Marching Madness (featuring Enchilada-Stuffed Baby Peppers)
I slid my sharpening steel out from the utensils drawer and guided the front and back sides of my dull chef’s knife over the stone. Shhusssss shhussss. Oh, that sound brought me so much pleasure. Shhusssss shhussss. Nothing made me feel more like a superhero than putting a fresh edge on a knife– my arm muscles flexing to bring the long blade to the sword-like steel, maintaining a 30-degree angle for the perfect hone. At that moment I felt stronger than I was, more confident that I had any reason to. Shhusssss shhussss. Pure power.
I flicked the knife’s edge with my thumb to make sure it was sharp enough and then easily bisected the rosy plum tomato on my cutting board. I stood at my kitchen counter, happily deseeding, chopping, and tossing tomatoes into a large bowl with some minced red onions, lime juice, cilantro, and scallions. I turned the flame to medium-high under a pot with a few inches of oil and cleaved a tower of corn tortillas into twelfths.
I wanted to have everything plated before people arrived, so I had 45 minutes to finish frying the chips, making the pico de gallo, and putting on my makeup. Easy peasy.
The year was maybe 2003 or 2004. I lived in a bungalow in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles with my dogs Lulu and Dexter. The plug had officially been pulled on an acting career that had been circling the drain for years, and I was focusing my energy on figuring out if I really and truly could cook for a living. It was terrifying and riveting at the same time.
Working as a free-lance chef for multiple catering kitchens, I was eager to work though I screwed things up constantly. In hindsight, that’s how I knew it was a good fit for me. Though I hate to be wrong, when it comes to cooking, I’m able to fall and get back up time and time again. I’ve always had a voracious appetite to expand my cooking repertoire, regardless of how burnt/ tasteless/ dry/ limp whatever I’ve attempted to make has become. Give me another chance, I would think (and still think) to myself. I can make it better.
One of the ways I kept my sanity during those years was by throwing epic parties. They weren’t as food-centric as my parties are now, but they were full of great people, laughter, and many, many drinks. This was one such party–a fiesta of sorts with all the fixins.
Dexter, my strangely long and squat corgi German shepherd mix sat staring at me from the living room. He had an eager, and loving gaze always focused on my movements around the house. Lulu, my blonde beagle, was stretched long and snug on the couch cushion that she had contoured into her shape over the years. While I knew she was always watching me, she preferred a coy stance, often glancing at me from a side view or through a reflection. She was brilliant and beautiful and caused trouble everywhere she went. Her favorite game was bossing Dex around, but I think she knew guests would be arriving soon and she laid in waiting, ready to explode with excited greetings at any moment.
Reaching around the onions, garlic, and tomatoes, I plucked two serrano chilies from the dark blue colander on my sideboard. I sliced them lengthwise and then delicately scooped out the ribs and the seeds. I didn’t want this salsa to be too spicy. I diced the chile peppers and then tossed them into the tomato mixture. Suddenly seeing the pot of oil start to smoke, I leaped quickly for the knob on the stove and knocked my cutting board to the floor, scattering the chopped remnants everywhere.
All right, time to slow down, I thought to myself.
I tossed the bits of rejected tomato tops, scallion ends, and whatever other food debris had been stacked on the side of my board into the trash and then gave the floor a quick wipe.
Suddenly I felt the capsaicin from the peppers roar on my fingertips. That burning sensation always crawls under my nails and into my fingerbeds when I’m least expecting it to. I should have worn food prep gloves for the task, but it seems like such a waste of plastic to seed two peppers. I scrunched my nose and squealed in pain as I scrubbed my hands with soap, but really all you can do is wait. Like so many events in the kitchen, time changes everything. I opened a beer and shuffled off to get myself ready.
Lipstick painted carefully within the heart of my lips, I reentered the kitchen. Just as I finished frying the last corn tortilla triangle and dumped the pico de gallo into a serving bowl, there was a knock at the door. My first guests had arrived with arms full of drinks and treats. Hugs began, dogs barked and leaped, coats were flung onto beds, wine corks popped. More guests came and then more and, before you knew it, the party was in full force.
I remember I was standing in my open kitchen, refilling a bowl with dip while talking to my neighbor, Wendy, and we both looked down to see Lulu crying and walking very strangely. She was kind of marching, lifting one paw up almost to her chin and then switching to the other paw, raised equally high. Cry, squeal, pant, march. Again and again. I’ve never seen anything like it.
