Flavor Jolts: Citrus and Chiles (How to make anything taste delicious)


As this winter drags on, and the snow keeps falling, my thoughts drift to the woman we met in Southern Italy with her giant bottle of fig conserve. I love the photo of her–the big smile and her joy in having a supply of flavor to last all winter. If I were the one in the photo, my jar of winter flavor would be full of the brightness of citrus and the heat of chiles.

Fig Preserve

If I had just one bottle of something wonderful to get me through the winter, it would Justin’s Smoked Jalapeno Sauce. Justin takes red-ripe jalapeno peppers (he chooses them because they are thick fleshed, hot, and fruity), smokes them in his dad’s smoker (a metal box holding a gas flame, pan of wood chips, and racks for holding layers of chiles), blends the smoked chiles with vinegar, and puts the sauce in jars. Delicious, un-messed-with chile flavor.

Justin's Hot Sauce

I use Justin’s sauce frequently–a little slug in a pot of beans or stew, mixed with diced tomato and fresh herbs for salsa, mashed with avocado and diced onion for guacamole, blended with soft cheese, or splashed into a tapenade or hummus. Perhaps the most memorable use of this sauce was the Thanksgiving Day Bloody Mary prepared by Justin’s cousin– a flavor slam including green olives stuffed with blue cheese, celery, and pepperoncini in addition to the Smoked Jalapeno Sauce.

The sauce is a great stand-in for fresh chiles because it has such a bright, pure taste. It’s the kind of sauce that makes you say, “Wow. If you bottled and sold this stuff, you could get rich!” But that’s the point– processing changes the flavor. What you make at home with fresh ingredients tastes better. With a good supply of fresh lemons and limes, a jar of preserved lemons, and plenty of fresh and dried chiles, you can make anything taste good.


What a great name! This is what to make if you don’t have a supply of Justin’s Smoked Jalapeno Salsa. Zhoug is an herb-packed green chile salsa created by the Yemeni community in Israel.

Ingredients: 3 medium-hot green chiles (Anaheim or Hungarian Wax), 1 jalapeno or serrano chile, 1 cup chopped cilantro leaves, 1/2 cup chopped parsley leaves, 1 Tbs minced garlic, 1 Tbs. finely chopped preserved lemon or fresh lemon juice, 1/2 tsp sea salt, 1 tsp toasted and ground cumin seed, 1/4 tsp ground cardamom, 1/8 tsp ground cloves

Stem, seed, and chop the chiles. Use a large mortar and pestle or food processor to pound or chop all the ingredients to make a thick salsa.

Serve zhoug with pita breads and anything you would like to stuff into them–grilled meats or chicken, lentil or chickpea salad, hummus, roasted vegetables…Or put a bowl on the table to liven up hearty soups, lentil and beans dishes, and grain salads.



A North African chile -spice paste, Harissa can be fiery hot or moderately hot, depending on the amount and type of chiles used. I like to make it with fresh roasted red chiles when they ripen in the fall, but dried chiles work any time of year. Use any variety of hot red chiles, choosing your heat level from mildly-hot poblano (ancho) or New Mexico-type chiles to red ripe jalapeno, cayenne, or hotter.

Ingredients: 9 to 12 oz. fresh red hot chiles, or 4 or 5 ancho or dried New Mexico/ California chiles (2 oz, or 3/4 cup small dried hot chiles (about 1 1/2 oz), 1 tsp coriander seeds, 1 tsp cumin seeds, 1 1/2 tsp caraway seeds, 4 to 6 lightly smashed garlic cloves, 1 medium-small onion or 2 to 3 shallots, 2 finely chopped sundried tomatoes or 1 1/2 tsp tomato paste (optional), 2 to 4 Tbs olive oil, 2 to 3 Tbs lemon juice, 1/2 tsp salt

Roast fresh chiles over a gas flame or grill fire until the skin is blistered and charred all over. Put them in a bowl and cover with a towel to let the steam loosen the skins. Peel and seed, unless you want extra heat. Toast dried chiles briefly; cover with warm water and soak 30 to 40 minutes, until soft. Dry roast the cumin and caraway 30 seconds or so, and the coriander seed 1 to 2 minutes on a heavy skillet over medium heat. Cool, and grind to a powder. Slice the onion or shallots about 1/3-inch thick and dry roast 5 to 6 minutes per side.

Put all the ingredients in a food processor (drain, seed, and chop soaked chiles) and process to a smooth paste. Add more olive oil or water to thin. Store in a small jar with a thin layer of olive oil on top. Harissa wiil keep in the refrigerator 2 to 3 weeks, or in the freezer up to 3 months.

Use Harissa as a condiment for grilled meats or roasted vegetables, stir it into soups and stews, or serve it with couscous or rice pilaf. Combine some harissa with extra virgin olive oil or yogurt for dipping bread or steamed vegetables. My favorite: harissa and goat cheese smeared on a cracker or tortilla.


Dried Peppers

Romesco is the great pepper sauce of Spain, rich with toasted nuts and flavored with the mildly spicy nyora pepper. The ancho chile of Mexico is easily available and makes a reasonable substitute.

