Challenging Elements: Habanero

Published on: June 13th, 2013

If, like for this month’s challenging element, you were about to eat a habanero chili, it’d help knowing it weighs in between 100,000 – 350,000 Scoville heat units (SHU). That means the pepper’s active component, capsaicin, must be diluted with sugar and water that many times until the heat is imperceptible.

“Before we begin,” I beseech Chef Patrick Halloran, “am I going to need a glass of milk?”

Prolonged exposure to chilies desensitizes the pain. That’s why habanero daredevils on YouTube and television display tolerance, becoming a red-faced, leaky mess instead of needing an ambulance. Personally, I only enjoy bell peppers. Their SHU measure in at a dizzying zero.

Halloran, 34, the new executive chef of Bacaro Venetian Taverna, smiles at my milk inquiry, and says, “Probably not.” The dish he brings out of the Italian kitchen is comprised of salmon, shrimp, Anson Mills polenta, grilled spring onions, orange, and grape tomatoes—wait, what about the chili?

“I was looking for a way to temper the heat,” he says. “I decided tomato water would be a good base.” Minced habanero floats in the diluted base, enough for me to swallow a spoonful. Tranquil as the spice is, my face flushes from released endorphins. Halloran paired the salmon with habanero because of its hint of “fishiness.” Absolute genius. No surprise really. Turns out chilies aren’t out of his wheelhouse.

Before moving to Boulder, Halloran spent five years cooking in the land of barbecue: Texas. He worked with those piquant peppers, putting twists on spicy foods, like coffee and chili-spiced brisket. “I don’t usually use habanero because it’s straight heat,” he says. “I find there to be more interesting chilies”—a few of which he grew in his backyard, like the fruity Bird’s Eye chilies (50,000 SHU), aka mouse poop chili “because it’ll hide under things.”

As I continue eating, the heat is evasive to the point where I’m tempted to bend down and slurp the plate. But it’s all with purpose. The tanginess of the orange compliments the salmon, which, if too spicy, is balanced by the creamy polenta.

With the bright colors, a sprinkle of habanero and cilantro, and curled shrimp against the salmon’s grill marks, the framed dish resembles an abstract painting by Wassily Kandinsky. Like this dish, the new menu at Bacaro reflects Halloran’s philosophy towards simplicity and artfulness. As he says: “Eat with your eyes first.”

Bacaro Venetian Taverna is located at 921 Pearl Street, Boulder. This being an Italian restaurant you can instead opt for chili flakes (SHU 50,000 – 70,000). Call 303-444-4888 or visit bacaro.com 

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