Recipes: Finding perfect harmony among hot, sour, salty and sweet

Grilled Pineapple Mango Halibut is served with Fiery Pineapple Mango AubSauce, which gets its heat from serrano peppers. Styling by Aubrey Lenyard / Chris Hunt for the AJC
Grilled Pineapple Mango Halibut is served with Fiery Pineapple Mango AubSauce, which gets its heat from serrano peppers. Styling by Aubrey Lenyard / Chris Hunt for the AJC

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Discover a flavor sensation in these food and drink recipes

When “Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet” by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid was published over 20 years ago, it quickly became my favorite cookbook. Drawing on their travels through Southeast Asia, the authors explained that the food in that region is designed to play off the harmonies between the four flavors in the title.

It could be argued that Southern barbecue sauces play off those same elements. What’s a barbecue sauce without a little heat (maybe from cayenne), a little sour (that’s the vinegar), definitely some salt and sweet (molasses or brown sugar or even cane syrup)?

And pepper jelly, with its combination of hot and sweet? We’ve been eating pepper jelly, from a platter of sweet/hot pepper jelly-topped cream cheese surrounded by crackers, to pepper jelly-glazed chicken wings and meatballs, for decades.

Fast-forward to 2021 when spicy/hot/sweet flavors are crowding the market. The venerable Tabasco company came out with a sweet and spicy sauce with ginger, red pepper, and pear concentrate among its ingredients. Honey harvesters like Gainesville, Georgia-based Bee Wild are producing infused hot honeys; as are hot sauce makers like Charleston, South Carolina-based Red Clay Hot Sauce.

I talked with Christina Pearson, global category merchant at Whole Foods Market, whose work focuses on hot sauces and condiments. Based in Austin, Texas, Pearson helps determine what products will be carried in most of Whole Foods’ stores.

There’s a trend for what she calls “sweet heat” in both condiments (sauces, marinades, mustard and other table condiments) and in the products in their “global flavors” category.

“Sweet heat is something that’s always evolving,” she told me. “And it usually includes fruit. ... For a long time, we saw sweet heat mostly in our barbecue sauces, but now hot honey is a big trend. Here in Austin, there’s a pizza place that has hot honey as a permanent condiment. ... And we’re working with Red Clay Hot Sauce on a few other flavor innovations. We’d really like to add a new sweet heat item that incorporates peach.”

She’s excited about Ricante, a Costa Rican company with sauces in tropical flavors such as tamarind, pineapple, mango-coconut, and guanabana (soursop), all with some heat.

She also really likes Brooklyn Delhi’s Curry Ketchup. “The tomato is the sweet fruit, but this is really savory. It’s something you could use on a hot dog, but you could add it to a pizza.”

To get back to those barbecue sauce roots, I talked with Aubrey Lenyard, founder of AubSauce. His Strawberry Balsamic and Rosemary and Spicy Peach barbecue sauces have both won the University of Georgia Flavors of Georgia competition.

He started his line of sauces with the peach sauce and one he called “original.” “It’s a very Southern barbecue sauce. I like to say it’s the kind your grandmother would have made at home.”

When he was creating the peach flavor, he wanted a sauce that reminded the user of peach cobbler, but with a little heat at the back of it. “I knew cayenne was the right pepper to go with the peach. The two just work together.”

When he created his Fiery Pineapple Mango sauce, he started with his favorite smoothie recipe and took it savory. “It just took adding serrano peppers. You get the sweet fruit up front, and then the serrano to balance it.” The sauce includes cilantro and mint as well. It’s such a fresh flavor that he’s heard from customers who use the pineapple sauce as part of their vinaigrettes.

He uses mustard, lemon or vinegar for the tart element of his sauces, and often uses molasses for the sweet. As with the peppers, it’s about finding the balance between hot, sour, salty and sweet.

RECIPES

Sweet and spicy recipes have been around for centuries with influences from Southeast Asia to the southeastern United States.

This recipe for Spicy Orange Chicken gives you opportunities to customize it to your taste. Courtesy of America’s Test Kitchen
This recipe for Spicy Orange Chicken gives you opportunities to customize it to your taste. Courtesy of America’s Test Kitchen

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Spicy Orange Chicken

This classic dish benefits from the use of fresh oranges and other ingredients, rather than just pouring on a bottled sauce. And that makes it easy to customize. More heat? Add more red pepper flakes. The hoisin provides both sweet and salt and can be adjusted to your taste.

