The Chilehead Challenge

Blogging has many rewards. It is a nice way of keeping track of my own recipes, it is great to receive feedback from all over the world, and it is wonderful to learn so much and get so many new ideas from other bloggers. Blogging has also turned out to be a great way to meet wonderful people. Some of the highlights so far have been Conor’s visit and a surprise invitation to dinner by Teun and Albert. And I won’t even begin to mention all the great people I’ve so far only interacted with online.

Richard McGary of REMCooks is a mutual blogging buddy of Conor and myself. After Conor’s visit, Kees knows him as ‘the pouring shot guy’. Richard always has great recipes and I’ve already prepared quite a lot of them to great success. Richard and his wife the Baby Lady are very fond of bold flavors, which is clear from the high number of recipes with chile peppers on  I have no qualms in calling them chileheads, because they are proud to refer to themselves that way.

I never used to eat a lot of spicy food, but over the years I’ve grown more used to it and now I am cooking pretty spicy dishes on a regular basis. Still, I tease Richard now and then when he posts yet another chile recipe. Also because he uses all kinds of chile peppers that I am not familiar with. Richard probably thought it was time both Conor and myself would get more familiar with chile peppers, because as a gift from him we both received a box from Texas in the mail that was filled with all kinds of chile peppers! The box contained enough capsaicin to eradicate a small village 😉
There were 7 kinds of dried chiles: New Mexico Sandia (mild, hot, and XX-hot), Pasilla Negro, Guajillo, Ancho, and Chipotle. Also included were three jars with goodies made by Richard himself: Pickled chipotles, Jalapeños en Escabeche and Ancho Chile Rub.

The package came with a letter that contained a challenge.

“Now I know you love to cook and try different things, so, if you are up to it, I have a challenge for you with this basket full of ingredients. You MUST use a MINIMUM of 5 of the items in the basket to prepare 1 entrée with any protein or veggie of your choosing. As an FYI, I have prepared a similar basket for Conor with a similar challenge.”

How could we do anything but take up the challenge?

I hadn’t cooked before with any of the stuff Richard sent, so to start with I familiarized myself with these new ingredients by preparing some dishes with them. The first thing I made was Ancho Chile Crusted Tuna with a Tomato Salsa with Pickled Chipotles and Zucchini with Pickled Jalapeños. This was just something I made up and it was absolutely wonderful. It was pretty spicy but not too spicy.

I also tried to prepare one of Richard’s recipes: Pork Chipotle Burgers stuffed with cheese. It was absolutely wonderful! I didn’t know what chipotles were and although I had noticed Richard describing them as having a smoky flavor, I had no idea they are actually smoked jalapeño chiles! The smokiness of the pork burgers was absolutely wonderful.

By now I had only tried three of the ten items in the package, so I decided to speed things up a little by trying four of the dried chile peppers at the same time and comparing their taste and heat. I prepared a simple recipe: chicken simmered in a tomato and pepper sauce, with the pepper sauce containing sweet bell peppers as well as hot chile peppers. I toasted the chile peppers as per Richard’s instructions and soaked them in hot chicken broth. Then I chopped them and simmered them in the tomato and bell pepper sauce with the chicken, with each chile pepper in a separate pan. This way I tried New Mexico Sandia Chile (mild), New Mexico Sandia Chile (hot), Pasilla Negro, and Guajillo. I only used half of a dried pepper for each batch as I had no idea about the heat, but only the Pasilla Negro turned out to be hot and was actually my favorite.

It was time to cook something for the challenge! I could have just cooked one of Richard’s recipes (not hard to find one that uses 5 types of chile 😉 ) but felt that the dish for the challenge needed to be something that I thought of myself. Something Italian style would be a logical choice, and so I thought I’d do a riff on Penne all’Arrabbiata. Since I liked the burger with the chipotles so much, I made it a double riff and also based the dish on Ragù alla Napoletano. Teun and Albert had just taught me how to make a foam, so I decided to include a foam as well. And so without further ado here is my answer to Richard’s Challenge: Penne all’Arrabbiata with Napoletano Meatballs and Chile Pecorino FoamFor this dish I used 7 out of the 10 items in the package, so the condition of the challenge has certainly been met 🙂

The dish worked out great, loaded with lots of flavor and just the right amount of heat. The smokiness of the chipotles (both in the sauce and in the meatballs) was overwhelmed a bit by all the other flavors, but otherwise the dish turned out just like I had imagined it would be. Are you curious what Conor did with the challenge? You can read his post here.

