By Frank Sabatini
Give her a can of chipotle peppers packed in adobo, and chef Marcela Valladolid of Food Network's Mexican Made Easy will turn an everyday bowl of hummus into a three-alarm inferno. The Chula Vista resident, whose latest cookbook bears the name of her Saturday television show, admits that spicy foods rarely entered the kitchen when she was growing up in Tijuana, "because nobody in my family liked them." But that hasn't stopped her from dabbling in capsaicin.
By adding chipotles packed in paprika-oregano sauce (the adobo) and a touch of honey to plain hummus, Valladolid puts the party into dips when entertaining. She also incorporates her smoked jalapeños into mayonnaise for spreading on toast and uses them for jazzing up chicken dishes. "It's my favorite chili pepper because it's so versatile," she says.
Since purchasing (with her brother) the tequila label, Hacienda de la Flor, and then presenting a sipping demo on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Valladolid has injected sparks into a boozy sea urchin shooter popular throughout Mexico. After placing the urchin in the shot glass, she sprinkles it with feisty, dehydrated chili-lime mangos (available at Sprouts), then pours the tequila over the ingredients. "It's an amazing experience," she says. "The sea urchin adds a milky richness to the tequila, while the spiced mangos replace the common lime wedge."
To avoid overwhelming her audience's palates, Valladolid usually sticks to tamer consumables for her book and TV shows. But she really cranks the heat for her spiciest creation: lime-spiked habanero relish, a recipe from a vast collection culled from working at her aunt's cooking school in Baja and then later attending the Los Angeles Culinary Institute. Additionally, she was a food editor for Bon Appetite Magazine and trained in pastry at the Ritz Escoffier Cooking School in Paris, discovering afterwards that guajillo chilies perform a hat dance when introduced to molten chocolate cake and Mexican hot chocolate.
"Once the chocolate melts from your tongue, the spice hits you in a beautiful way."
As for the high-powered relish, she gave fans a one-time lesson for making it last year on her cooking show (now in its fifth year), which is recorded in San Diego. In the segment, she applied it gingerly to cochinita pibil, a Yucatan-style preparation of shredded pork braised in orange juice and achiote.
"It's really all about liking spice with your food," Valladoid warns. She recommends eye drops of the relish on tacos, grilled fish, quesadillas and the Baja-style braised chicken thighs included in her 100-recipe book.
Chef Marcela's Habanero Relish
4 or 5 habaneros, finely diced
Juice from one lime
¼ teaspoon of crumbled Mexican oregano
1 tablespoon water
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pinch of sugar
Combine the ingredients and let stand for 30 minutes, or until the peppers soften from the water and sugar. Serve chilled or at room temperature.