So, as some of you know, I’ve been cooking or overseeing the weekly Sunday crawfish boils at Alabama Music Box for a few years now (3 to be exact).  This year I decided, in the spirit of that sacred American tradition-the eating contest-that we should take the opportunity to end the season with a bang.  Enter the 1st Annual AMB Ghost Chili Cajun Crawfish Challenge. 

In case you’re not familiar, the bhut jolokia pepper, also known as the ghost chili, is the hottest widely cultivated pepper in the world rating up 1,000,000 on the Scoville Heat Scale. As a point of reference, a jalapeno rates from 3,000-8,000.  I have a dozen of them in my pantry, a few of which are going to end up in the final pot of crawfish to be boiled on June 3rd, along with my already lip-blistering combination of regular ingredients.  

The rules are simple:  Each participant is given a dozen crawfish cooked with ghost chilies, which they must peel and eat within 4 minutes with no drink or other food ingested.  You drink, you’re out.  Then there is a 5-minute “cool down” period in which still no drink is allowed.  Every minute thereafter, remaining contestants will be given another crawfish to eat, until the last man (or woman) is standing, liquid extinguishers untouched.  They take the pot and a T-shirt and the bragging rights for a year!  

We’ll also be cooking up or normal delicious Sunday crawfish before the contest for everyone to enjoy.

Signup is the day of the event, between 5 and 6 o’clock.  
There will be a small entry fee, $10 or less


Just looking at the flyer gives me heartburn.

Hope to see you there.  Competing, or enjoying the spectacle.


I recently started using Patak’s Tikka Masala Curry Cooking Sauce, and am very impressed. Not quite restaurant quality, but about as close as could possibly come from a jar bought at the supermarket. It comes in a “medium” heat level that I find to be pretty mild, but is very easy to doctor up with some fresh chilies or even some ground red pepper. I also add a little garlic-either fresh or powdered if fresh is unavailable- and some salt and black pepper. A tablespoon of butter or margarine also helps even the sauce out. Add these ingredients to a pan of sauteed bits of chicken, and serve over rice. Can’t get much easier than that.

Patak’s Tikka Masala Curry Cooking Sauce is available locally at The Fresh Market and at World Market in Malbis. Both set a price at $3.99 per 15 ounce jar. Patak’s Vindaloo, Tandoori marinade and other sauces are also available at each location.

Fruit of the gods? Yes.

This video has changed my life, and I’m not being melodramatic. Just watch the video RIGHT HERE.

If you don’t need a whole head of garlic, just put the leftover cloves in a resealable bag or Tupperware container and stash it in the fridge. They’ll keep for two or three weeks, sometimes longer.

Last night I had a conversation with a friend about the effects that “temperature shock,” which is a term used to describe when something has been chilled, warmed, then re-chilled, or vice versa.  It’s widely accepted as common knowledge that this will ruin a beer and give it a “skunky” taste or aftertaste.  Apparently, it’s not the case, which I’m happy to know since I’d assume that much of the beer that I may buy from a grocer, liquor store or bar has undergone some temperature change.  This is from the most recent issue of Cooks Illustrated:

We knew from our beer storage experiment that buying and keeping beer cold helps preserve it’s fresh taste, but we were also curious to see if so-called temperature abuse can produce off-flavors.  To find out, we purchased a case of chilled beer (in case to avoid any issue of light exposure) and divided the contents into two groups.  Half of the cans went into the refrigerator as a control, while we subjected the others to significant temperature fluctuations: three hours in an 85-degree water bath, followed by an overnight chill.  After repeating the “shock” process three times, we tasted both batches of beer side by side.

As it turned out, no one noticed a skunk flavor in either sample.  We also spoke with David Grinnel, vice president of brewing quality at Boston Beer Company [Samuel Adams], who confirmed that skunked beer flavors and aromas are the result of light exposure, not temperature fluctuations.  So buy your beer in cans or dark bottles and don’t be afraid to buy it chilled, even if you won’t be able to keep it cold once you get home.

So there you have it.  A widely-accepted misconception put to rest, so drink up, and cheers, prost, salud, slainte, l’chaim and na zdrowie!

Has beer ever looked hotter?

Photo by Tasha Tupa

I’ve often heard food referred to as a drug, or at least as a drug-like addiction. I can relate, but besides the notorious psilocybin mushrooms eaten purely for recreational purposes, I know of only one other food item makes you wonder what is going on in your body, and particularly wonder why your mouth is so delightfully and comfortably numb.  It is the Szechuan peppercorn.

These ain’t your grandma’s peppercorns. Similar to black and other colored peppercorns you see at the supermarket, Szechuan (or Sichuan) peppercorns are dried berry husks, in this case from the prickly ash tree. Unlike those peppercorns, only the husk is used and they do not contain any spicy chemicals. But that’s not to say that they don’t pack a very interesting punch. In lieu of burning your tongue with spiciness, these little babies taste a bit lemony and nutty, and literally numb your nerve endings. In fact, in the Sichuan region of China where they are common, they are often given as an anesthetic to people with toothaches. They, as is the case with the following recipe, are often paired with hot chilies to give the eater a very unique and quite heady food experience. These guys can be cooked whole, toasted and ground, dry-ground like black pepper, or made into oils and sauces. Incorporated into this recipe, it is a taste sensation that I’ve never experienced before, and can’t wait to have again.