Over the last weeks I’ve eaten more chile peppers than ever before and I’ve really enjoyed myself. It has been great to get to know some new flavors. The chile peppers are not as hot as I feared and in fact most of them carry less heat than the dried red chile peppers that I use for Asian and Italian cooking.

I can’t thank Richard enough for the wonderful gift and inspiration! My favorite without a doubt is the pickled chipotles — I’ve already used up all that Richard sent over, so now I’ll have to make my own batch. Perhaps you noticed I didn’t touch the dried ancho chiles yet? That’s because I’m planning to prepare one of Richard’s dishes with them…


For 4 servings

1 dried New Mexico Sandia chile (mild) *1*

1 dried New Mexico Sandia chile (h0t) *2*

1 dried Pasilla Negro chile *3*

1 dried Guajillo chile *4*

1 chipotle *5*

2 pickled chipotles *6*

500 grams (1.1 lbs) stewing beef

2 pork ribs

2 garlic cloves

1 onion

120 ml (1/2 cup) red wine


2 cans (400 grams/14 oz each) peeled tomatoes

4 Tbsp chopped flatleaf parsley

100 grams (3.5 oz) freshly grated pecorino cheese

70 grams (2.5 oz) stale bread without crusts

2 eggs

olive oil

300 grams (.66 lbs) penne rigate

flour for dusting

For the chile pecorino foam

1 New Mexico Sandia Chile (X-hot) *7*

20 grams (2 Tbsp) freshly grated pecorino cheese

120 ml (1/2 cup) boiling water

1.25 grams lecithin powder


A gratuitous meat shot for Conor — notice the nice marbling

Cut the beef into chunks.

Brown the beef and the pork ribs in batches in olive oil over high heat in a Dutch oven or casserole.

Set the browned meat aside.

Thinly slice the onion. Mince the garlic. Stem, seed, and split the chile peppers.

Sauté the onions in the remaining oil (add some more olive oil if needed) over low heat until soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Make sure to scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spatula to catch all the tasty bits.

Add the garlic and chile peppers (except for the chipotle) and sauté for a minute longer.

Add the red wine. Cook, stirring, until reduced by half.

Whiz the tomatoes in the food processor and add them.

Add the chipotle.

Add the meat, including the juices that have leaked out. Season with salt.

Bring to a boil, stirring, and then reduce the heat to low.

Cover and allow to simmer for about 5 hours. Stir now and then.

The meat should be very tender.

Allow the ragù to cool off. You can speed up this process by putting the casserole in cold water.

Meanwhile, start preparing the foam. Remove the stem and the seeds of the chile pepper. Split it in half and toast the chile pepper by pressing it down for 5 seconds on each side in a hot pan.

Put the chile pepper in a heat proof bowl and cover with 120 ml (1/2 cup) of boiling water.

Stir and bash the chile pepper a bit to extract more flavor out of it.

Add the grated pecorino as soon as the temperature of the water has dropped below 55C/131F (otherwise the cheese will melt and clump together). Let stand for half an hour or so to extract the flavor.

Take the meat out of the sauce. Remove the bones and cartilage from the ribs.

Beat the eggs briefly in the food processor.

Roughly chop the meat from the ragù and add it to the bowl of the food processor. Add bread, grated pecorino, 3 Tbsp parsley, and pickled chipotles.

Process until homogeneous.

Make small meatballs out of the meat mixture and dust them with flour.

Continue until you have used up all of the meat mixture.

Fry the meatballs in olive oil over high heat in a non-stick pan until they are nicely browned.

Drain on paper towels to get rid of excess oil.

Puree the tomato sauce with an immersion blender until it is smooth.

Put the meatballs in the sauce, bring to a simmer and simmer the meatballs in the sauce for 15 minutes or so.

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add salt and penne pasta and cook al dente according to package instructions.

Filter the cheese and chile pepper to obtain chile and pecorino infused water.

Weigh the water. The amount of lecithin should be exactly 1.25% of the water.

Use precision scales to measure the lecithin.

Add the lecithin to the infused water and use an immersion blender to create foam.

Use a spoon to lift off the foam.

Put the foam on a sieve and allow to drain for a few minutes. Use the immersion blender again to create more foam and repeat until you have a sufficient amount of foam.

