Chefs Scott Tacinelli and Angie Rito believe in the power of sweet-and-spicy honey paired against, well, almost everything.
At their New York restaurant, Quality Italian, they serve massive plates of chunky, cheesy chicken Parm with a number of do-it-yourself accouterments, encouraging guests to dress up the dish as they like. According to Rito, honey makes for “a natural fit” against fat. But for a Secret Weapon recipe that sings not only on pizza and Parm but also in ice tea and barbecue sauce, the two buzz up the wow by infusing the honey with fiery Calabrian chiles (see the recipe).
The chefs naturally lean toward Italian Calabrian chiles over those common to Spain or Mexico—you can’t defect from your restaurant’s namesake after all. But they genuinely appreciate the fruity aspect of the Calabrian, as well as the intense heat from the chile's seeds: “Every time you break the chiles open, there are a thousand seeds in them,” Tacinelli jokes. “One seed is a good amount of spice in your mouth.”
They slowly warm the chiles in pasteurized honey—it stays smoother than raw honey, which tends to crystalize—then let it sit to infuse. After a few days, the sweet stuff takes on a fiery punch and delicately spicy aroma.
“It gets spicier as it sits,” Rito says, noting it can be used straight off the heat, too. “It smells slightly . . . it doesn’t burn your nose,” Tacinelli notes of the finished product. “It’s more about the flavor: It’s sweet but then spicy at the very end.”
As for what to do with it? Douse Calabrian chile honey anywhere you regularly use the sweet stuff. “I honestly can’t think of anything that honey goes well with that the chile honey doesn’t,” Rito promises. But to get you started, here are a few of these chefs' favorite ways to bring even more heat to these late-summer days.
① Ice Tea
Wherever you use sugar to sweeten, Tacinelli promises honey “makes it that much better.” Swap sugar out for Calabrian chile honey for a refreshing kick and far more interesting flavor.
② Simple Syrup
Whisk 2 parts chile honey with 1 part boiling water, then strain out the chiles and, brava: chile simple syrup. Shake and stir it into your favorite summer cocktails, like daiquiris or mojitos, or try the restaurant's Calabrian margarita: For each cocktail, shake over ice 2 ounces of blanco tequila, ¾ ounce of Cointreau, ¾ ounce of fresh lime juice and ¼ ounce of Calabrian honey syrup. Strain over fresh ice into a rocks glass and garnish with a lime and chile pepper.
“Margaritas are a great summer cocktail, so this makes it a little more interesting than average,” Rito says. “Chiles also pair great with the fresh mint of the mojito—the spiciness of the chiles is a good contrast to the fresh, cool flavor of the mint.”
Whisk together equal parts Calabrian chile honey and fresh lime juice. Add about 1 tablespoon of fish sauce and salt to taste, and then adjust to your preference. Use the vinaigrette on salads that go well with barbecue and outdoor meals: savory grilled vegetable salad, corn salad or refreshing shredded green papaya salad.
“Think of it as an accompaniment to things like skirt steak; something with a high fat content,” Tacinelli says. “Because this is a strong dressing, it won’t overpower the steak—it will go well with it.” In contrast, steer clear of salads with things that are innately sweet, like fruit or candied nuts. And for winter, use it with dishes like braised meats and potatoes.
④ Dip It
At Quality Italian, the chefs serve plates of their chicken Parm with individual bowls of Calabrian chile honey and honey dippers. They swear it pairs perfectly with fried chicken, too (as if we needed convincing), and anywhere else you regularly think of using honey. So pour it out and dip it low.
⑤ Barbecue Sauce
To doctor up a store-bought BBQ sauce, add some chile honey to taste, then counter the sweetness with a big hit of lime or lemon juice. Use it to glaze fattier cuts of pork, beef and chicken—the chefs note it’s far too strong in flavor for fish—and then serve with lemon and lime wedges for an extra boost of brightness.
⑥ Corn Bread Glaze
Whether you’re finishing a meal or looking for a perfect sweet summer side, add some oomph to corn bread by heating a bit of the honey and glazing the bread while it's still warm so that it melts into the top. “This is a way to introduce spice without dousing the palate with hot sauce,” Tacinelli explains. “It’s a way to introduce spice without masking it with something else.”
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