Our first experiences with red pepper flakes were at pizza restaurants, with those glass shakers full of seeds and flakes that we never touched as kids.
As we learned to cook, we threw them in only when a recipe called for them, and always in very small amounts. Now, we add them with abandon — on pasta, vegetables, in sauces...
What are they, exactly? Just dried red chile peppers, crushed into flakes, with the seeds included. Penzey's sells a couple of varieties, including Crushed California Red Pepper and Crushed Pakistani Red Pepper, which packs twice as much heat.
We find that red pepper flakes add another dimension of flavor to a dish without making every mouthful hot and spicy. They seem to elevate the taste of other ingredients and make a simple recipe complex and interesting. Take spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, and red pepper. This is a classic combination of three basic ingredients, but the end result is more than a sum of its parts — and the red pepper is what makes it sing.
We love red pepper flakes with Asian ingredients (and add them to sauces like the spicy peanut sauce that goes with our Vegetable and Mint Summer Rolls) and for some reason they are just perfect on broccoli.
After many rounds of being timid with our flakes, we've stopped being shy. Rarely do we feel like red pepper flakes make a dish too hot or inedible, like an overdose of cayenne can do (although, we will admit, our container is getting past its prime, so they may have lost some of their punch). We're even tempted to keep them in a shallow dish beside our stovetop, right there with the salt and pepper, although maybe dipping our fingers in there would make contact lens removal a little painful later in the evening.
Anyone else a red pepper flake fanatic? What do you use them on most?
Related: Good Product: Tabasco Brand Pepper Sauce
(Image: Flickr member Paul Worthington, licensed under Creative Commons)