“What’s up with your dog?” Wendy asked, taking a chip from the table and dipping it in the bowl I was holding.
“I have no idea. She’s never done anything like this before.” I set the dip down and squatted to get closer to Lulu. She was panting really intensely. And crying. And putting the tips of her paws in her mouth momentarily. I started to get nervous. I’d never seen a dog act this way, and I’ve had dogs all my life. What was going on?
“Come here, little bean. What is it, Lu?” I asked in a baby voice I’m not proud of. Gently placing one of her paws into my hands, it hit me. She must have stepped on one of the serrano pepper seeds. It burned her paw, which she then put in her mouth to try to cool, and that spread the heat from paw to mouth to the other paw.
“I think I know what this is! I knocked my cutting board over, and I bet it had seeds on it! What are we going to do? She’s freaking out!” Lulu wasn’t losing it nearly as much as I was now.
Wendy was doubled over in laughter. More guests came into the open kitchen to watch the march of Lulu.
“Hut two three four!” Doug called out.
“Hut two three four!” others joined the march call.
Seeing my face, Wendy knew it wasn’t the best time to tease. “Lulu will be ok. What do they always say? Milk cuts the sting of peppers, right?”
“Right!” I said, grabbing a bowl from the shelf and the 2% from the fridge.
“Beer’s supposed to work too!” Pepe suggested while giggling from the hallway. Word had spread through the party of my beagle’s torment, and everyone was trying to help… or have a laugh at my expense.
I wrestled to get Lulu’s paws in the milk. She stared at me but continued to cry. It did nothing. I poured a little beer into another bowl, but that didn’t seem to work either.
“Time, my little one. This will magically go away any minute now.” I pulled my furry best friend as close to me as she would allow. Everyone laughed and awwed. Her pain faded after about 15 minutes, and the party raved into the night.
I remembered this ordeal last week as I test drove a new recipe for a March Madness party I’m catering. Granted, I was working with jalapenos, not serranos, which are much hotter, but I was still careful to make sure that all the seeds went into the bin and not on the floor. Amelia is like a Hoover vacuum in my home kitchen and she would have been in hell. Lulu was a brave dog, Amelia– not so much.
And what was I that recipe I was test-driving? It was this enchilada stuffed baby peppers, which is cheesy and spicy and the perfect snack food for a day when you’re watching many games and drinking many beers. No dogs allowed.
Enchilada Stuffed Baby Peppers
Makes 40 servings
- 10 baby red and yellow peppers
- 10 jalapeno peppers
- Oil for drizzling
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Slice the peppers in half the long way and then seed them. Place them on a sheet pan and drizzle them with a bit of oil.
- Roast them for 20 minutes while you make the enchilada sauce.
- ½ onion
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1 tablespoon oil
- ½ teaspoon Mexican oregano
- ½ teaspoon cumin
- 1 tablespoon flour (or gluten-free flour)
- 1 teaspoon tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 ¼ cup water
- ¼ cup chili powder (NOT ground chiles or chile powder but chili powder which is a mixture of a few spices and salt)
- 1/2 cup cotija cheese
- 2 tablespoons sour cream
- 1 scallion, chopped
- 1/2 cup Monterey jack cheese, grated
- 1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped
- Place the onion and garlic in a food processor and pulse until they are very finely chopped.
- Heat the oil in a medium pan and then add the onion/ garlic mixture. When the onions start to soften and take on some color, stir in the oregano, the cumin, and the flour. Cook the roux for a minute, stirring with a plastic spatula. Add the tomato paste and then the lemon juice. Let simmer on low heat while you get the chili powder ready.
- Mix the chile powder with the water. Pour the mixture into the pan and turn up the heat. Let simmer for 5 minutes. Place sauce in a large bowl. After it’s cooled for a few minutes, mix the cotija cheese and the sour cream into the sauce. Mix in the chopped scallion.
Assembling the peppers
- Using a spoon, scoop the sauce into the peppers and then sprinkle the Monterey jack cheese over the peppers.
- Bake for another 5 minutes. Sprinkle with cilantro if that’s your thing. If you think cilantro tastes like dish soap, skip this step.
And here’s me cooking these on Afternoon Live on KATU (click on the pic!)