A hit of chilli is a great way to spice up everything from your breakfast scrambled eggs to your Friday night jalfrezi. I grew a few different chilli plants last summer and to ensure that I would be stocked up for winter I dried, crushed, pickled and even blended some with olive oil to make a Harissa-esque paste.
If you’re buying yours from the supermarket, the wide array of options can prove very confusing, with some as fiery as hell and others as mild as a red pepper. A good way of testing the heat of your chilli is to have a little nibble before cooking, it’s easy to ruin your dish if you’re too heavy handed with an untested little devil.
Some of my mates, Esquire’s food editor Tom Parker Bowles to name just one, are fearless when it comes to chillies and will go to extremes to get the hottest hit possible - your dinner guests may not be so inclined.
A good way to please everyone is tog keep the chilli in your dish to a relative minimum and offer a side dish of extra, pre-sliced ones to keep your fire-eating guests happy.
Spiced Chicken and coconut broth (above)
I love making this type of Asian broth for dinner parties. You don't have to use coconut milk as you can keep it clear without thickening it. Throw in a few prawns if you feel like it or make a tasty vegetarian version with squash or pumpkin.
For the stock
1 ltr chicken stock (a good quality cube will do)
1 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
A small piece (20g) of fresh root ginger or galangal, scraped and roughly chopped
1 stick of lemon grass trimmed and roughly chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
3 kaffir lime leaves
1 mild chilli, chopped
Stalks from the coriander (reserve leaves for garnish)
4 chicken thighs, boned and skinned
150g cream of coconut block
A small piece (20g) of fresh root ginger or galangal, scraped and shredded
1-2 red chillies, shredded on the angle
1 stick of lemon grass, woody bits removed and the bulbous end finely chopped
4 spring onions, trimmed and shredded on the angle
A few sprigs of coriander, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper
1| Put all ingredients for the stock into a pan, bring to the boil and simmer for 1 hour, skimming occasionally to remove any scum.
2| Poach the chicken thighs in the stock on a low heat for 10 minutes, remove them and leave to cool. Mix the cornflour with a little water and stir into the stock. Simmer again for 20 minutes then ladle a third of the stock into a liquidiser and blend with the cream of coconut. Strain this through a sieve along with the rest of the stock, into a clean pan.
3| Blanch the ginger and chillies in water for 1 minute to remove the harsh flavours (or leave them if you want it a bit fiery). Drain them and add to the soup with the lemon grass. Shred the chicken thighs and add to the soup with the spring onions and coriander. Bring back to the boil and check for seasoning. Serve in deep bowls — Chinese-style ones are perfect.
Salt and pepper squid
(Serves 4 as a starter)
This is a favourite dish of mine when visiting Asian restaurants. It’s crucial to get the squid as crisp as possible as a plate of soggy cephalopods will only disappoint.
400-450g squid, cleaned and cut into rough 2cm chunks with the tentacles
3-4tbsp gluten free or ordinary self-raising flour
4tsp of sea salt flakes
2tsp crushed dried chilli
20 or so Sichuan peppercorns, lightly crushed
Vegetable or corn oil for deep-frying
1 lime, quartered to serve
1| Pre-heat 8cm of oil to 160-180°C in a thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep-fat fryer.
2| Mix the sea salt, chilli and Sichuan peppercorns with the flour. Coat the squid in the flour mixture then fry them for 3-4 minutes, turning them every so often with a slotted spoon, then remove and drain on some kitchen paper. Serve with the lime quarters.