Some Like It Hot: Spicy Recipes to Cool You Off This Summer

Have you ever noticed that spicy foods tend to be popular among cultural groups from hot climates? From Southeast Asia, India and Africa to the Caribbean, Central America and South America, the prevalence of hot food in hot locations is well established. It may seem ironic at first, but there’s actually a scientific reason for it: spicy foods cause you to sweat, which helps to lower your body temperature.

With the hot weather we’ve been having along the Front Range lately, this is great news for spice lovers in town. Among them is Chef Jim Smailer of the Boulder Cork, who has developed and keeps several spicy, surprisingly refreshing recipes on rotation in the summer.

One of his favorites is corn cakes with aguachile (Spanish for “chile water”) and a passionfruit and mango sauce. Chef Jim loves adding fish to the meal, especially halibut or white snapper, but the cakes and sauce are also a delicious pair on their own. Check out the recipe below — if you try it, let us know how you like it, and be sure to stay cool out there.

Chef Jim’s Corn Cakes


Chef Jim's Corn Cakes2 ears corn, kernels removed
1 egg
1 ¼ cups buttermilk
¾ cup flour
½ cup cornmeal or polenta grits (Chef Jim likes Bob’s brand)
1 tbsp sugar
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp melted unsalted butter (add another 2 tbsp for sautéing)
Fresh chives or fresh jalapeño (optional)


  1. Purée ½ of the corn kernels in a food processor until creamy. Place the corn in a bowl.
  2. Add the remaining corn, egg and buttermilk. Whisk until combined.
  3. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Add dry ingredients to the corn mixture and combine.
  4. Add melted butter.
  5. Add chopped fresh chives and/or fresh jalapeño to taste (optional).
  6.  Melt 2 tbsp of reserved butter over medium heat in a nonstick sauté pan until hot.
  7. Cook corncake like you would a pancake.



2 limes, juiced
1 or ½ fresh jalapeño
6 oz. seeded cucumber, chopped
1 clove garlic
½ cup cilantro
½ cup mint
½ cup of parsley
2 tbsp chives, minced
¼ cup sweet onion, chopped
1 small yellow tomato or handful of yellow cherry tomatoes, chopped
¼ cup water
¼ cup good quality olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Place all ingredients except olive oil in a blender. Purée.
  2. Add olive oil at the end while blender is still running (remove the circle in the center of the blender lid so you can easily add to the mixture)
  3. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Passionfruit and Mango Sauce


2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp shallot or onion, minced
1 tbsp fresh ginger, minced
1 tsp very hot fresh red or orange chile, such as a ghost pepper, Carolina reaper or habenero, minced
1 tsp curry powder
1 tbsp honey
3 ripe mangoes
4 passionfruit, halved with flesh and seeds scooped out
3 cups fresh orange juice
Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Heat butter and olive oil in a sauce pan.
  2. Add the shallot, ginger and chile. Cook on medium heat until tender.
  3. Add curry powder, stir for another minute.
  4. Add mango and honey, stirring for another 2 minutes.
  5. Add orange juice and passionfruit pulp, seeds and all.
  6. Cook this mixture, stirring occasionally until reduced by about a third.
  7. Let mixture cool, add pinch of salt and fresh ground pepper.
  8. Place mixture in a food processor and purée.
  9. Press through strainer.
  10. Served chilled or at room temperature.

Chef’s Notes:

This sauce is great with fish or chicken. You can adjust the heat by adding more or less chile. I really like to use the passionfruit and mango sauce with my aguachile — green and yellow sauces really brighten a fresh summer dish like corn cakes.


Cooking Steak: What You Need to Know

Steak is one of those foods that many of us love to eat, and will always order at restaurants given the opportunity, but we may not necessarily feel confident cooking steak ourselves.

And it’s no wonder —  google “how to cook steak” and you’ll find more than two million search results, each one advising a different cut of meat, different preparation, marinating and cooking directions. So how’s the layman supposed to know where to even begin?

We asked Chef Jim to answer some basic questions about cooking steak. Instead of just answering questions, Chef Jim prepared a live demonstration in The Cork kitchen.

Let’s Talk Steak with Chef Jim

Q: It seems there are so many nuances to cooking steak. For those who want to cook a great steak at home, what do they need to know?

Look, cooking steak is not a perfect science. That’s why running a quality steakhouse can be challenging. People like different cuts of meat, cooked to varying degrees of doneness, and some like to go all out with marinade or sauces. So it’s hard, but it basically comes down to buying quality beef.

Q: What cut of meat should you buy when cooking steak at home?

That comes down to personal preference. Some people really like the chuck end of the animal because it’s fattier. Others go for pieces of tenderloin. But here’s the deal with tenderloin: basically, half of every tenderloin is perfect; the other half is good but presents its challenges in terms of quality of meat and cooking. As you go down the tenderloin, quality can decrease dramatically.