This gentleman may be having a heady food experience.

It’s hard to convey  in words the feeling that the peppercorns produce, but in his famed and revered science book, On Food and Cooking, Harold McGhee writes, “They produce a strange tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation that is something like the effect of carbonated drinks or of a mild electrical current (touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue). Sanshools [the chemical component responsible for this reaction] appear to act on several different kinds of nerve endings at once to induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive. So theoretically may cause a kind of general neurological confusion.” This sensation is called parasthesia, a word also used to describe the “pins and needles” feeling associated with a body part “falling asleep”.

Beside their effects on the body, these little tiny grenades of flavor and feeling have another thing in common with many illicit substances; they were forbidden by the US government. From 1986 until 2005 Szechuan peppercorns were banned from being imported into the United States because they’ve been known to carry citrus canker, a bacterial disease that could potentially devastate fruit and citrus crops. Now all product imported must be heated to 160 degrees Fahrenheit to kill the canker. That doesn’t mean that they’re easy to acquire, though. After a check of all of this city’s fine (no sarcasm) Asian markets and higher-end grocers yielded no results, I had to resort to doing things the good old fashioned way: the internet. Amazon.com gave me seemingly endless options. Being a bargain shopper, I bought a walloping 8 ounce bag because it was cheaper by volume, but that’s enough of the stuff to make the the following recipe at least 50 times over. So, if you’d like to try this without the commitment, email me and I will gladly give you enough to make one good batch of Gung Bao Chicken or pork. Side note: I also bought my dried chilies on amazon.com a few weeks earlier. They may be a little easier to find locally but I wouldn’t assume.

Now to the meat of the matter: the recipe. Never heard of Gung Bao chicken? Neither had I until my Chef friend, Miles Prescott, introduced it to me. It’s a traditional Chinese dish that has been bastardized over and over again for American palettes, à la Kung Pao chicken. The two dishes are now hardly recognizable as distant cousins. The version that is totally ubiquitous at buffets and take-out joints across America is toned down in terms of spiciness, does not contain the Szechuan peppercorns, may contain more vegetables, and is your typical MSG-and-cornstarch bomb that we’ve all come to expect out of those little white fold-up boxes.

I can’t take much credit for this, as it is a slightly modified version of this recipe. I increased the number of dried Thai Chilies by two because I love to sweat, and I did. The two peppers the original recipe calls for is probably plenty for most. I also doubled the garlic, because…well I don’t think I need to explain myself when it comes to garlic. In future versions I may crush the peppercorns and add them towards the end of cooking. The girlfriend didn’t love the crunch of the whole husks so I think crushing will be an acceptable compromise while still maintaining the buzz-like effect of this absolutely crucial ingredient. Also of note is the use of “Light” soy sauce. Don’t confuse this with the lower-sodium soy sauce that you see at sushi restaurants now. Light soy sauce has a different taste than your run of the mill Kikkoman table sauce, and can be found at all of the local Asian markets. Regular soy sauce could theoretically be used but will alter the taste of the dish and increase its saltiness. I do not recommend.


-1/3 cup unsalted peanuts
-1 pound (or a little more) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
-1 tablespoon cornstarch
-5 tablespoons light soy sauce
-2 tablespoons vegetable or un-roasted peanut oil
-1 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns
-4 dried red chilies, roughly chopped or crushed
-4 garlic cloves, peeled and very thinly sliced


-1-inch knob ginger root, peeled and very thinly sliced
-4 scallions, trimmed and roughly chopped

1. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the peanuts and gently toast the peanuts, shaking the pan occasionally, until they’re a beautiful golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the peanuts to a plate to cool.

2. Meanwhile, place the chicken, cornstarch, and half the soy sauce in a large bowl and gently toss until all of the chicken is well coated. Cover and set aside for 10 minutes.

3. Heat a wok over medium heat and add the oil. Once the oil is hot, remove the wok from the heat and throw in the Szechuan peppercorns and dried red chilies. Stir continuously 20 to 30 seconds, until the chilies start to turn light brown in color.

4. Place the wok over medium-high heat then add the chicken. Fry 2 to 3 minutes, until it just starts to turn golden. Then add the garlic, ginger, scallions, and peanuts. Stir-fry constantly until the chicken is cooked through and tender, 1 to 2 minutes. Pour the remaining soy sauce over the chicken, toss well, and serve immediately.

-Be careful during step 3. The first go-round I let my oil get hot enough to see wisps of smoke rising from the pan, per the usual technique, but the chilies and peppercorns scorched to a dark brown/black after only 15 seconds or so.

