Breathe in. Then breathe out. It’s an easy way to become aware of your body, more focused on the mundane. And if you breathe in and breathe out after eating a habenero-laced dish, you’re probably aware of every cell in your mouth, and focused on every nook and cranny of your sinuses.
I first learned to appreciate spicy dishes while studying abroad in Ghana. At first, it was hard to take the intense heat that lurked in everything from Jollof rice to okra stew. But eventually I got to like it—especially the ubiquitous sauce known as pepe (“pep-ay”) that whirled what we call Jamaican peppers, onions, garlic, ginger, and tomatoes into an addictively tasty condiment. Later, while I was working at a farm in Mexico, one of my hosts explained how she swore by chilies and used to belong to a spicy food club back when she lived in the States. She says that chilies cured her ulcer, and she now uses ground dried habaneros in lieu of black pepper at the table. (She insists that this hottest of chilies actually has a pleasant flavor, describing it as a “hot apricot”).
For a few years now, I’ve appreciated the flavors and experiences that come with using hot peppers. I have learned to love the rush of awareness that comes with a chili-enhanced bite, and the heat that lingers. But it was only recently that I noticed the parallel with something else that delivers a rush of awareness—the High Holidays!
Ok, so the most revered Jewish holidays may be a little different from a bowl of jalapeno-heavy gazpacho, but Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do make me aware of myself in a similar way. During Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days of Teshuvah in between, I’m particularly aware of my body, mind, and actions. My regular hustle between work, school, friends, family, and life in general changes. I fast, I contemplate, I make amends and make plans for the year to come.
Why not try it? A spark of capsicum may be just the thing to boost your awareness of the concrete and the spiritual. (And it doesn’t hurt that chilies have been found to fight cancer and ward off food-borne pathogens).
To find fresh chilies: check out your local farmer’s market or your CSA share during this time of year. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a range of options, from (on the mild side) traffic light-green jalapenos and deep moss-colored poblanos to (on the downright wicked side) Scotch Bonnets and habaneros in the colors of a stormy sunset.
Whatever you choose, hot peppers are an easy and delicious addition to your Rosh Hashanah lunch or Yom Kippur break-fast. Just be sure to flag the spicy dishes for guests who want to start with something a little more bland! Here are a few ideas:
Sassy Tomato Sauce Adapted from Epicurious. Romas (aka plum tomatoes) work best for sauce, but any kind of tomatoes you come across this fall (or high quality canned tomatoes) will work. Use this sauce to make shakshuka for your Rosh Hashanah guests. The sauce keeps well in the fridge thanks to the peppers’ antimicrobial properties, and of course stays fresh even longer in the freezer. You can make a big batch of this, then freeze in glass jars (leave plenty of headroom!) to use through the winter.
3 Tbs. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 fresh red cayenne peppers, with or without seeds removed, depending on how spicy you want your sauce, diced (wear a plastic bag or latex glove over the hand that will come in contact with the pepper)
3 tsp. dried herbs (mix and match oregano, basil, rosemary, marjoram or others)
2 lbs plum/Roma tomatoes (about 16 tomatoes), washed and tops cut off or scooped out with a tomato shark. You can also use 2 28-ounce cans canned tomatoes.
1 15-oz can crushed or diced fire-roasted tomatoes
1/2 cup dry red wine (optional)
Salt to taste
Skin the tomatoes by blanching them in boiling water for a minute or so, until the skin bursts. Remove from the water and, when cool enough to handle, remove the skins. Then chop the tomatoes, discarding the seeds and juice that will run off onto your cutting board.
Heat olive oil on medium in a large saucepan with a heavy bottom. Sauté onions until translucent, then add garlic and Serranos and sauté until the garlic is fragrant. Add the remaining ingredients. Simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes to 1 hour, depending on how much time you have and how thick you want your sauce!
Apple-Habanero Jelly or Fruit Butter With thanks to Amaranth Rose. Spread this on a slice of honey cake for a sweet kick start to the new year.
16- or 20-ounce jar of store-bought or homemade apple jelly, apple butter, or pear butter 1 habanero pepper, seeds and pith/placenta removed (wear a plastic bag or latex glove over the hand that will come in contact with the pepper)
In a blender or food processor, combine the jelly or butter with the pepper and blend thoroughly. Pack back in the jar.
This is an easy soup course or palate-cleanser. The flecks of green against the orange make for a lovely presentation.
1 medium cantaloupe, seeded, rind removed, and cut into chunks
1 cup seltzer
1 Tbs. lemon juice
1-2 jalapenos, seeded and finely diced (you may want to wear a plastic bag or latex glove over the hand that will come in contact with the pepper)
In a blender or food processor, combine cantaloupe, seltzer, and lemon juice. Puree, then transfer to serving bowl or individual bowls. Sprinkle with the diced jalapeno.