The foam should be done and the meatballs should be warmed through by the time the pasta is ready.

Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce with the meatballs, together with the remaining tablespoon of parsley.

Toss to mix.

Serve on warm plates, topped with a bit of the chile pecorino foam.

Wine pairing

We enjoyed a nice aglianico from around Naples with this dish. The wine needs to be full bodied but also sufficiently fruity to work well with the heat of the sauce.

42 thoughts on “The Chilehead Challenge

  1. Love how the pair of you went in completely different directions with your chilies. This looks delicious. I hope you had a cool beer or a glass of milk on hand because if Dad’s dish is anything to go by, those chilies were hot! 🙂


    1. Hi Lucy, great to hear from you. I was worrying I’d offended you by leaving a comment on your blog stating you take after your dad when it comes to blogging — that was really one of the biggest compliments I could give anyone! (But I just noticed you don’t feel that way as the comment is still awaiting moderation. I don’t like being told I take after my parents either, so I understand.)
      It was quite hot indeed, and we had some nice wine on hand 🙂


  2. Oh what huge fun! And Conor’s ‘offering’ is the next one in my mail!! I shall not call myself a ‘chilehead’, but since I am au fait with both Thai and Madras curries I don’t think there is a problem there. Grew 7- 8 different chillies myself in the herb garden: sadly all finished – hmm: shopping tomorrow . . . shall try and copy as close as I can [we do not have half the Mexican ones here!], but foams are not quite ‘my thing’ . . . vive la difference! Thanks !!!


  3. Fun Post … I actually smoked some chilies (not Jalapeno) in my stovetop smoker a few years back and then dried them at low temp in the oven after… worked nicely!


  4. I love cooking with chiles and I am glad Richard is slowly converting the Europeans into chileheads 🙂 the dish looks great! looking forward to reading about your other chile dishes!


    1. Thanks 🙂 I’m not really turning into a chilehead — my tastebuds seem to have adjusted but my body hasn’t! I get a slight fever and my stomach makes funny noises after having a dish like this 😉


  5. I don’t know why but I’ve been laughing throughout this post. Stefan, these are some of the most innovative ways I’ve seen to incorporate chile peppers into dishes. Fabulous!!! And I’m so glad you’ve now had chipotle peppers – one of the most wonderful flavors when they’re canned in adobo sauce. You’re completely successful in this challenge! Bravo!


  6. All I can say, Stefan, is whoaaa Nellie!!!! I send you a bunch of rustic dried chiles and you produce an elegant and flavorful Italian masterpiece, with a foam no less. I’m unbelievably impressed!! Like I told Conor, it’s always fun to see what people do with the unfamiliar. The 2 of you took radically different approaches but accomplished unbelievably delicious meals. Also, each one is very different from the traditional approaches I do with the chiles. Living and learning is wonderful and we learn a lot every time we drop by your blog. You have such impeccable, refined technique. We truly enjoy seeing what you do and your approach. Magnificent!!! I can just imagine the character, depth of flavor and texture of the meal. WOW! Had I known you would have liked the pickled chipotles as much as you do I would have sent you a half pint and I regret not doing so. Oh, well. Baby Lady and I are thrilled you have had fun with the chiles and love what you accomplished in the challenge. We also thoroughly enjoyed reading the post. 🙂 I’m looking forward to the dessert. I think you will absolutely love it and I can’t wait to see your spin on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Richard, glad to hear you like what I did with your wonderful gift and challenge! Thanks again for your generosity and inspiration. Your blog has already been a major source of inspiration, but now you have impacted my cooking even more. Great idea to send the same challenge to Conor, which made it even more fun.


        1. I wouldn’t call that particularly relaxing, but it sure is a lot of fun. The relaxing part is doing it only 4 times a year, and it is about as busy as I ever get (work included!). I’d say my activity level while working or cooking is about the same.


  7. That was some challenge and you both met it head-on, Stefan! Your approaches were completely different but the results the same: delicious dishes, though you did throw in some foam. 😉
    And both of you have now cooked with a larger variety of chilies than I ever have — and probably ever will. 🙂


  8. Oh wow. Both of you are amazing! I can’t believe how many dishes (and different cuisines!) you’ve both tried in the past few days. I love the sound of this dish Stefan. Especially the slow-cooked ragu (I would have happily eaten that on its own!). Now I want Richard to send me a challenge!! Not against you and Conor though, as I think I would fail miserably 😉


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