So in terms of what piece of beef to buy, here’s what I would say: ask your butcher for center cuts. Any butcher in his right mind knows exactly what that is. Don’t just walk into the butcher and say, “I want four NY strips.” If you do that, you may end up getting lesser quality meat that the butcher is looking to unload. Chateaubriand is one of the most desirable steaks — that’s a center cut.

Q: OK, so ask for a center cut. How do you know if you’re getting a quality steak?

USDA Prime vs. USDA Choice Beef

Buy Choice Beef. USDA Prime, while technically the best quality, can be unaffordable and hard to get your hands on. A lot of butchers don’t sell Prime cuts, and meat counters at stores may not have them. USDA Choice Beef is more affordable and the quality of the meat can be just as good as Prime.

Then look for visual clues as to the quality of the cut. You’re looking for a cut that’s at least 1-inch to 1 1/2-inches thick, since a thicker cut will be juicier and less likely to get dried out during the cooking process. And make sure it has plenty of marbling — thin white threads of fat running through the meat. You want fat in your steak because that’s what keeps it moist and tender during cooking and gives it wonderful flavor. Better quality cuts will have evenly distributed threads of fat throughout the cut rather than denser chunks of fat.

Q: When it comes to cooking steak, should the home cook grill the meat, or cook it on the stove?

Grilling Steak

I’d say grill it. The classic French technique is to pan fry a butter-basted cut of tenderloin—that way the meat doesn’t pick up the grill flavor to interrupt the subtleties of the tenderloin. But if I’m cooking steak for myself, I grill it. My favorite way to do steak is a very Italian way: Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Steak Florentine):

Let your steak warm to room temperature, then just add a little salt — really good quality salt — right before you’re ready to throw it on the grill. Brush some olive oil on the grill before you toss your steak on. Don’t keep flipping your steak all the time; let the steak cook, especially that first side. When it’s cooked to your liking, take your steak from the grill and let it rest. If you have the time and patience, give it 8 to 12 minutes to rest — believe me, it will do wonders for flavor and texture. The steak will reabsorb some of the moisture lost during cooking if you give it a few minutes after cooking. Steak doesn’t have to burn your mouth off when you eat it.

So let it rest, then just add a little olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice before serving. Polish it off with a bottle of Barolo — that’s a must!

Q: How do you know when your steak is done to your liking?

How to Tell if Steak is Done

A digital thermometer is a must for a novice. We don’t use them here at The Cork because we are all seasoned chefs, we can tell by look and touch what’s rare or medium rare. But beginners should use a thermometer, and if you like your steak rare, take it off the grill at 124 degrees F.

What I read in food magazines is misleading:  they say 130 degrees F is rare — that’s not a rare steak, that’s medium. A steak will continue to cook after you remove it from heat, so if you’re buying a $34-40 piece of meat, do yourself a favor and take it off before 130 degrees F. Let it rest. Then if it’s still too rare, you can always throw it back on the grill.

Q: So if you want a really good steak, cooked to perfection — can you even do that at home?

Sure. But steak is complicated, so unless you know what you’re doing, it can be frustrating. That’s why I like people to come here to The Cork for their steak. We’ve got access to quality product and the equipment to do steak well. We’ve got a double-stack broiler that’s basically a steak cooking machine. And we get great, quality cuts from our vendors.

12 Kitchen Tools for Christmas: Holiday Gift Guide for the Family Chef

12 Kitchen Tools for Christmas

Christmas is less than a week away, and many of us are dashing around like headless reindeer trying to scoop up those last (or maybe the first) of the items on our gift shopping lists. If you’re still looking for gifts for the chef in your family or friend group, and aimlessly browsing on Amazon or headed to Sur La Table without a plan — we can help. We picked Chef Jim’s brain for a list of kitchen tools any self-respecting chef should have in their kitchen, and what he told us might surprise you…

We give you: Chef Jim’s 12 Kitchen Tools for Christmas

1. Shun and Wusthof Classic Chef’s Knives

You can’t do anything in a kitchen without a good knife. But that doesn’t mean you have to buy a full set of premium knives for hundreds of dollars. “I see it all the time,” Chef Jim says, “A new cook walks in with a bag of knives — and you just don’t need all of them. You can have one or two great 8” or 10” knives and use them for everything.” Jim primarily only uses two knives: the Shun ® 8” Chef’s Knife, and a 10” Wusthof Classic Chef’s Knife. Both the Japanese Shun and the German Wusthof are made of high quality steel and craftsmanship, resulting in precise, durable and versatile knives that fit well in hand. Each retails for around $150 dollars — a fraction of the cost of a complete knife set — and the family chef won’t be left wanting another knife. “You don’t need a lot of knives or the best knife in the world,” Jim says. “You just need one that is versatile and feels good in your hand.”

2. AccuSharp Knife and Tool Sharpener

If you have knives, you need a knife sharpener — ergo, everyone needs a knife sharpener. “Forget diamond stones,” Jim says. “A farmer friend once gave me an AccuSharp Knife and Tool Sharpener, something they used on the farm to sharpen their tools. It works like a charm on kitchen knives, leaving them sharp enough for cutting anything from steak to fileting Florida red snapper.” Pick one up at McGuckins Hardware for $9.99.

