In 2007 the ghost pepper, or Naga Bhut Jolokia, was declared the hottest pepper in the world by Guinness World Records after one weighed in at over a million Scoville heat units. (It’s still the hottest commercially available chile, but earlier this year the record was broken by the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper, which can reach up to two million Scoville units. By comparison, jalapeños are between 2,500 and 9,000 Scoville units.) In northeast India, where ghost peppers were first cultivated, they're used to keep wild elephants away (they’re smeared on fences and used in smoke bombs) as well as in pepper spray and hand grenades.
"It's one of those things you almost wish man hadn't discovered, kind of like nuclear weapons," Chris Curren said of the incendiary chiles. His main goal in cooking with them was to tone them down enough that the dish would actually be edible: "With the intense heat, it's very easy for it to just blow up the dish," he said.
"It's really hard to even get a flavor out of it, just because the heat's so overwhelming. It does have a sweetness to it, almost like a bell pepper—a little more so, I think, than jalapeños or habaneros."
Curren knew that capsaicin—the compound that makes chiles spicy—is soluble in both fat and alcohol, and used that to his advantage. He soaked a few ghost peppers overnight in vodka, then used the alcohol in a Bloody Mary to go with his take on huevos rancheros, which featured quail eggs, toasted sourdough, ghost pepper-tomatillo salsa, bacon confit, and roasted bone marrow. The fat in the bacon and bone marrow would tone down the spiciness of the salsa, he figured.
When Curren first got the ghost peppers, he said, he was afraid he had the wrong thing—they looked just like sweet peppers. So he tasted one raw, just a little bit off the end. He didn't taste any heat, so he tried a little more. Still nothing. "Then I took a big chunk and I put it in my mouth," he said. "Within about three seconds I felt the heat and I spit it right back out and grabbed vanilla ice cream and shoved that in my mouth until it went away. It was definitely intense. I didn't even take a bite out of it—it was just the oils on my tongue."
To make the salsa, Curren roasted tomatillos and grilled scallions, red onion, and a couple ghost peppers—cooking chiles also mellows out their heat, he said. Wearing gloves, he removed the seeds and veins (the hottest parts) from the chiles, and added one to the salsa. He was blending it in a well-ventilated area, he noted, because he didn't want to inadvertently pepper spray himself (capsaicin is the active ingredient in pepper spray). After adding one ghost pepper to the salsa, he tasted it and deemed it not quite spicy enough, so he threw in one of the chiles that had been soaking in vodka. The alcohol seemed to have done its work—the ghost pepper increased the heat of the salsa but didn’t double it.
Curren garnished the dish with candied ghost peppers, sliced thin. When Wilbur Scoville was creating the Scoville scale in 1912, he diluted capsaicin oil—extracted from peppers with alcohol—with sugar water until his subjects couldn’t taste any heat; the more a pepper had to be diluted the higher it was on the Scoville scale. So Curren figured that sugar would mellow out the heat of the chiles.
"Seems like a breakfast of champions to me," Curren said, surveying the pile of cholesterol in front of him before tasting it. "There's definitely heat, but it's not nearly as bad as what you would expect." He took a bite of candied pepper. "There's some heat there," he said, exhaling. "That was intense." The Bloody Mary came last—"That's definitely got some kick to it," Curren said. Overall, though, he'd done what he set out to do: make something that's "edible for most people."
Ryan Poli of Tavernita, working with eel. It's "one of those obscure things that either you've worked with it or you haven't," Curren said. "It comes in alive and you have to kill it, and I figured that would be fun for him."
2 ghost peppers
½ red onion
1 oz lime juice
Toss the tomatillos in oil and place on a baking sheet in the oven at 350 degrees. Roast until tender, about 15 minutes. On a grill char two ghost peppers, scallions, and red onion. Peel the skin of the ghost peppers and remove the seeds. In a food processor combine the tomatillos, ghost peppers, red onion, and scallion. Add lime juice and season with salt and pepper, then buzz until combined.
Candied ghost peppers
1 c sugar
1 c water
6 ghost peppers
Mix sugar and water in a sauce pot and bring to a boil. Add the ghost peppers and continue to simmer until the syrup becomes thick. Remove peppers and allow them to cool.
1 lb slab bacon
Oil (enough to cover bacon)
Place the bacon in a roasting pan and cover with oil. Cover pan with aluminum foil and place in a 300-degree oven for three hours. Let cool.
4 pieces bone marrow (canoe cut)
Roast the bone marrow in the oven for 35 minutes at 350 degrees.
8 quail eggs
½ bunch of picked cilantro leaves
1 loaf of artisan sourdough bread
Cut four pieces of sourdough and grill both sides. Slice the bacon about a quarter of an inch thick. In a saute pan sear the bacon on both sides until golden brown. In a nonstick saute pan cook the quail eggs sunny-side up and season with a little salt and pepper.
To plate, place a piece of sourdough on the plate and top with one piece of bone marrow. Arrange one slice of bacon cut in half on top of the bone marrow. Place two quail eggs on top of the bacon and top with ghost pepper-tomatillo salsa. Garnish with shreds of the candied ghost peppers and cilantro.
Ghost pepper Bloody Mary
6 ghost peppers
1 c Tito's vodka
4 c Bloody Mary mix
4 celery stalks
Soak the ghost peppers in the vodka overnight, then strain out the peppers. Fill a glass with ice. Pour 1½ oz of vodka over the ice. Add 1 cup of Bloody Mary mix and shake in a martini shaker. Pour back into glass and garnish with a celery stalk.