“The Red Hot Chilli Cook Book” by Dan May

“In the spring of 2005, I began growing chillies on a beautifully located, if unlikely site, clinging to the very edge of the North Pennines. A range of 60 chillies from every corner of the world were planted with a happy optimism that seemed to fly in the face of conventional horticultural wisdom. At 600 feet above sea level such a project was at best seen as “a challenge”. Despite many, many mistakes, by the late summer we had our first, staggeringly large, crop of chillies.” Dan May, Trees Can’t Dance.

Dan May, the producer of the Trees Can’t Dance range of chilli sauces, is the author of The Red Hot Chilli Cook Book, published by Ryland Peters & Small. In this book he shares his knowledge of the fiery capsicum fruits and the best ways to cook with them.

The book starts with an introduction of the story behind the Trees Can’t Dance sauces and how the company was originally founded and named. Sitting under a tree to dream and think about life’s problems is common to the folklore of Native American Indians, from which chilli plants originated. Dan writes:

“You may not be able to solve all your problems by thinking about them, but combine it with dancing and who knows?”

The health benefits and varietal identification of chillies are described in detail, providing many facts about chillies the uninitiated reader is unlikely to have known before.

There is also a “Dan’s simple guide to growing chillies” section, but for those who are determined to grow their own, I felt this part would have been improved with photography to accompany the step by step stages of growth. This would have helped to put the words into more visual context and would also have been more useful for gardeners to see what the plants would look like at specific stages in their development.

The recipe part of the book is divided into sections according to meal times, e.g. soups and side dishes, main courses, sweet treats and drinks. This seems an unusual way to categorise the chapters of the book, as in the soups and side dishes section there are recipes for salads, which could be considered to be stand alone courses, especially since there are salads in the main courses section as well.

Other than this small detail, the layout and design of the book are very accomplished. The majority of recipes have accompanying photographs which are beautifully stylised and shot. The paper is uncoated which emphasises the book’s rustic, organic subject matter. The page backgrounds are in bold, plain colours and the identity has the same African and South America branding as the Trees Can’t Dance sauces.

There is a good range of recipes here: Spanish potato, garlic and chorizo soup; Texas marinated steak; whole roast salmon; green chilli bhajis and chilli pecan brownies to name just a few.

It would be a challenge for an average cook to be able to prepare all of the recipes from this book as some call for a very distinct variety of chilli, which may be unobtainable. For example, I tested out the huevos rancheros recipe – it suggests that you serve it with a salsa cruda recipe from the book. I looked at the latter recipe, and immediately decided not to make it, as it called for one Serrano chilli, one Poblano Chilli and one Jalapeῆo chilli. If you do not grow these varieties, or know a specialised shop where you can buy them, then it is unlikely you would be able to find them in a normal supermarket. However, in most of the recipes it states whether the chillies should at least be red or green, and then at the bottom of the page there is a box that recommends the exact chilli varieties for people who are more particular.

To test the recipes, I made the huevos rancheros and Beck’s Tarka Dhal. Both turned out to be delicious – the huevos rancheros was not the classic recipe I am more familiar with, which includes kidney beans, tomato sauce and a poached egg on top. This recipe featured bacon, chilli, tomatoes and fried egg, served on a tortilla. The result was tangy but not over-spicy. The dhal was also successful – using split red lentils and passata tomato sauce. The result was spicy, again, without being too overpowering, and the dish went well with brown rice and aubergines.

When testing out the recipes, I found them to be well written and clear in their instructions. Each one tells you accurately how many people it serves and the level of heat derived from the chilli, which could be subjective from person to person, but is nonetheless indicative and helpful. Each recipe is accompanied by an introductory narrative, telling the cook the history and flavour of the dish.

Overall, I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who has a real passion and interest in chillies. Some of the different types of chillies used can be a little daunting, but it is positive to see such a wide range of ideas, outside of the usual curries and stir fries. The chilli is indeed a versatile plant and worthy of more consideration.

Further Information

Ryland Peters & Small: www.rylandpeters.com

Follow on Twitter: @RylandPeters

Trees Can’t Dance: www.treescantdance.co.uk

Follow Dan on Twitter: @TCDFoods

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