Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Agony and the Ecstasy...of chilies

“Recent findings suggest that pain and pleasure share common neurochemical circuits, and studies in animals and humans show that opioid-mediated descending pathways can inhibit or facilitate pain1

While this quote from the abstract of a Journal of Neuroscience article is meant to pertain to specific medication that is an agonist/antagonist to opioid receptors, naloxone, the general concept can be applied to many facets of life including residency which is pain and pleasure embodied.  This statement also can easily be made about spicy food.  

My husband and I burn for spicy food.  When we had been dating for about a year, we ventured to Thailand for a week.  Seeing as were not about to pay 25 bucks a person for a fancy breakfast at our hotel, we ventured to the local street vendors for a plate of deliciously mouth numbing curry and jasmine rice. 

Well, we didn’t think this through quite enough because as we went to buy something to drink, our mouths ablaze, the lovely vendor offered us a bucket of tap water and a ladle.  Considering that my stomach is fairly sensitive and I didn’t even survive a night at the Texas state fair without my gastric contents painting the lining of the toilet bowl, I wasn’t about to imbibe a gallon of e. coli laden tap water certain to make my linings explode.  Surely, one can imagine a bunch of sun burnt idiots running around the alleys of Bangkok with their tongues hanging out of their mouths.

Even though the experience was painful, it was by far a happy moment in my life.   This is because chilies are one of those foods that cause as much pleasure as they do pain.  Paul Rozin, psychology expert suggests that spicy food are a “constrained risk” in that the act is a generally harmless however the body responds in with a warning system that is physically painful.  Basically, people love spicy food because it feels dangerous but it isn’t. 2  

I actually made these tamales for a recipe contest on Food52, a weekly competition for a community-compiled cookbook.  One of my recipes, this soup, actually was picked to be published in the cookbook.  Anyway, one of the problems with being a resident and an idiot is that I misunderstood when the entry time was over.  I spent all day making these tamales and I didn’t even submit them. 

The contest theme was coffee, so I braised short ribs in coffee and spices and then made a blistering red sauce to coat the meat to fill the tamales.  The caffeine and chile is a great combination for your gastritis…I recommend taking a prilosec first.  I think that if you just made the meat and the sauce and skipped all of the corn husk, tamale steaming assembly disaster and used the meat as a taco filling or serve it with rice and beans it would be a delicious meal.  Our tongues were burning with deliciousness. 

Makes about 12 tamales, takes about forever

For meat

1.5 lb shortribs with bones
2 tsp sesame seeds
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
2 tsp cumin
2 cloves
1 tsp black peppercorns
¼ cup pumpkin seeds
2 cloves garlic
2 tsp Mexican oregano
2 sprig thyme
4 cups strong, freshly brewed coffee
1 tbsp brown sugar
½ onion diced
1 tsp salt

For chile sauce
5 large dried guajillo peppers
5 dried chile de arbol
1 tbsp cider vinegar
1 cup beef broth from above
water as needed
1 tsp honey

For tamale dough
12 corn husks
2 cups maseca
1 cup braising liquid
1 cup warm water
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
½ cup Crisco

The meat can be braised in either the oven in a dutch oven or in a slow cooker.  If using the oven method, preheat the oven to 300.  In a large clean skillet over high heat, toast the sesame seeds, coriander, bay leaf, cinnamon stick, cumin, cloves, peppercorns and pumpkin seeds until brown and fragrant.  Add all ingredients to pot and braise for about 6 hours until meat is very tender.  Remove bones, bay leaf, cinnamon stick and cloves.  Remove meat and place in bowl and shred with fork.  Strain braising liquid and divide liquid (there should be about 2 cups).  Keep solids that you have strained. 

To make chile sauce, in large hot dry skillet toast chiles until smoking.  Submerge chiles in boiling water and weigh down with bowl, let sit 20 minutes or until soft.  In blender, add solids from the braise, 1 cup braising liquid, salt to taste, vinegar, honey and chiles.  Add water as needed and blend until very smooth, about 5 minutes.  Add about a cup of the sauce to the shredded meat, set aside the other to top the tamales

If you are smart, stop here and eat the meat and sauce with beans and be done with it.  If you are crazy like me, get your tamale pot ready.   Mix dry ingredients in bowl, slowly add braising liquid and water and then whisk in Crisco until fluffy.  Soak corn husks in warm water.  Place about 3 tbsp masa in each corn husk and place filling in middle.  Fold bottom of husk up and then wrap up husks and tie with extra husk.   For better instructions watch this video.   If you are a dork like me, then you obviously have a tamale steamer which is a just a large pot with a layer of metal with holes to steam them.  You can use a bamboo steamer or improvise in another way.  Steam for about 75 minutes or until tamale dough is set. 

1. The Journal of Neuroscience, 16 March 2011, 31(11): 4148-4153; doi: 10.1523/ JNEUROSCI.3736-10.2011
2. Rozin, P, et al.  The Nature and Acquisition of a Preference for Chili pepper by Humans.  Motivation and Emotion, Vol. 4, No.1, 1980.

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to be making this one!!! Sounds amazing. I hope you and Andy are well. Bill and I had such a wonderful time at the wedding.