Even if she couldn’t hack it on The Next Iron Chef, we Seattleites know Holly Smith of Café Juanita and Poco Carretto is top-notch. Here the 2008 James Beard winner tells us what makes her meals some of the best in town.

The use of peppers is well thought out in my kitchens. We never season sauces with black pepper, and I’ve never been a big fan of white pepper. But I like where cayenne hits on the palate—I think it’s something that gives a nuance and depth of flavor that many people don’t realize.

We just started doing this roasted grape risotto, and it took a while. I wanted to see if I could make the grapes savory enough. And I would never —even as much as I love cayenne—ever have thought to put cayenne in my risotto. But the moment I put cayenne in, it balanced that risotto. The taste, when it was there and when it wasn’t, was markedly different and much better when it was.

The way we use it is really light. We tend to put it on the tip of our finger, shake a little bit off, and then do a little flick so it’s evenly scattered, like you’re flicking something off your forefinger. You may not even be able to see it. It’s a nice, light layer of flavor and seasoning. What I also like about cayenne is I can really season and round out [dishes] in a more consistent manner. Consistency is the key. It doesn’t matter if you went to do your little ‘crack, crack’ with your pepper grinder and got twice as much as last time. That happens to everybody. Or, ‘Oh, god! The lid fell off.’ Or one pepper is stronger than the next. Cayenne is a really good way to balance out flavors and sneak in a little bit of mild heat in places that people wouldn’t notice.

If you can buy it at a place that goes through their bulk quickly, that’s what I would recommend.—you know their spices haven’t been sitting in a jar for two years. Whole Foods goes through their bulk quickly, as does Central Market and World Spice Merchants.

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Read more cooking tips from Quinn’s Brian Parks, Toulouse Petit’s Eric Donnelly, and Tom Douglas.

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