Popping chillies

It was only a matter of time before I had to try my hand at chilli (aka jalapeno) poppers. I remember the very first one I tried, now many years ago, at the Fat Cactus in Mowbray. Given that South Africa had lived in relative shelter from “real” Mexican food for many years (I’m quite sure the Aromat-sprinkled nachos at the die-hard Panchos in Observatory don’t count), biting into my first chilli popper was memorable. Imagine sinking your teeth into a perfectly crispy batter, and then through to a hot, spicy, melting inside (not to mention  washing it down  with a really fine classic margarita). It was like hearing a really good metaphor for the first time.

Alas, in the way of the best metaphors, the chilli popper soon made it onto many more menus than it deserved, and finding one that is worth eating has become something of a mission. Unless you make them yourself, that is.

For the first experiment, I of course had to try three different variations: crumbed and deep-fried; crumbed and baked; battered and deep-fried. I started by blanching and then stuffing the chillies with a home-made cheese (same recipe as for paneer: heat milk, add lemon juice, wait for curdle, drain to separate curds from whey, and stop when you have a cottage cheese consistency. Then add taste: chopped rocket, anchovies, lemon zest, garlic, salt and pepper). Then I froze them for a couple of hours so none of the coatings would get inside. The ones heading for batter stayed in the freezer until the last moment, but I coated the others in eggs and crumbs twice (once, then freeze for an hour or so before the next coating) before that point. It’s quite tricky getting the crumbs to stick to such a smooth surface, and I think next time I’ll follow Glen the sailor’s advice to lightly score the skins first. The batter was a tempura variation: a mixture of rice and cake flour, seasoning, and beer (no egg or soda water).

They were all successful in the sense that none of them failed or fell apart. The crumbed ones fried really well, and the resulting crust was complete (first order of success: make sure the coating creates an impenetrable casing that basically steams the chilli inside), golden brown and crunchy. Baking the same one (about 35 mins at 180) aso gives a good crispy casing, but in the heart-healthy way that baking operates, it was much more bready/cakey, and didn’t come as close to the ideal popper. (Having said that, the baking method is certainly a good idea if you don’t want to stand by a pot of hot oil and would rather be mingling: they are still good).

The beer batter didn’t expand as much as I had hoped; it didn’t expand at all, in fact, meaning that the surprise element of the popper was lost (the chilli was very thinly veiled). So that needs work/another recipe. But it was crispy.

What I really need to do is find the perfect chilli. The ones I crumbed were, according to Pick’n Pay, pimentos, and “perfect for stuffing”. But they had very little chilli bite. The battered ones were, according to Woolworths, jalapenos, with a “heat factor” of 6-7 (10 is hottest). Amazingly, the philosophe – who routinely boasts that he can eat food hotter than mere mortals can handle – found them too hot.

So, they worked, in the way that dead metaphors work. But the quest continues for the perfectly articulated chilli popper, and I am glad to say that yesterday’s various successes mean that I have removed all pressure from the glut of “Mexican” eateries in the city to fulfill that ideal. Now the pressure is on in my own kitchen, as it should be.

On another note, following the (inevitable) re-listing of El Bulli as the “world’s best restaurant”, it is heartening to see that some people remain sceptical of what a list like that means. Read the perpsective of one of the judges in the Independent.

And now I must go gamble. Adieu.