Flakes of crushed red chili peppers have been adding tingly heat to dishes since the dawn of civilization in the New World.
When seafarers carried pepper seeds back to Asia and Europe, chilies caught on with a vengeance. It's no surprise, then, that there are as many varieties of crushed pepper flakes as there are cuisines they may complement.
In the United States, bottles of "crushed red pepper" usually contain California or New Mexican red peppers for color and flavor, sometimes mixed with hotter varieties, like cayenne.
The flakes are used across a broad variety of cuisines, sprinkled onto Italian pizza and vegetable dishes, cooked into meat for Mexican tacos, and simmered into Indian curries.
Chili care: Remember that chilies lose their flavor over time, as the aromatics that provide their deeper flavors evaporate. If that little jar of flakes is a year old, its best days are past.
Mark Bittman's Mongolian-inspired recipe for stir-fried lamb with chili, cumin and garlic says that scallions and cilantro are optional, though I would urge you to add generous amounts of both. What's not optional are the chili flakes, just a few, to help balance the lamb's richness. Grind the cumin if you prefer, Bittman says, but do use whole toasted seeds.
> Stir-Fried Lamb With Chili, Cumin and Garlic
1 1/2 pounds lamb shoulder
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon crushed red chili flakes, or to taste
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Peanut oil or neutral oil, like grapeseed or corn, to film skillet bottom
1 cup trimmed and roughly chopped scallions, optional
Chopped fresh cilantro leaves for garnish, optional
Cut lamb into 1/2 -inch cubes (easier if meat is firmed in the freezer for 15 to 45 minutes). Toast cumin seeds in dry skillet over medium heat, shaking pan occasionally, until fragrant, a minute or two. Toss together lamb with cumin, chili, garlic, soy sauce, a large pinch of salt and a healthy grinding of pepper. If you like, cover and refrigerate until ready to cook, up to 24 hours.
To cook, put a tablespoon of oil in a large skillet (ideally, it will hold the lamb in one layer, or nearly so) and turn heat to high. When hot, add lamb. Cook, undisturbed, for about a minute, then stir once or twice to loosen lamb from skillet. Cook another minute, then stir again. Add scallions, if using, and cook, stirring occasionally, until scallions glisten and shrink and the meat is about medium.
If you want a slightly saucier mixture, stir in 1/4 cup water and cook another minute. Serve hot over rice, garnished with cilantro, if you like.