All living things must eat, but without the ability to distinguish what is good to eat from what is not, none of us would eat for very long. Through trial and error, we eventually collect foods that reflect not just our own taste, but the tastes of our culture.
Sometimes, it requires resolving apparent contradictions. Something, for example, has to tell us that smelly fish will make us sick, but that smelly cheese will not. That's where the tongue, the nose and the brain work together on all matters of taste. Those information centers help us decide that peanut butter really does go with chocolate, and that we should risk the breaking of family traditions with a carrot in the honeycake or coriander in the tzimmes.
Being the most experimental omnivores on the planet, we are naturally attracted by a wide range of foodstuffs, but this very diversity has forced us, at the same time, to become innately suspicious of new foods.
After all, we never know whether a new flavor will be pleasant and safe without tasting it first, and we must constantly decide whether that initial taste is worth the risk.
Is it any wonder that many of us grow suspicious of specks on our pasta (especially children), or become unnerved by the prospect of curry in a pot roast? Although we may relish the masochistic pleasure of incinerating our tongues with chili overcome by hot pepper, we flinch involuntarily when the same flame ignites a honeycake.
So this New Year, I encourage you to break new ground by sparking your wishes for sweetness, coupled with a desire for a little heat.
Sweet-and-Spicy Corn Pudding
2 cans (15 oz. each) corn kernels, drained
2 cans (15 oz. each) cream-style corn
2 cups sour cream
3 eggs, large or extra-large, separated
2 tsps. hot-pepper sauce
2 Tbsps. butter, melted
1 package (8.5 oz.) corn-muffin mix
nonstick spray oil
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Combine corn, cream corn, sour cream, egg yolks, hot sauce, butter and corn-muffin mix.
Spray a 9×13-inch baking dish with oil.
Beat the egg whites to a soft peak and fold into the batter.
Pour into the baking dish, and bake for 45 minutes until browned and springy in the center.
Spicy White Corn Sticks With Hot-Pepper Honey
2 Tbsps. minced onion
3 Tbsps. kosher margarine
3/4 cup white cornmeal
1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cayenne
3 Tbsps. sugar
11/2 tsp. baking powder
1 extra-large egg, separated
1 cup nondairy creamer
1 Tbsp. corn oil
Hot-Pepper Honey (recipe follows)
In a small skillet, sauté the onion in a teaspoon of the margarine until soft. Add the remaining margarine and stir until melted. Set aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Place a seven-stick iron corn stick pan (or mini-muffin tin) in the oven.
In a mixing bowl combine the cornmeal, flour, salt, cayenne, sugar and baking powder. Mix well.
Stir in the reserved sautéed onion and melted butter, followed by egg yolk and the creamer.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg white until firm. Fold into the batter.
With a thick pot holder, remove the hot pan from the oven and brush well with corn oil.
Fill each stick slot two-thirds of the way full with batter. Bake for 15 minutes.
Remove carefully and serve hot with the Hot-Pepper Honey.
Serves 4 to 6.
6 Tbsps. honey
33/4 tsps. hot-pepper sauce
Whisk honey with hot-pepper sauce. Serve with corn muffins, corn sticks or warm biscuits.
Spicy-Sweet Apricot Game Hens
4 Cornish game hens
salt and pepper to taste
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
3 Tbsps. walnut oil
1 cup apricot preserves
juice of 1 lemon
2-3 tsps. hot-pepper sauce
11/2 Tbps. Worcestershire sauce
Wash and dry the hens, inside and out.
Rub the interior cavities of the hens with salt and pepper, mixed with half the garlic. Set on a rack in a roasting pan, and roast at 425 degrees for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, brown the onion in the oil. Add remaining garlic and cook another 30 seconds.
Remove from heat, and mix with walnut oil, apricot preserves, lemon juice, hot-pepper sauce, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper.
After the hens have roasted for 15 minutes, baste with the apricot glaze, turn the oven down to 375 degrees, and roast another 35 to 40 minutes, basting every 5 to 10 minutes, until all of the glaze has been used and the hens are deeply browned.
Pepper Poached Pears
11/2 cups water
11/2 cups kosher white wine
1 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. black peppercorns
3/4 inch ginger root, sliced
1 cinnamon stick
1/8 tsp. salt
pinch of crushed red pepper
tsp. wine vinegar
4 firm pears, peeled, halved and cored
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
In a small saucepan, combine the water, wine, sugar, peppercorns, ginger root, cinnamon, cloves, salt, crushed red pepper and vinegar. Bring to a boil.
Add the pears, and turn the heat down so that the liquid simmers. Cook for 10 minutes, until the pears are tender. Turn the pears every few minutes so that they cook evenly.
When the pears are uniformly tender, remove to a plate. Reduce the liquid in the pan by half. Strain into a bowl.
Add the vanilla, and return the pears to the liquid to cool.
Serve the pears at room temperature. They are perfect over ice-cream or with pound cake.
21/2 cup sifted flour
2 tsps. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. powdered cloves
1/2 tsp. dried mustard
1/2 tsp. white pepper
1/2 tsp. black pepper
pinch cayenne pepper
1/4 lb. kosher margarine
2 Tbsps. grated fresh ginger
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup dark molasses
2 Tbsps. instant coffee powder
1 cup boiling water
nondairy whipped topping (optional)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Sift the flour with the baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, mustard and peppers. Set aside.
With an electric mixer, beat the margarine. Add the ginger and the sugar, and beat for 1 minute, scraping bowl as needed to keep the mixture smooth.
Add the eggs one at a time and the molasses. Beat just long enough to mix completely.
Dissolve the instant coffee powder in the boiling water. On low speed, alternately add the sifted dry ingredients in three additions and the coffee in two additions.
Pour the batter into a 9-inch square baking pan which has been greased and dusted with flour.
Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until the cake is springy and a tester inserted in the center comes out with just a few crumbs clinging to it.
Cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes.
Invert and remove from pan and cool right-side up.
Cut into 9 squares and serve warm, with nondairy whipped topping, if desired.
Andrew Schloss is a food-industry consultant and a cookbook author. His current book is Almost From Scratch: 600 Recipes for the New Convenience Cuisine.