-As with most recipes, this one is for cooking on a gas range. If you are so unfortunate enough to be using an electric stove-top, just be patient, or join the rest of the civilized world and switch to gas. You’ll never look back.

Photo by Tasha Tupa

Photo by Tasha Tupa

It’s been a busy week (and then some) since my last feature here at Nom Chompsky, but in an effort to maintain my self-imposed deadline of an article-a-week, here I am. Last night as I lay awake trying to think of something simple and easy, yet still interesting to write about, it occurred to me that, despite being a “Grub and Grog Blog,” all of my entries were on the “grub” side. So why not compose an ode to my favorite classic cocktail: The Negroni.

Ahh, the Negroni. Simple in form, yet complex in taste. Sophisticated, but unassuming. The Negroni is an Italian concoction made of equal parts dry gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. No one knows the exact origins of the cocktail, but the most popular story goes something like this: In the early 1900s, wealthy Americans were flooding Europe in droves, and Florence, Italy was a top destination. A popular drink among such Westerners was the Americano, which contains Campari, sweet vermouth, and sparkling water. Enter soon-to-be-famed party animal Count Camillo Negroni, circa 1919. Perhaps he was having a bad day or maybe he was having a great day, but either way he asked his bartender to ratchet up his Americano by replacing the sparkling water with gin. My man. The drink soon caught on and the rest, as they say, is history.

“My Negroni.”

The taste of a Negroni cannot be accurately described with words. A veritable explosion of flavors comes through due to the ingredients used. Dry or London gin adds its characteristic juniper bite. Campari-a type of Italian bitters made with herbs, bark and most remarkably the orange-like Italian fruit chinotto-gives the drink its characteristic ruby red color and citric brightness. And finally sweet vermouth (a fortified red wine also known as red, rouge, or Italian vermouth), lends its herbal sweetness to round out the drink and add color.

Although considered an apéritif, a drink made to consume before a meal to stimulate the appetite, I find it more enjoyable after dinner or with no dinner at all. It doesn’t seem an appropriate libation for a backyard barbecue or while watching the game, nor at my favorite dive bar, and not just because the bartender would, justifiably, look at me like I was an ass. A negroni is a little more suited to low-key and dimly lit parties, or your favorite cocktail bar or nice restaurant. Consumed at home as a nightcap or while relaxing with a book or movie would also work well. While not really an “exclusive” or posh drink, it lends itself to a drinker that has been around the block a few times and has come to occasionally appreciate something a little better than a bourbon and coke or gin and tonic.

A word to the wise from a man with a little experience: Don’t underestimate its potency. Like a good Martini (a real one, not the day-glo colored party favors that they sell at the Applebee’s bar), Old Fashioned, or most other classic cocktails, it’s a doozy; a cup of spirits built to accentuate and celebrate the taste of said spirits, not to cover them up. Appletini, Cosmo, and Fuzzy Navel drinkers need not tread into these wonderful wastelands of boozy delights.

I’m not sure why the Negroni hasn’t had the lasting power of other old cocktails like the Manhattan and Martini. It may not be on every cocktail list in every bar, but rest assured, it’s always going to be there. It’s that puppy at the shelter that stands to the side with an alert, subdued confidence and air of sophistication, while its companions try to woo you with flashier tactics. Did I just compare my favorite cocktail to a dog? What can I say? Metaphors were never my thing. The list of bars and restaurants in Mobile that can make you a Negroni is small, likely less than a 10. In a bit of self promotion, I will say that I can make you one anytime you want at the Haberdasher downtown.  I’m usually there on Thursdays and either Friday or Saturday nights, late, but it’s on the menu and any of our staff can make you a great one. If you’d prefer to try one at home, the recipe follows.

-1 oz. London or Dry Gin. My personal favorite for this drink is Plymouth, though any good dry gin will do. Whatever you do, don’t settle for bottom shelf booze or your cocktail will taste like a pureed Christmas tree with rubbing alcohol.

-1 oz. Campari Bitter. Nothing else will do.

-1 oz. Sweet Vermouth. Once again, don’t skimp. Punt e Mes makes a great Negroni, but you’ll have to venture out of Alabama to get it, I’m pretty sure. Noilly Prat is very affordable and works just fine, but Dolin Rouge is what I personally use. It can be bought retail at Red or White on Old Shell Rd.

Pour ingredients together over ice in a mixing glass. Stir until well chilled and the desired amount of dilution occurs. You want a little bit of water in your Negroni. I strain over fresh ice but some prefer it “up” in a cocktail glass (often referred to as a “martini glass”). Garnish with a twist or peel of orange, cut above your finished drink or rub said twist or peel along the rim of your glass before dropping it in.

Hey Everyone, response to my food blog is much greater than I ever anticipated, so thank you if you’re following.  Made a facebook page for it, mainly because there are a lot of small links, tips, and other general blurbs I’d like to share, but don’t want clogging up the blog, which I’ll save for major writeups.  Please hit the link, “Like” it, and recommend it to your friends.  Thanks again.

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