Spicy Orange Chicken
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
  • 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed and sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • 7 teaspoons vegetable oil, divided
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 3 tablespoons hoisin sauce
  • 2 teaspoons grated orange zest plus 3/4 cup juice (2 oranges)
  • 1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and cut into 1/8‑inch-wide strips
  • 2 scallions, sliced thin
  • In a large bowl, whisk together soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, sesame oil and cornstarch. Add chicken and toss to coat.
  • In a small bowl, whisk together 2 teaspoons vegetable oil, garlic, ginger and red pepper flakes. Set aside.
  • In a small bowl, whisk together hoisin, orange zest and orange juice. Set aside.
  • In a 12-inch skillet or 14-inch wok, heat 2 teaspoons vegetable oil over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add chicken, increase heat to high, and cook, tossing slowly but constantly, until no longer pink, 2 to 4 minutes. Transfer chicken to clean, dry large bowl and cover.
  • Heat remaining 3 teaspoons oil in now-empty skillet or wok until just smoking. Add bell pepper and cook, tossing constantly, until bell pepper is just softened, about 3 minutes. Push bell pepper to sides of skillet or wok and reduce heat to medium. Add garlic mixture and cook, mashing mixture into pan, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir peppers into garlic mixture. Add chicken and any accumulated juices to pan. Whisk hoisin/orange sauce mixture to recombine, then add to pan. Increase heat to high and cook until sauce is thickened, about 30 seconds. Sprinkle with scallions and serve. Serves 4.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving: 382 calories (percent of calories from fat, 42), 40 grams protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 17 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 125 milligrams cholesterol, 515 milligrams sodium.

— Adapted from a recipe in “The Chicken Bible” by America’s Test Kitchen (America’s Test Kitchen, $40).

“The Chicken Bible” by America’s Test Kitchen (America’s Test Kitchen, $40). Courtesy of America’s Test Kitchen
“The Chicken Bible” by America’s Test Kitchen (America’s Test Kitchen, $40). Courtesy of America’s Test Kitchen

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Grilled Pineapple Mango Halibut is made here with Fiery Pineapple Mango AubSauce. Styling by Aubrey Lenyard / Chris Hunt for the AJC
Grilled Pineapple Mango Halibut is made here with Fiery Pineapple Mango AubSauce. Styling by Aubrey Lenyard / Chris Hunt for the AJC

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Grilled Pineapple Mango Halibut

Halibut is a firm, white fish that cooks well on the grill. This recipe from Aubrey Lenyard of AubSauce plays up the tropical flavors of his Fiery Pineapple Mango AubSauce with a garnish of crushed pineapple, cilantro and citrus zest. The sauce is available at Lucy’s Market in Buckhead, Savi Provisions in Decatur and online at aubsauce.com. No AubSauce at home? Substitute another fruity barbecue sauce.

Grilled Pineapple Mango Halibut
  • 4 (5- to 6-ounce) skinless halibut fillets
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Garlic powder and onion powder
  • Salt and pepper
  • Vegetable oil, for oiling grill
  • 1 cup fruity-hot barbecue sauce such as Fiery Pineapple Mango AubSauce, plus more for serving
  • 1/2 cup crushed pineapple, for garnish
  • Chopped cilantro, for garnish
  • Lemon and lime zest, for garnish
  • Heat gas or charcoal grill to 375 degrees. Or heat a cast-iron grill pan over medium heat.
  • Pat the fillets dry with a paper towel. Brush all sides with olive oil, then sprinkle generously with garlic powder, onion powder, salt and pepper.
  • Brush grill grates or grill pan with vegetable oil to prevent halibut from sticking.
  • Arrange fillets on grill or in grill pan. Close grill or cover pan and cook 5 minutes. Uncover, turn halibut and brush with barbecue sauce. Close grill or cover pan and cook until fillets reach an internal temperature of 145 degrees, which will take about 10 minutes total.
  • Pour remaining barbecue sauce, which can be served at room temperature, or warmed first if you prefer, on serving platter and arrange fillets on top. Sprinkle with crushed pineapple, cilantro and lemon and lime zest. Serve with additional barbecue sauce, if desired. Serves 4.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving: 350 calories (percent of calories from fat, 32), 27 grams protein, 32 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 12 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 69 milligrams cholesterol, 825 milligrams sodium.

