This sauce evolved from an attempt to reproduce a local hot sauce I had alongside conch fritters in Coral Bay, St. John, USVI. The sauce was sold in a reused 10-ounce soda bottle with the cap still bearing the name of the bottle’s original contents and a handwritten label made of masking tape. Sweet, with a pumpkin flavor, and a cumin-laced curry spice. An assortment of capsicum Chinense chilies, the family of chilies that includes habaneros and Scotch bonnets, adds plenty of heat and deep, tropical fruity flavors. Honey and raw sugar sweetness bridges all of the flavor elements to a balanced and delicious sauce.
I love hot and spicy foods. I crave bold and lively flavors. Not to say that I don’t care for mild, savory and nuanced flavor, but given a choice, I would opt for hot.
I never experienced any hot foods as a kid growing up. Maybe the hottest thing I ever had was some red pepper flakes sprinkled on a slice of pizza or some cherry peppers on a hoagie. I remember all of my first truly zesty bites: hot mustard on an egg roll in a Chinese restaurant, Indian curry when the first Indian restaurant opened in my home town in Pennsylvania, and the cayenne peppers my dad decided to start growing in his garden while I was a university student.
The cayenne peppers. Like most university students, I was on a tight budget. Sophomore year I ventured into off-campus housing. I had to cook for myself! I was used to my mom’s great (not spicy) cooking, and she would load me up with a cooler full of leftovers whenever I came home for a weekend visit. I would scavenge anything that was producing in abundance in my dad’s massive garden. (One semester, my roommate and I lived mainly on potatoes, but that’s a different story.) Many early Fall weekends, I would come back to school with a shopping bag full of red and green cayenne peppers. They would go on everything I made; on pizza, nachos, in eggs, on sandwiches, barbecue sauce, on wings. Pretty much, you name it and in went the peppers. My roommate would plead, “Please don’t use those peppers; they’re making my stomach burn!” I would laugh, and in went even more peppers. Making the food hotter, in my mind, not only made it better, but if it slowed my roommate down, then I could get a larger share! That lasted a while, but eventually backfired when he started to crave the heat as much as me.
After graduation, it was off to apartment life and a new home with my future wife. I eventually took over as the cook for our household. I created my own gardens full of many varieties of hot chilies; usually jalapeno, serrano, cayenne, habanero, and the famed Red Savina. (Today’s garden has to include the superhot Bhut Jolokia and Trinidad Scorpion, too.)
I love to cook, and she did not. We made a deal, I would cook and she would clean. It’s not exactly a fair deal, so I do my share of clean up as well. She knew about my love of hot foods, and most of our meals were quite spicy. We ate a lot of stir fries, grilled meats and salsa. We still have a running joke where she pronounces the dish “inedible” due to the heat, but keeps eating. I kept a perpetual tub of sauce in the fridge, adding whatever crossed my mind to replenish it for years. The sauce went into pots of beans and got brushed onto broiled or grilled chicken and pork. The numbing of Szechwan peppercorns in that treasured bowl is seared into my memory.
I will admit to one truly inedible dish where I came home with a tub of Thai green curry paste, the label was unreadable. I just assumed that it would be good to mix with some coconut milk, heat it up and pour over some stir fried pork and eggplant. For good measure, because Thai green curry is supposed to be hot, I tossed in some green cayenne peppers. I used the entire tub of curry in a wok of food to feed two with some leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch. As soon as we took our first bite, it was clear that the Thai script on the tub of sauce indicated that only a very, very small amount was to be used.
So I learned over time to moderate the heat. Friends with delicate palates learned to sample with care; it was still too much for some. One guest commented that his ears were ringing from the heat, but he kept eating. Everything was not hot and spicy, but it was the major theme to my cooking. Our son was born, and while he was drinking milk and transitioning to solid food with pureed peas, squash and sweet potatoes, the adult meals were still leaning to piquant.
As our son began to eat regular food, and share our meals, it was clear that I would need to tone down the heat. I would give him some small tastes of mildly spicy foods trying to determine the threshold for various dishes. Once, just after he started to walk and talk, he was in the garden while I was pulling some weeds. I heard the familiar crunch of a fresh pepper being bitten. I looked over and there he was, sitting on the ground munching on a jalapeno. I was proud and alarmed at the same time. “How does that taste, buddy?” I cautiously inquired. “Good,” came his small voice through the lush, dense plants.
“Wow, how is that possible?” I wondered. The answer came soon as he urgently asked for water. And after that, anything with more than half a turn of the pepper mill was deemed by him to be SPICY!