3. Box Grater

Using a flat grater and trying to trap all of your cheese and veggie shavings into a bowl or pan can be frustrating. Enter the four-sided box grater. “It’s one of those kitchen tools that just makes your life easier, and prep work more efficient,” says Jim. Most box graters come with coarse, medium and fine grating surfaces, plus a slicing surface, and some graters come with detachable food storage containers. Chef Jim doesn’t recommend any one grater and says that any will do the trick. Again, find one that feels comfortable in your hand. Box graters range from $6 to $40, depending on how many bells and whistles you want.

4. Staub Cast Iron Baking Dish

There’s a reason cast-iron cookware has been around for thousands of years and is still in use: our advanced species has yet to invent a cooking vessel more durable, better at distributing heat evenly and retaining heat than a cast-iron pot or baking dish. “I use my Staub cast iron baking dish for lots of different dishes, from roasting meat and vegetables to baking cobblers,” Jim says. It may not be the flashiest of cookware, but we challenge you to find something more durable and reliable. Depending on size, Staub cast iron cookware ranges from $60 to $250.

5. 12” Wooden Cooking Spoons

Chef Jim says he couldn’t live without an assortment of wooden cooking spoons, and you shouldn’t either. He uses the 12” spoons for everything from stirring sauces and soups to pasta. “You don’t need long-handled spoons,” Jim says. “A 12” spoon should do the trick for just about anything.” Wooden spoons are nice because they’re safe for use on nonstick and other delicate-finish pots and pans. Pick up one or multiple for around $5 each.

6. Professional Tongs

Most people may have a set of large, metal tongs for grilling, but every chef should also have a set of professional cooking tongs. Get a pair of stainless steel tongs with scalloped tips to use for handling food and even just stirring. “A good pair of tongs becomes an extension of your hand in the kitchen,” Jim says. “Get a couple of different sizes and lengths, and you won’t need many other kitchen tools for handling food.”  Prices vary — compare prices and reviews on Amazon to find the best extension for your hand.

7. Salad Spinner

“The gadget you didn’t think you needed until you have one,” says Jim. Let’s all admit that washing lettuce, herbs and fruit can be such a tedious task that we often don’t bother rinsing, or don’t bother buying greens that require a lot of work. A salad spinner may take up some space, but it’s worth making room for it in the kitchen — you may find yourself eating more fresh, good-for-you foods if you have a tool that makes prepping these foods easier. Pick a cheap one up for $10, or splurge on a fancy one for around $30.

8. Peeler

Do your fingers a favor: put down that paring knife and pick up a peeler.  Again, it’s just one of those kitchen tools that everyone should have to make life in the kitchen easier. There are different types of peelers on the market — the most popular ones being straight swivel peelers and Y-head peelers. Get one of each, or pick one that meets your needs and feels good in hand.

 9. Fishbone Pliers

If the person you’re buying for is like Jim and all about fish, fish pliers may be the ultimate gift. “I use a pair of pin-nose pliers to debone fish,” Jim says. “I can get down the side of a salmon in five minutes with them.” This kitchen tool looks a lot like the needle-nose pliers in your toolbox, but actual fish pliers are spring-loaded, making deboning quicker (and more sanitary?) than a regular pair of needle-nose pliers. Wusthof makes a beautiful pair of 7” fishbone pliers for $40, though you can certainly find cheaper alternatives.

10. Cuisinart Food Processor

You know an essential kitchen tool list is not complete unless it lists a food processor. All the items on this list are tools to make life easier in the kitchen, and a food processor is probably the number one appliance to save a chef time, blood, sweat and tears: instead of slicing and chopping produce, grinding seeds and nuts and hand shredding and grating cheeses, you can just throw your food items into this handy machine and let it do all the work for you — in minutes or seconds. “You can get them pretty cheap, and it saves you so much time and energy,” Jim says. Cuisinart has a variety of models for different budgets and needs.

11. Oven Tiles

A fierce debate is underway between those who make their pizzas at home: which bakes a better crust — the pizza stone, or oven tiles?  “I’d go with oven tiles over a pizza stone,” Jim says. “Tiles provide more room than a pizza stone.” Unglazed quarry tiles, terracotta tiles… there’s an assortment on the market and you can pick up a set of 4 or 6 for around $40.

12. Uuni Wood Fired Pizza Oven

And last but definitely not least (and while we’re on the subject of pizza): the pizza oven.  We challenge you to find a chef or food lover in your circle who wouldn’t love a wood fired pizza oven for their own home.  Jim caved and bought this very gift as an early Christmas present to himself. “These Uuni ovens are just incredible,” Jim says. “They have different models and generations at this point, but all are just so easy to use, portable so you can set them up anywhere, and run on wood pellets.”  The Uuni 3 retails at $300, but Jim swears it’s worth every penny.

And there you have it: Jim’s top-recommended 12 kitchen tools for Christmas. Here’s wishing everyone happy and yummy holidays!