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Chef John Foster: Late summer, early fall offer the perfect opportunity to kick up the heat in the kitchen

Hard to remember that a few weeks ago I was writing about cooler weather and the change of seasons. It’s hot and steamy, and not much fun to eat and cook in. The bugs have been much worse than in the past so grilling out has become a test of our willpower versus theirs.

We’re a little late for gazpacho. Chilled melon soup has run its course. You can still get watermelon, and cantaloupe, but less so every week. Forget a nice local greens salad, we’re still a few weeks away from that, although my spinach supplier at The Sage Rabbit hasn’t missed a beat. It’s taken him several fields and strict rotation, but the supply and quality have been steady, and consistently good.

So, what to do in the interim? It’s back to a quick bite here and some fast food there as we hustle kids to school and practice. We ramp ourselves up for the fall and holiday seasons beyond, and the garden recedes in the rear-view mirror. It’s only natural that there’s a lull as other things take precedence and the A-list vegetables start to fade. But there is potential in every patch this time of year, and if it’s hot outside, it’s time to fight fire with fire.

Ever wonder why all the spicy food is near the equator? The cuisine of the Caribbean, North Africa, Mexico and even our Southwest is based in part of spice. To be more specific, it’s the balance between spice and cooling foods like caciks, tzatzikis and cremas.

The late summer and early fall seasons bring us an abundance of opportunity to stoke the fires with all sorts of chilies, and the weather to enjoy them in. This is the season of roasted chilies filling the air around the Hatch Valley Chili Festival in Hatch, New Mexico with spice.

A not uncommon thing in most communities that harvest chilies en masse and a big part of that festival is food and how to enhance even the simplest bean with heat. Chilies are abundant in India, known for producing some of the hottest on record. This is the home of vindaloos or stove top braises that incorporate masalas, coconut milk and lots of fresh chilies.

One of my favorites is the Goan pork vindaloo uncommon in the rest of India but a favorite of the Portuguese influenced state of Goa on the Indian west coast. It incorporates spice in several ways, by a masala or dry spice blend and using fresh chilies for a kick at the end. This is food to make you sweat, and as you sweat your body cools, hence the reasoning behind hot food in hot climates.

Pork Vindaloo

While it may seem counterintuitive to braise something in 90-degree heat, the results, after a bit of discomfort, will be quite satisfying. The mixture of fresh and dried spice is famously used in chili, what we think of as a typically American dish. We eat a lot of chili in this country and we even celebrate its heritage in festivals that pop up in the late summer and early fall, just in time for the peppers to be ripe.

I’ve had many a bowl of chili in my life and I find that I favor the bowl of red, or a beanless chili that more closely resembles a stew. We forget sometimes that beans were mostly a New World addition to the world food list so that the bowl of red, aside from being chili heavy can find cousins in the French/Belgian carbonade or any of the meat stews of Central Europe. You can even stretch into the curries of India or the tagines of the Fertile Crescent where the crossover is even muddier. Is it a curry, a stew, a braise, and what separates them all?

What may define certain dishes is the heat. The definition is not scientific by any means, but more of an anthropological division somewhere approaching the equator. While peppers can be grown in cooler climates and at high altitudes, the chilies thrive in longer growing seasons and hotter environments. It’s a type of natural co-habitation, with the chili growing where it is needed, and so it is eaten the most. While we may not immediately recognize all the benefits of spicy food, (a spike in endorphins and a method for masking less than savory foods) at the very least we can use them to beat this late summer heat.

Vindaloo — this is best described as a stove top braise with coconut milk and pork, and lots of fresh chilies.

4 lbs. of pork shoulder cleaned and cubed into medium dice
1 onion diced
4 cloves of garlic sliced
1/4 cup minced fresh ginger
2-4 fresh serrano peppers
Up to 2 Tbl. Of garam masala
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup of brandy
Stock to cover
Coconut milk to cover

Garam masala

1 Tbl. ground nutmeg
1 Tbl. ground cardamom
1/2 Tbl. ground cloves
1/2 Tbl. ground cumin
1/4 Tbl. ground coriander
1/2 Tbl. cracked black pepper
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

Normally you would toast these spices whole, cool them down and then grind them in a large, flat, saucepan with high sides sweat the onion, garlic, ginger and chilies in clarified butter until soft and translucent. Add the cubed pork to the pan and cook just until opaque. If you want a darker vindaloo you can brown the meat but for a lighter color and flavor, leave it pale. Add the masala and bring the heat up until you smell the spice blend. Flame the pan with the brandy, add the stock to cover and begin the braise.

The lid on or off is your choice, but a light simmer, with the pork completely covered is important. Simmer until the pork is noticeably more tender. Add the coconut milk to the pan the next time stock is needed to cover. Simmer do not boil the coconut milk, and if you need to add more liquid to keep things covered add a combination of coconut milk and stock. Once the pork is close to the proper tenderness begin the process of reducing the sauce. Don’t add any more liquid, let the coconut milk start to coat the pork, and then finish with the vinegar to taste. Season with salt and pepper and serve with basmati rice flavored with cumin and caraway seed.

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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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