Ingredients: 1 large ancho chile, 1 head roasted garlic, 1/4 cup toasted almonds or hazelnuts, 2 plum tomatoes (roasted, oven-dried, or canned), 1 large roasted red bell pepper (fresh or canned), 2 garlic cloves mashed with a pinch of coarse salt, 2 tsp red wine vinegar, 2 tsp balsamic vinegar, 1/8 tsp red chile flakes or cayenne, salt and black pepper

Split the ancho chile in half, remove the stem and seeds, and toast 15 to 20 seconds on a hot skillet. Cover the chile with warm water and soak until soft, 30 to 40 minutes.

Use a food processor to finely chop the almonds. Add the drained and chopped chile and roasted garlic cloves and process to a paste. Add the tomato, peeled and seeded bell pepper, raw garlic, and 2 Tbs olive oil and process to a smooth puree. Season to taste with vinegar, hot chile, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stir in more olive oil as desired.

Variations (of which there are many!): Make the sauce with 2 ancho chiles and omit the roasted red bell pepper. Or make the sauce with a combination of roasted red bell peppers and Harissa or other chile paste. Add 1/4 cup fine toasted bread crumbs to the puree to thicken the sauce.

Romesco is a delicious topping for fish or grilled meats, a seasoning for braises, or a sauce for steamed new potatoes, grilled or braised leeks or spring onions, or roasted fennel or cauliflower.

*Thai Chile-Garlic Paste: A simple way to brighten your life, as well as your food.

Put it on a tortilla

Put a little dab on anything that needs the spark of life–noodles, fried rice, scrambled eggs….Mix some with equal parts lime juice, toasted sesame oil, and soy sauce to make a dressing for Asian noodle salads.

Ingredients: 4 fresh serrano chiles (or 2 Thai bird and 1 or 2 jalapeno chiles), 1 Tbs chopped garlic, 1/8 tsp coarse sea salt, 1 Tbs fresh lime juice, 1/2 tsp lime zest

Seed, stem, and chop the chiles. Pound the chiles, garlic, and salt together using a mortar and pestle. Stir in the lime juice and zest.

 Yuzu Kosho

Yuzu Kosho is a Japanese chile-citrus paste. Yuzu is a fragrant-skinned lemon-like Japanese citrus that, like the bitter limes or sour oranges of Mexico, is hard to duplicate. I use Meyer lemon or a combination of orange, lemon, and grapefruit zests. I made an experimental batch with equal parts of Justin’s Smoked Jalapeno Sauce and preserved lemons and oranges. Unconventional, but outrageously good!

Ingredients: 3 to 4 Tbs citrus zest, 4 small fresh green or red chiles (something like a Thai bird chile or serrano), 1 Tbs coarse sea salt or more, to taste

Use a microplane (it will change your life) to remove the zest. Put the zest (or substitute equal amount preserved lemon) in a mortar with the seeded and chopped chiles and salt. Grind to paste. Store in a small glass jar in the refrigerator.

Eat this with roasted root vegetables, a bowl of noodles or rice, or with stir-fries. I ate it on everything until it was gone.

 Quick Pickled Lemons from Jerusalem (the cookbook)

While I waited (actually, I didn’t) four weeks for my preserved lemons to become more delicious, as Ottalenghi and Tamimi promised, I tried another of their recipes. These lemon slices are ready to eat in just 24 hours and are just as quick to become an addictive condiment. Playing around with the spices is fun–more or less chile, maybe a little fennel, cardamom, or black pepper…I added a little fresh thyme to some, rosemary another time.

Ingredients: 1 small red chile (fresh or dried), 3 Tbs fresh lemon juice, 3 organic unwaxed lemons (I used Meyer), 1 1/2 tsp coarse sea salt, 1 crushed garlic clove, 1/4 tsp toasted and ground cumin seed, 1/2 tsp toasted and ground coriander seeds, 1 tsp sweet or hot paprika, sugar (optional)

Seed and chop the chile. Using a mortar and pestle, pound the chile to a paste with a pinch of salt and 1 tsp lemon juice (include the garlic clove in the paste for stronger garlic flavor). Cut the lemons in half, or quarters if large. Slice crosswise as thinly as possible. Put all the ingredients into a bowl and rub the flavorings into the lemon slices with your hands. Add 1 to 3 Tbs sugar, if you like. The Meyer lemons are sweet enough for me without sugar. Leave covered for 24 hours. Transfer to a clean glass container with a tight fitting lid. Store in the refrigerator up to 2 weeks.

Serve these slices with couscous and rice dishes, stews and braises, salads and sandwiches, dips and spreads… any time you want some bright, sharp flavor.


2 thoughts on “Flavor Jolts: Citrus and Chiles (How to make anything taste delicious)

  1. Justin’s hot source got me through the hospital and rehab stay — adding a jolt to the flavorless food they served. If only I’d had some of your concoctions as well!

  2. Pingback: Meal in a Bowl: Central Asian Rice and Beans… | louiselangsner

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