Matthews: Picante, Not Caliente

Mar. 13, 2013 @ 12:01 PM


Bobby Flay, you make it hard to love you.

One of the founding U.S. Iron Chefs, he’s host of numerous other Food Network shows, including “Throwdown.”

Its concept is pretty simple. Chef Bobby gets a brief, which describes a dish and the cook considered to be an expert in it. The Food Network sets up a demo with the specialist. Bobby appears to surprise our maven, and battle ensues.

This evening an episode aired which I was really eager to see.  The action was Puerto Rican arroz con pollo (rice and chicken) and the throwdown was to take place in Harlem against a Boriqueño. 

A Boriqueño is a native of the northwestern corner of the island of Puerto Rico. It is exactly where I lived when I was a kid. 

I am a Boriqueñita.

I love Puerto Rican food and cook it all the time. But chicken and rice is the ultimate Grandmother/Sunday dinner food, and I’ve never made it.

My mom’s best friend, Jan, makes awesome c&r.  Her husband, Moe, was in the Coast Guard, like my dad, and our families were stationed in Puerto Rico at the same time.

We lived in a regular, old house in a neighborhood on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic. 

Jan, Moe, and their kids lived off by themselves. You’d get to it by driving through the base’s world renowned golf course onto an outcropping hanging over the ocean, about 300 feet down.

In. A. Lighthouse.

Yes folks, a private piece of paradise beautifully landscaped and maintained by the Coast Guard. Oh, and it’s a fricking lighthouse.

If it were a vacation property, it would go for at least a couple of grand a night.

Anyway, Jan can turn out the arroz con pollo. It’s not easy. It’s a long, involved recipe, but the payoff is huge. It has a bright, Caribbean flavor, but it’s also pure comfort food. 

Made correctly, this dish is a wonderful example of Puerto Rican cuisine. It’s zesty, zingy, and spicy, but like the rest of this island’s food, it is not hot.

And that’s why Chef Flay lost.

The poor man can’t help himself. This red-headed Irishman from New York City has the soul of a chuck wagon cook 100 years ago named Raul. The guy never met a chili he didn’t like.

So, when he made his version of chicken and rice, instead of just using bell peppers, Chef Flay added all kinds of chilis. The result was a hot, spicy dish. A dish in which the flavor was completely swamped by the heat.

In our house, Petey is the man of asbestos tongue, and Kevlar gut.  On the other hand, mild is often too burny for me.

I’d like to take a moment to explain to fire eaters how it is for us mush mouthed.

 When fiery food is ingested, we experience actual pain. We don’t choose to be dramatic, it’s no passive/aggressive bid for attention. It doesn’t stem from dislike. I relish my enjoyment of the relatively placid poblano chili. I wish I could eat Indian food willy-nilly.  But the menu is a minefield of pain, regret and self-loathing.

Luckily, I met Vimala Rajendran. She is the heart and hands behind Vimala’s Curry Blossom Café (431 W. Franklin St., Suite 16, Chapel Hill). She understands my affliction, and took me under her motherly wing. She fed me various mild Indian grub until I was sleepy.

If you belong to my shameful tribe, and want to try Indian, or any other frighteningly explosive foods, I suggest you find yourself a Vimala.

Not hot absolutely does not mean not spicy, or zesty, or vibrant. It means that full enjoyment of the dish is possible, because your tongue, not traumatized from the blazing assault, hasn’t mentally retreated to its tongue happy place.

One night after work, many, many years ago, Petey took my assistant manager, Callie, and me out to dinner. He decided we were going to try a dish that he loved -- yok.

Yeah, I’d never heard of it, either.

He took us to an African-American soul food restaurant.  In our rocking, trendy ’80s duds and styling we were totally out of place. 

Despite appearing to the staff and other patrons as if we had just stepped off Prince’s spaceship, they were friendly and took our order for three plates of yok.

A sight in the kitchen made me doubt my own eyes.  I think I saw the cook preparing our dinner.  I know it sounds crazy, but onto a plate of spaghetti noodles, she poured straight Texas Pete!

Please tell me I was wrong.

Our food was brought to us, and we took a bite.

I wasn’t wrong.

It was gruesome.  The burning didn’t end.  You’d swallow, but that just spread the conflagration.  I don’t know why, but for some reason I put my head down, and just kept eating it.  At one point I was pretty sure I had died.

Petey was in love, but my pale, pasty, assistant manager from New Hampshire and I were practically hallucinating from the capsaicin rocketing through our bodies.

It seemed less dinner and more practical joke. 

Our trials didn’t stop at the end of our meal.

All the next day, Callie and I worked together.  The suffering continued, unabated.  It gave new meaning to that old Johnny Cash song.

All that heat just ain’t right.

Thanks for your time.