— Adapted from a recipe from Aubrey Lenyard.

Hot honey on pizza is growing as a trend. This is Grilled Butternut Squash Pizza with Hot Honey. Courtesy of Red Clay Hot Sauce
Hot honey on pizza is growing as a trend. This is Grilled Butternut Squash Pizza with Hot Honey. Courtesy of Red Clay Hot Sauce

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Grilled Butternut Squash Pizza with Hot Honey

This is a very flexible recipe. Consider it as much an idea as a fixed list of ingredients. Try roast peppers, Brussels sprouts, cabbage or another vegetable if you’re not a fan of butternut squash. Toss the vegetable with your favorite hot sauce and then drizzle the finished pizza with hot honey.

One of the things we’ve learned about working with prepared pizza dough is that you have to give it time to relax. Take it out of the refrigerator, let it rest at least an hour, then separate it into 2 balls and begin the process of pressing out the dough. Let it relax, then stretch again. It can take another hour of stretching to get the dough where we’d like it to be.

Grilled Butternut Squash Pizza with Hot Honey
  • 1 (1-pound) round prepared pizza dough, at room temperature
  • Vegetable oil, for oiling parchment paper and grill
  • 1 (1-pound) butternut squash
  • 1 tablespoon avocado oil
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
  • 2 teaspoons hot sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • Prosciutto, for garnish
  • Hot honey, for garnish
  • Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Begin working with pizza dough by dividing dough in half and then stretching each half on an oiled piece of parchment paper. Let dough rest 10 to 15 minutes and then stretch again, continuing until vegetables are ready, grill is hot and dough has reached the desired dimensions.
  • Peel butternut squash, remove seeds, and slice across the width into 1/4-inch slices. Place slices in a large bowl and add avocado oil, rosemary, hot sauce, salt and pepper. Arrange squash on prepared baking sheet and roast 15 minutes or until tender.
  • Heat grill to 500 degrees.
  • Stretch each pizza dough half into a 10-inch round. Lightly oil grill grates and arrange pizza on hot grill. Cook 3 minutes per side or just until dough begins to char. Remove from grill, top with roasted butternut slices and garnish with prosciutto slices and hot honey, as desired. Serves 4.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving: 359 calories (percent of calories from fat, 16), 9 grams protein, 66 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams fiber, 7 grams total fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 1,029 milligrams sodium.

— Adapted from a recipe from Red Clay Hot Sauce.

Hot Honey Margarita calls for a spicy salt on the rim. Courtesy of Red Clay Hot Sauce
Hot Honey Margarita calls for a spicy salt on the rim. Courtesy of Red Clay Hot Sauce

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Hot Honey Margarita

Honey is a great addition to cocktails. Besides sweetness, honey lends a buttery quality. When you combine that with a little heat, you’ve got a winning combination. Shake the drink well to make sure the honey is well combined with the other ingredients.

This recipe comes from Red Clay Hot Sauce, and they make a spicy margarita salt they recommend for garnishing the lip of the glass. Aluma Farm in Atlanta makes a bloody mary salt that would also do the trick, and you can find lots of other options for a spice mix that combines salt and heat.

Hot Honey Margarita
  • Wedge and wheel of lime, divided
  • Spicy salt, to rim glass
  • Ice
  • 2 ounces blanco tequila
  • 1/2 ounce orange liqueur
  • 1 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce hot honey
  • Rub rim of highball glass with wedge of lime and dip into salt. Fill glass with ice and set aside.
  • Fill a shaker with more ice and add tequila, orange liqueur, lime juice and hot honey. Shake well and strain into prepared glass. Top with lime wheel. Serves 1.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving: 214 calories (percent of calories from fat, 0), trace protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, trace total fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 120 milligrams sodium.

— Adapted from a recipe from Red Clay Hot Sauce.

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