Come On Baby Light My Fire

When I have a bad day in the kitchen it’s usually really bad. Like a couple of weeks ago when a fire truck pulled up to the house with lights flashing and siren blaring. No fire…just a misunderstanding between my cast iron skillet and our new alarm system, unfortunately the latter is connected to the county’s 911 center. Everyone knows, apparently except me, that using a low smoke-point oil to sear a steak in a really hot cast iron skillet over high heat isn’t going to end well. Oh, and pro tip…when the phone rings after your smoke alarm goes off, you should answer it. I learned that one the hard way.

Fast forward to last weekend and my latest foodie failure which is the focus of this article. This failure came about as a result of a four-year quest to find and recreate a very special Mexican soup. Actually it is a very common Mexican soup made with a very special Mexican ingredient, the xcatic pepper. It all started back in 2016 when Janet and I were on a whirlwind tour of all-inclusive resorts in Cancun. At one of the properties we toured we had lunch in a restaurant specializing in traditional Mexican cuisine. They served a bisque that was so exquisite, the budding foodie in me knew someday I would recreate it.

Four years later and I was ready. My kitchen skills have progressed from 2016, but the biggest challenge for me with this dish wasn’t technique. It was the fact that I knew almost nothing about it. I had no idea what it was, what it had in it, what techniques went into making it…basically nothing but a four-year old memory of how it tasted. Did I say my memory is not all that great? Actually it sucks, but I got a huge clue back in July during a return trip to Cancun. I was chatting up one of the resort’s staff who it turns out was familiar with the dish as I described it. He really didn’t tell me much other than to forget about trying to recreate it in my kitchen back in Maryland. That wasn’t a commentary on the quality of my culinary skills, though it could well have been. No, as he went on to tell me the key ingredient is a pepper that I can’t get back home. It is only grown in the area around Merida which is about 300 km west of Cancun. He called it the xcatic pepper, which he pronounced “sch-KA-tik.” I remembered seeing the word “xcatic” on the menu card from 2016 so I knew I was on the right track. He went on to tell me that xcatic peppers are neither grown nor exported outside of the Merida area of Yucatan.

In the grand scheme of things does the type of pepper you use make a difference? Actually, it does. Traditional Mayan recipes that I’ve run across here in the states generally substitute habanero peppers for xcatics, and while the habanero is a commonly used pepper in Mayan cooking, habaneros occupy their own place in Mayan recipes. That place is not as a substitute for xcatics. Having tasted both I see why. Not only are xcatic peppers hotter than habaneros, the taste profile they deliver is far more complex.

Even though the fellow I was chatting with told me to forget about trying to get xcatic peppers anywhere outside of Merida, I refused to believe they didn’t sell them in roadside produce stands or local grocery stores in Cancun. Nope…he said the only way to get some was to go to Merida, which I could not do, or to have a source that could get them from Merida. At that point he lowered his voice somewhat conspiratorially and told me if I could wait a few days and was willing to pre-pay him, he could hook me up with some xcatics to take home. He had a “source,” that he would be seeing on his day off which just happened to be the next day. We agreed on $20 US which I gave him on the spot, and we arranged to meet again in three days’ time.

I fully expected to be $20 poorer with no xcatic peppers to show for it, but three days later there he was at the appointed time and place with the goods. What he brought me was actually a processed and packaged product that a small producer offered for sale in small grocery stores in Merida. Like the xcattic peppers, it was not exported outside of the Merida area. I gave him $10 more for his trouble knowing that the package he brought me probably cost him no more than $2 US. He told me if I ever returned to that resort I should ask for him as soon as I arrived. With a little more notice, he could score some xcatic seeds from his source that I could take home to grow for myself. Images of Jack and the Beanstalk came to mind when I contemplated planting a seed from an unknown source and then waiting to see what grew from it. Or worse, it would be some psychedelic Mayan mystery fruit that resembles a pepper but would leave me hallucinating about purple monkeys and pink elephants munching on my toes. Not that I have any experience in that sort of thing. He must have seen my look of concern because he went on to reveal that his “source” was his mother. She lives in the Merida region, grows xcatic peppers in her garden, cooks with them all the time, and uses the packaged product he brought me when she doesn’t have any peppers ready for picking. Too bad I didn’t ask him to get me one or two of his Mom’s xcatic pepper recipes while I was at it.

