Off the Beaten Aisle: Sambal

By: J.M. Hirsch
chili garlic roasted shrimp

Rule No. 1 about spicy ingredients: You don’t need to love spicy foods to love what spicy ingredients can do for the foods you do love.

That’s because foods such as chili peppers and hot sauces can do way more than simply add mouth-searing heat. Adding just a touch will heighten the other flavors of a dish without adding noticeable spiciness.

For example, whip up your favorite mac and cheese. Now stir in just a drop or two of hot sauce. Taste. It won’t be spicy, but it will be better.

Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to try a seriously spicy ingredient and don't want you to be scared off by the heat.

Throughout Asia there are numerous condiments referred to as sambals. Most are made by grinding together chili peppers and vinegar.

Depending on where you are, other ingredients -- such as dried shrimp, fermented soy beans, brown sugar, spices, coconut milk, etc.  -- may be added.

The result is a family of sauces with bright, punchy flavor and a fair amount of heat. They usually accompany meat and rice dishes and are added to taste.

The international aisle of most mainstream grocers in the United States will offer at least one or two varieties, and they are worth checking out.

One of the most common is sambal oelek (also called chili paste or fresh chili paste), which is a simple blend of crushed chilies, salt and vinegar.

Alongside sambal oelek, you may also find something labeled chili garlic sauce, which is sambal oelek with garlic added.

Either is a fine choice for any of these recipe ideas. The flavors are intense, slightly acidic and almost pungently sweet.

Like most vinegar-based condiments, sambals can be refrigerated for months after opening (most are marked with “best by” dates).

One caution: The word sambal also sometimes refers to a spicy dish. You’re looking for the condiments, which are sold in plastic and glass jars.

  • For an amazing sandwich spread or burger condiment, mix together mayonnaise and a bit of sambal.
  • For a dipping sauce for grilled meats, Asian dumplings, spring rolls or even sushi, mix sambal, soy sauce, rice vinegar and chopped fresh scallions.
  • Use sambal to spike ketchup to take hot dogs and fries totally over the top.
  • Create a basic vinaigrette of oil and vinegar, then add sambal. Use this to marinate steak for the grill.
  • If you can handle the heat, use sambal straight up in place of salsa on your next platter of nachos.
  • Mix about a teaspoon of sambal directly into ground beef for seriously high-flavor hamburgers.
  • Spoon just a bit of sambal over bowls of chicken noodle soup.
  • Mix a bit of sambal into tomato sauce for a great pizza topping.
  • For a spicy take on roasted chicken, rub a generous amount of sambal under the skin of the chicken.
  • In a blender or food processor, combine sambal and peanut butter. Use half of the mix for a dipping sauce, then thin the rest with chicken broth and use to marinate chicken tenders for the grill.
Chili Garlic Roasted Shrimp With Fettuccine
Start to finish: 25 minutes
Servings: 4
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chili garlic sauce
1 pound large raw shrimp, shells and veins removed
12-ounce package fresh fettuccine
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 scallions, chopped

Heat the oven to 450 degrees F. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil.

In a large bowl, mix together the oil, salt, pepper and chili garlic sauce. Add the shrimp and toss well.

Transfer the shrimp, as well as any sauce in the bowl, to a rimmed baking sheet. Roast for 5 to 7 minutes, or until pink and firm.

While the shrimp roast, add the pasta to the water and cook according to package directions. Reserve ¼ cup of the cooking water, then drain.

In a large bowl, combine the pasta and shrimp. Use a silicone spatula to scrape any liquid from the baking sheet into the bowl. Toss well.

Sprinkle the cheese and scallions over the pasta and shrimp, as well as a bit of the reserved pasta cooking water. Toss until the cheese is melted.

Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 500 calories; 140 calories from fat (28 percent of total calories); 15 g fat (4 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 245 mg cholesterol; 51 g carbohydrate; 39 g protein; 4 g fiber; 1,050 mg sodium.

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking . He also blogs at jmhirsch.

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