Hot and Thorny Issues

The Kitchn’s Cooking Scool
Lesson 3

Roasting vegetables has become a comfortable way to cook for me. I fell in love with it when I was in France and my mother came to visit. We usually went out to eat since the town I was living in—Aix-en-Provence—had so many wonderful little restaurants and cafes. When we did eat in, however, we would do simple things like salads. I remember not knowing exactly what to do one evening and just cut up a bunch of vegetables and stuck them in the oven. I remember that beetroots came out so sweet. Bell peppers—a vegetable I had not particularly liked—also came out of the oven tender and sweet. I was hooked.

These days, whenever I’m too lazy to think of what I want to eat that week, I buy a few of my favorite vegetables, like eggplant, bell pepper, carrot, broccoli, and just roast them. My most recent triumph with roast vegetables was when I roasted beetroot the Tamar Adler–style, with a bit of water at the bottom of the pan and covered with tin foil. It was delicious. You can check out how I used those roast beets here.

So I was excited that one of the homework in the vegetable lesson was to try cooking a vegetable I was scared of or that was new to me. I knew right away that I wanted to try cha-om, or climbing wattle, because of all those thorns on the stem. The climbing wattle has this strange and not-entirely refreshing smell. It’s the opposite of aromatic herbs like mint, sage, rosemary, basil, and Italian parsley. But it’s delicious when the leaves—no thorns in the picture—are fried with eggs. You can eat this cha-om khai with nahm prik kapi (shrimp paste relish), along with fresh, boiled, or steamed vegetables. People also put it in spicy soups, most notably gang som (sour orange curry) cha-om khai.

While I was shopping for cha-om, I also found some jalapeno peppers, grown right here in Thailand by the Royal Project. I’m Thai, but I don’t deal that well with chilies and that type of heat in food. Since I don’t know much about this kind of pepper, why not give it a go?

Here’s how it went with cha-om and jalapeno peppers.

The Hot Issue
As soon as grabbed that bag of jalapeno peppers, I started searching for a recipe online and found a super-easy and delicious-sounding jalapeno cream recipe on the Food Network website. It involves few ingredients, all of them can be easily found in the supermarket. I could use this dish for dips or as a topping for grilled chicken. Perfect.

Now, I had handled chili peppers before making this dish. I had cooked Thai dishes that have chilies in them. I had never had any problem or terrible accident with this vegetable. In fact, I had just made some krapow moo (stir-fry pork with chili and holy basil) that same afternoon. There was no need to wear any extra protection on my hands.

Well, let’s just say I didn’t do my homework/research thoroughly enough. I thought I had. I even tasted a sliver to see whether my mouth would be able to handle the heat. It could.

My hands, however, barely survived that night. Half an hour after I had sliced, de-seeded, and put the peppers in the oven with my bare hands, my hands started to burn. The burning got worse by the hour. At one point my fingertips felt like they were on fire inside and out. This substance—whatever it’s called—burrows deep into your skin. It was extremely painful.

I Googled and tried different home remedies—rubbing olive oil on my hands; dipping my finger tips in a bowl of vinegar; putting my hands in very warm water, scrubbing them with soap, then rubbing them with oil, repeat five times. They got better, they got worse. They got better, they got worse. Off and on like this for a few hours. I became so dejected that I Facetimed my boyfriend and asked him to stay with me on the phone until the burning subsided and I could go to bed. He told me that when the same thing happened it him, the skin underneathe his fingernails stung for days. I kept saying to myself that this dish wasn’t worth all the pain that I was going through and swore that I would never cook with these peppers ever again in my life. It was all very dramatic. I thought I would never be able to go to sleep that night, but eventually, the pain subsided and went away. There was some lingering burning sensation on parts of my hands the next day though, but after hours of that terrible burning the night before, I felt I could handle anything.

Anyway, back to the actual recipe. I did finish making it after all. The recipe doesn’t actually tell you to roast the peppers, but I read that roasting will make the peppers sweeter. So I’m glad I did. The peppers were delicious after it had come out of the oven. And since I don’t like my food to be that spicy, I used three roast peppers instead of four. The result was delicious. I was simply glad it didn’t taste like resentment. I dipped bread in them. I ate pan-fried chicken tenderloin with them. I licked it off my finger. In the end, I’m glad I made the sauce.

I didn’t start off with fear of the jalapeno pepper. But along the way, I got really afraid of it, even hated it at one point. In the end, however, I made something delicous. Will there be a next time? Sure, but with gloves.

The Thorny Issue
After the jalapeno-pepper incident, I became extra careful with my hands. The last thing I needed was for my hands to bleed while cooking. So I just used a piece of cloth to hold the thorny stems of cha-om. It’s actually an easy vegetable to handle since you only need the leaves at the top of the stem for the dish. Just protect your hands, and all will be well.

My cha-om khai turned out well—flavor-wise. It’s a very simple dish that requires few ingredients—oil, cha-om, eggs, and maybe a teeny-tiny bit of salt, fish sauce, or soy sauce. You whisk all the ingredients together and pour the mixture into hot oil. You can check out the video of the eggs and cha-om being fried and the final result here. Looking back, there are a few things I would do differently. First, I would use more cha-om, a lot more. Second, I would fry it until it’s crispier and more golden, which means I would have to use less oil.

Now, the most important thing I learned, looking back, is that Thai recipes are not very precise, to put it mildly. Some recipes don’t bother listing oil as an ingredient. One video says that you shouldn’t use too much oil because the eggs will soak up the oil, but then you see them using what I would call a lot of oil for “not too much oil.” One website tells you to use the same amount of oil as you would for a Thai omelette, which is essentially deep-fried eggs. But then they posted a video that contradicts that entirely.

I still think this video and this video are the best ones I found. They’re both in Thai, but I think they can help even if you don’t understand the language. The cook in the first one also shows  you how to handle the vegetable. She uses her bare hands. I don’t think I’m that brave. She also emphasizes the cha-om:egg ratio. When you fry the mixture, it needs to look like there isn’t quite enough egg to envelop the vegetable.

Will there be a next time for this one? Absolutely, but not with my bare hands either.