What was I going to do? I had a garden with 300 peppers plants, a freezer with gallons of frozen peppers, canning jars full of pickled hot peppers, and jar upon jar of powdered dried hot peppers. Hot sauce was the answer. Hot sauces allow me to preserve the character of the hot dishes I love, they allow others to adjust the heat to their liking, and now anything can be made hot on demand. We have meals that feature pools of different sauces around the edge of the plate, allowing us to mix flavors to our preference.
I eventually settled into maybe half a dozen recipes that I worked to refine. We each have our favorites, and know which dish we prefer with each sauce. We eat a lot of hot sauce every day. And it makes a great gift, too. Friends are thrilled to get a basket of hot sauces, handmade with ingredients from our own gardens. A nice bottle and label adds a final touch to the presentation.
Trinidad Harvest Hot Sauce
4 T whole coriander
4T cumin seeds
1T yellow mustard seeds
1T fennel seeds
25 pods Chile de Arbol, stemmed
2T freshly ground cinnamon
4T black peppercorns
1t ground nutmeg
2t whole cloves
1T decorticated cardamom seeds
1T fresh turmeric powder
1T fresh ground ginger powder
You may vary the spices to suit your taste. Sometimes I add fenugreek instead of nutmeg, sometimes I bump up one of the spices (cumin, for example) to get a certain profile, and other times I may use different chilies (Thai bird or dried habaneros). Habanero seemed redundant here, so I used Chile de Arbol which I have in great supply thanks to some ristras I made from last summer’s garden.
Heat a dry skillet over low heat. I like to use cast iron or carbon steel for this. Add the coriander, cumin, mustard, fennel, and chilies. Toast until they become aromatic and seeds begin to pop. Stir and make sure the seeds do not scorch. Add the remaining items to the pan and continue to stir until everything is warm and aromatic.
Grind in batches in a spice grinder. Store in a tightly closed jar until ready to use. Don’t make more than you can use in a few weeks.
About 4 pounds of winter squash peeled and cut in 1” cubes
3 large yellow onions
90 assorted habanero and Scotch bonnet chilies, seeds removed
1c freshly made curry powder (recipe above)
1T cumin powder
2t ground turmeric
2 c Apple cider vinegar
1c Brown sugar
Peel, halve, remove seeds, and dice squash into one inch cubes. Usually I use butternut squash for this, but today I had two nice dark green squash on hand from last summer’s garden. Add to 8-quart stock pot or Dutch oven. Dice large yellow onions and add to the stock pot. Add 4 cups water, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Add the curry powder to the pot. I had a little left over freshly made garam masala, too, so I added it in. Add the cumin and turmeric.
Cut two quarts (about 90 if you’re counting) habanero and Scotch bonnet chilies in half and remove seeds and stems. I usually freeze them to make them easier to manage; the seed cores pop out quickly. I used peach habaneros and yellow Scotch bonnets from my garden. Add the cleaned peppers to the simmering pot. Simmer about an hour.
Add 2 cups of apple cider vinegar, 2 T salt, 1 cup honey (I used a nice, very floral, spring blossom honey from our apiary), and one cup of brown sugar (I used raw organic sugar). Continue to simmer, stirring every few minutes, for another 30-60 minutes. Taste to make sure the flavors are balanced. Add more vinegar, salt, or honey to get the flavor balance to your liking. I added another tablespoon of salt and some more honey to get the right balance. If you have to go back for a lot of tastes, you may need some milk to re-calibrate your taste buds.
Blend with a stick blender until you get a smooth puree with no chunks. Sterilize twelve 12 ounce woozy bottles in boiling water (many sources of these types of hot sauce bottles on the Internet). Fill the hot bottles with the heated hot sauce using a turkey baster, being careful to keep the drips down the side of the bottle to a minimum. Carefully wipe the bottle tops clean with a moist cloth. Give the caps a dunk in the hot sanitizing water and close the bottles. I finish the bottles with a custom label and a shrink band. This recipe filled 14 12-ounce bottles.
This sauce is great with fried foods: fried squash, fried chicken, catfish, etc. It can also make an excellent wing sauce by heating up the sauce with some butter and then tossing cooked wings in a bit of the sauce to coat. It’s good on rice, in a stir fry, on noodles, on eggs. You can use it as a barbecue sauce, or add some into soup or a pot of beans. Enjoy!
Note: This is an update to a post I originally wrote for The Amateur Gourmet in 2014.