I was confident in my ability to reconstruct the dish, perhaps even a bit cocky about it since I was armed with nothing more than a small supply of xcatic peppers and my memory. I may have forgotten to mention that my memory sucks. Talk about jumping out of the airplane with no parachute! I remember the soup I had in Cancun to be a creamy bisque-like dish with lots of earthy flavors, so I started with a recipe for leek and celery root bisque. This recipe was new to me and I probably shouldn’t have gone with a dish I’d never made before…too many things to screw up…but I was eager to try. Strike one.

I sauteed the xcatics, leeks, celery root, a bunch of aromatics and some other stuff in EVOO for a few minutes, then transferred everything to a small stock pot along with a quart and a half of chicken stock. I simmered it for about two hours adjusting the flavors as I went along. It simmered, I sampled. The flavor went from the stale taste of a low-sodium boxed chicken stock to a delicious broth as the flavors from the veggies infused the stock, and then it made the jump to next level yummilicious as the xcatic peppers kicked in their heat and rich earth notes.

One of the many unknowns facing me with this dish was how much xcactic pepper to add. I love heat, but Janet doesn’t. Truth be told Janet has trouble handling anything above a bell pepper on the Scoville heat unit scale (SHU). For you non-pepper lovers, yes the Scoville scale really is a thing…a scientific measure of the perceived heat we taste in peppers based on how much capsaicin each pepper actually contains. A bell pepper scores a 0 SHU on the Scoville scale of heat, a jalapeno comes in at between 2,500-5,000 SHU, habaneros measure 100,000-350,000, Ghostpeppers and Trinidad Scorpions come in at between 1 and 1.5 million SHU, and the hottest of the hot, the Dragon’s Breath pepper and Pepper X both come in at a stomach melting 2.5 million SHU. Xcatic peppers are hotter than scotch bonnets or habaneros at between 500,000-750,000 SHU, but what makes them unique is that as their heat starts to fade they let loose with a full palate of rich and complex earthy flavors finishing with hints of tobacco and coffee as the last of the heat fades.

Even though this particular recipe was new to me, I’ve made plenty of bisques before. After letting all of my ingredients simmer for a couple of hours while the flavors infuse into the stock the next step is de-pulpification. I pour the contents of the stock pot into a food processer and puree it all together, then run it through a filter as I pour the contents of the food processor back into the stock pot. Everything that gets caught in the filter goes back into the food processor for a second round and then back through the filter and into the stock pot. Whatever is left in the filter after the second round gets dumped in the trash. Works like a charm for my crab bisque, but as it turns out there is a big difference between filtering out crab shells and veggie pulp. I started with 48 ounces in my stock pot but after filtering out the veggie pulp I ended up with just 28 ounces. What about the rest of it? Well that was 20 ounces of yummiliciousness caught by the filter and tossed in the trash. BIG mistake. Strike two.

One of the final steps in making a bisque is to add a roux to thicken it. The consistency of my dish after trashing the veggie pulp was a watery broth so it needed the roux for sure. I made up a great roux for this dish, a blonde roux executed as one only can using butter and a cast iron skillet. This time my cast iron skillet and smoke alarm played nice…no fire trucks. All of my recipes that use a roux call for cooking the flour in butter rather than oil, and they call for using a medium low heat on the stovetop. After the incident with the steaks I now know why…smoke point. Butter has one of the lowest smoke points of all cooking fats so it needs to be cooked at a lower stovetop temp to keep the fire department away. Lesson learned.

My roux was a thing of beauty, but my mistakes weren’t over. I had scaled the roux to act as a thickening agent for 48 ounces of liquid, which is what I started with. For some reason I failed to rescale the roux for the 28 ounces I ended up with after the de-pulpification process. Ordinarily no big deal…I always whisk the roux into the liquid gradually, stopping when I reach the desired thickness or I make up more if I need to thicken it further. For some reason this time I didn’t do it that way…I dumped the roux in all at ounce. I could tell right away something wasn’t right, so I decided to hit it with my immersion blender on the high-speed setting. Strike three.

You kinda know a dish is an epic failure when the garnish is the best part. The look of my xcatic pepper bisque was like cat puke so as I dished it up I tossed in a few pomegranate seeds for a little pop of color, then served it. The “bisque” that I waited four years to reconstruct ended up with the consistency of Kindergarden paste. Tasted like it too. Time for take out.

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