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Last week I decided I was going to make hot pepper oil, something I had never made before.

Hot pepper flakes from the supermarket come in a little jar. I shake some into my pan of waiting olive oil and turn on the heat to medium.

The kitchen is at one end of my apartment and my PC is at the other. (This is the part where I blame the arbitrary layout of my apartment to the initial failure of this recipe.) I head down the hall to check how my mutual fund is doing (Okay, it wasn’t so much the mutual fund as email. Actually, it wasn’t so much email as Facebook) and within a few minutes smell a really off, chemical, burning odor. I run down the hallway to pull the pan and its tiny black dots floating in oil off the heat.

Right, now what do I do with this pan of hot oil? I want to try the recipe again, but all of my other pans are in the sink, and I could pretend I want to wash them, but I’m not feeling imaginative.

So the next steps look like this:

1) Congratulate myself for thinking to pour it into the empty cider carton in the trash.

2) Curse myself for having such lousy aim, as 90% of the yuck splashed outside the carton as I poured, hissing like the Kraken after it devoured most of Crete and adding the smell of molten plastic to the already appealing smell of burnt oil.

Sigh. Hot pepper oil recipe, take 2. Here is what worked:

I buy whole dried hot red peppers at a specialty store, which are as long than your thumb and half the width. They don’t give off that bizarre chemical smell; instead they just smell spicy. All right so far. I grind them up, put them in the saucepan and add the oil. The ratio of oil to flakes is up to you, depending on how much you want to end up with and how spicy you like your oil. It takes experimentation (which has been well, and painfully, documented in this blog).

I set the heat to the lowest setting and stay in the kitchen for once. The oil should never boil; the red pepper flakes should instead move around in it like they’re learning Tai Chi, or are doing a fight scene imitation from The Matrix.

Once you smell the pepper, it’s done.

Let the oil cool off the heat—completely. Then take a funnel and sieve and set them over your bottle or jar or whatever you want to use to store your oil. Pour the hot pepper oil carefully through the sieve and funnel. It will be a lovely goldeny orange color.

Attach your nozzle or lid and you’re done. Store it in the fridge if you have a lot or aren’t going to use it right away. The counter top is fine to stash a small amount or if you’re using it right up.

This is my everyday saute oil for vegetables (especially broccoli, cauliflower, greens or sliced butternut squash), for sauteing an onion before making soup or risotto, for drizzling on top of your lentil stew or pasta. Garlic is its best friend; other good acquaintances are toasted Italian bread, sausages and the tomato in any guise.

Of course it loves goofing off with its first cousins, roasted sweet bell peppers or frying peppers. Scrambled eggs cooked in red pepper oil will make morning time far less dreary. It gives brightness and power to almost anything you pair with it. Plain olive oil will become yawnworthy to you.

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Strong flavors, those that make the eyes water and taste buds go ker-POW—it’s rare that one appreciates them until adulthood. Some still don’t, even then. But for those of us who do, we crave them like we do oxygen.

Horseradish. Fresh lemon zest. Dark, bitter chocolate. Thick, Grade B maple syrup. Raw garlic. Mazi, the NJ-made piri piri pepper hot sauce I adore that’s powered by 175,000 Scoville heat units. A little goes a long way, but what a way, baby.

What we eat can hold up a mirror to our private selves and reveal secrets we may or may not want others to see. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, was drinking black espresso in Italy when a passerby commented that her life must be very sweet if she likes her coffee so inky black. And it was true that her life was beginning to become very sweet indeed. Pair Liz up against a guest I saw on a talk show who, over the course of a few weeks, ate spoonfuls of sugar out of five pound bags until she emptied them. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, she wasn’t a sweet tooth. Not in the usual sense, anyway. No, she was working much too hard, doing much too much (sound familiar?). She was missing sweetness in her life. Once she made time for the things, and people, she had been neglecting, she lost the compulsion to snack on plain sugar.

What about the person who craves strong flavors? Maybe she grew up eating them in India or South America or Thailand, and they transport her back to home and family. Maybe enjoying them came later, as was the case for my uncle. Stationed in Texas years ago, he grew to adore that region’s cuisine. When he came back to NJ and made chili for his family, it was so spicy that my mom called it inedible. But he sure was happy with it.

Sometimes the love for those flavors goes deeper. I have a friend who was taught to distance himself from his feelings. But when he ate raw garlic or hot sauce it made him feel again; it was less the flavors than the hidden feelings he craved. And spicy food turned out to be one of the paths that brought him back to his emotions for good.

As for me, I had an ulcer about 10 years ago. While I never was crazy about strong flavors, I liked a little taste here and there. But when I was sick it was all off limits: no garlic or hot pepper flakes, no chocolate or citrus of any kind. A sad year or two went by like this, and I was surprised at how much I missed those awesome little bright spots in my food, how much I had taken them for granted.

Once I was healthy again, I embraced everything I had enjoyed in small amounts. But now I ate them in bigger amounts. Never one for Southeast Asian food or horseradish or anchovy, now I made a point to try them again…and loved them all. I’m not saying I’m glad I had the ulcer, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I wouldn’t be eating Japanese-style wasabi with my salmon now if I hadn’t been denied it before.

I found the below recipe long ago. It’s often called Gentlemen’s Spread, but I like the original name: Scotch Woodcock. I love homey food from the UK, and this is currently my favorite.

When I first made this and took a bite, I actually started to laugh out loud at just how ridiculously luxurious it was. This serves one, but can easily be multiplied for more. Here we go.

Take out an egg and a small bowl and beat the egg with a fork. Then add a couple of tablespoons of milk (or cream, if you want to go nuts).

Toast a slice of bread and smear on some softened unsalted butter.

On top of that, spread three tablespoons of anchovy paste, either from a tube or from whole anchovies that you’ve blitzed in a little food processor. (Last time I made this I used too many anchovies and when I took a bite it felt like I had been hit in the face by several pounds of fish that had been saturated in salt and thrown at point-blank range out of a pickle bucket. I won’t do it again, but if you dig that sort of thing, by all means, enjoy.)

If you’re multiplying this recipe for a crowd and you have a warming oven, stick the buttered, anchovied toast in there now to keep it hot while you keep cooking.

Heat up a small pan with another pat of butter, and add your egg mixture. Stay with it and stir very, very gently with a fork. Actually, don’t stir it so much as push it around a little; the goal is to get it just barely cooked through.

Spread the eggs on top of the anchovy toast. You can get all fancy and add a couple of whole anchovies on top as I did above, or just get right in there.

Take a nice greedy bite. Just for a few seconds, let your whole world become that surprising, addictive combination of crunchy and creamy and rich and salty and fishy. Laugh if you’re compelled.

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