more fat or calories that would offset any dietary benefit, I think. Still, love a little heat in many a treat.

Roast a winter squash with a tiny drizzle of oil or ghee or butter in the cavity, five spice powder or garam masala and pinch of cayenne. A drizzle of maple syrup is nice too.

Posted by: ldgourmet | November 6, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

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