Learning to Love the Heat

  • 07/19/2018
  • Richard Foss

By Richard Foss, Cuisine and Culture Columnist

Andrew Anderson is not the person you might expect to be hosting an event about chili peppers and how they may be used in cocktails. He grew up in rural Wisconsin, land of cheese curds, pot roast, and fish fries, where high seasoning is regarded with suspicion.

“As a kid I wouldn’t even eat jalapenos,” Anderson recalled. “After I moved to California I just fell in love with chiles, which I hadn’t appreciated before. I tried Thai food, and Indian and Mexican, which use chiles fresh, dried and pickled. I indulged in those cuisines and analyzed the way the spices were used at the same time.

“Now, I grow 63 varieties of chiles and have a hot sauce company called The Spicy Kitchen,” he said. “I make a mango hot sauce and a Thai-based one that has pineapple and garlic and onion. I like complex heat, and most of my sauces have from eight to 15 chiles in them. Each one hits your palate at a different level, and when you blend them all together you get something that has been enhanced and enjoyable.”

Anderson has taken to chili peppers with the fervor of a convert, but it’s still a bit odd that he ended up conducting this class. His principal profession has not been as a chef, bartender, or hot sauce maker. He is a landscape designer whose excursions into carpentry led to a relationship with Rancho Los Alamitos.

“In Wisconsin my family had a one-acre garden and we grew a lot of our food,” he said. “When I moved out here to an apartment I had one little ledge, so I made window boxes. When my friends saw them they were stunned, because it hadn’t occurred to them to make their own spaces to garden. They wanted custom made planter boxes to fit their needs, and it became a business. I started making succulent planters and planter boxes, and the rancho’s gift shop here was one of my vendors. After we got to talking about my culinary interests, they asked me to do some classes.”

The “Red Pepper Workshop” on July 14 is the latest in a series that gives participants hands-on experience in the garden, kitchen and bar.

“Everyone will get an 18-inch redwood planter box and we’ll have a selection of different kinds of chili peppers,” he said. “I’ll talk about the varieties of chili and their uses; they can select the ones that they like. Then I’ll explain how you can use these awesome chiles you just planted. I like to bring in food and cocktail ideas to start people thinking how to utilize them in ways that are different from what they grew up with. Everybody will get recipe cards for the three food items we’ll be serving and three cocktails, which they will experience at lunch.”

Though the seminar about chili peppers may seem an unlikely fit for an early California rancho, it’s actually quite appropriate. The early settlers of California were famous for their love of dishes that were pungent with chili and garlic, and unwary visitors from the USA were shocked by how spicy they were.

William Tecumseh Sherman, who came to California in 1847, was offered rabbit stewed in what he thought was tomato sauce. As he noted in his diary: “Taking a good mouthful, I felt as though I had taken liquid fire; the tomato was chile colorado, or red pepper, of the purest kind. It nearly killed me.”

The Ohio native stayed in California for over a year but never learned to enjoy peppery foods. It’s a measure of how much our tastes have changed that the most popular cuisines in America all have some heat in common. Anderson says that though this event is all about chiles, he intends to show how they can be used subtly.

“Everything is pepper themed, so it will be a spicy Saturday morning,” Anderson said. “I’m not going to try to kill anybody, but there will be a complex heat in everything. This isn’t the kind of contest where people drink hot sauce, rather the opposite. People are scared of chiles because of the hot factor, and I want to show them that if chiles are used appropriately they can be subtle and enjoyable. It makes no sense to craft something that you take one bite of or one drink of and then you’re done.”

Even those who use chiles in their everyday cooking may not have tried them in cocktails, which is something of a new frontier. Anderson says that while cuisines that use chiles go back centuries, even millennia, there isn’t much cultural bedrock for cocktails using chili peppers.

“A few decades ago there was only one spicy cocktail, the Bloody Mary, and a few years ago you started seeing spicy margaritas,” he said. “Recently, there has been a huge upsurge in craft cocktail creativity, so now people are enjoying all sorts of original ideas that involve chili heat. It’s hard to predict whether any of them will become classics, because tastes change with time. To prepare for my events, I consider the flavors thinking about how they’ll mix together, and how to manipulate the ingredients to get the desired effect. It’s the same way I approach cooking, but in a different medium. It just gets you a little happier.”

The chili pepper event is one in a series that Anderson has presented at Rancho Los Alamitos, and the partnership has apparently been productive for both parties.

“At any given event about half of the members are people who have never been to the rancho,” he said. “They come for my event, take the tours and they leave knowing about this hidden gem. I bring in a different demographic, and I engage their existing members, and everybody is happy.”

The next event will be about pickling and canning vegetables, it will take place on Sept. 22.

For reservations call (562) 431-3541 or visit rancholosalamitos.org.

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Richard Foss

Richard Foss is a culinary historian, author and museum consultant who has lectured around the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. He wrote the section on Croatian cuisine in the Encyclopedia of World Food Cultures and also contributed to the Oxford Companion to Sweets. He is working on his third book, which is about food in Spanish and Mexican colonial California from 1790 to 1846.