Except for a class from Mexican cooking doyenne Diana Kennedy, who introduced me to epazote, a prickly leaf herb as sharp and daunting as the teacher herself, almost everything I know about preparing Mexican food, I gathered from my childhood friend, Deya.
She, in turn, built her knowledge base from her mother, Dottie, who spent much of her early married life in Sonora, Mexico. Both parents were Americans living a grand adventure south of the border, leaving a permanent imprint on the family, and those lucky enough to be considered such.
As teens, we’d hear romantic stories of silver mines and cattle ranches, and warm Mexican evenings spent dancing till dawn, of fortunes found and lost, then found and lost all over again.
But it is impossible to discuss Mexico on any level without bringing up the food. And, in Deya’s family’s home, food with a heavy Mexican bent was always within reach — in conversation and on the table.
Among constants was a simmering pot of fragrant bacon-scented pintos spiked with whole wrinkled dried chiles. When tender, the pintos would eventually find themselves transformed into rustic refried beans. Boosted with cheese, the beans left skinny weblike threads when spooned and smeared onto warm (sometimes freshly made) tortillas. We would cover the aromatic schmear with jagged strips of beef, grilled until the edges turned dark and crisp, while the inside remained a juicy pink. And the crowning moment would come with generous shots of handcrafted salsa, resulting in carne asada so sublime it’s the dish that would most satisfy my request for a final meal.
It’s the salsa that draws me to Mexican food. A mediocre carnitas is easily salvaged when doused with a slightly tart tomatillo sauce. But even an exemplary steak taco is rendered a crashing bore to me without a jolt from fresh pico de gallo or a squirt of bracing salsa roja.
Around supper time in many households throughout Mexico, there’s a buzz of activity in the kitchen that has less to do with the main course, and everything to do with that most intrinsic element of the meal — salsa — made fresh daily.
On this side of the border, most of us think of salsa as a combination that definitely involves tomatoes, maybe onion, some cilantro and a bit of fresh jalapeno or a more volatile chile like habanero. And while that’s certainly the base for many a good salsa, in Mexico dried chiles often take front and center, with tomatoes bringing up the rear, if they’re invited to the party at all. It’s the earthy, sometimes floral and slightly bitter finish of dried chiles that makes for a more complex and memorable salsa.
In most northwestern Mexican homes, you’ll find festive chiles de sarta — strings of dried blood-red peppers — dangling from patios, drying in the sun until their skins darken and turn papery thin.
Locally, a variety of dried chiles is available in clear packages hanging in the Hispanic section of most grocery stores and farmers markets. The dried chiles range from petite but incendiary vermillion-tinged chiles de arbol to the mild and smoky maroon-tinted guajillo (pronounced wah-hee-lo), which are easily distinguished by their long tapered bodies and skinny, elegant curved stems. These chiles are reconstituted and used in an endless array of dishes, including enchilada sauces, chili con carne, salsas and mole.
While versatile dried chiles make strong foundations for sauces and pastes, they’re also ideal when pulverized into homemade chili powder or rubs, which can be left plain or enhanced with dried herbs, coffee beans and other flavors limited only by your imagination. Today, many Mexican cooks still crush the chiles with a molcajete, a traditional stone mortar and pestle.
I’ve long made a killer salsa with fresh chiles, but experimenting with their dried cousins is relatively new to me. And I admit that my attempts at creating a stellar dried chile salsa never yielded impressive results. Deya, however, concocts a rustic dried chile salsa, perfumed with caramelized garlic and a little cilantro, that you want to drink, even though it’s liquid fire.
Following in her mother’s footsteps, she, too, spent her newlywed years in Mexico, but took it a step further by snagging a Mexican husband with a mother who taught her yet more culinary secrets. When it comes to common dried chiles, Deya passed on a piece of sage advice for the novice who might feel intimated when cooking with dried peppers for the first time.
She explains that they’re pretty much all interchangeable, as long as you keep in mind the heat level. If your recipe calls for guajillo and you can find only California or New Mexico chile pods, go ahead and swap them out. If you want a sauce with more fire, add a few more chiles de arbol or the tiny pequin pepper and, conversely, if you prefer your salsa a bit more tame, add fewer hot peppers and sub out a milder dried pepper in its place.
To make it really simple, keep in mind that, usually (there are exceptions), small peppers pack the most heat, while the larger dried chiles tend to be milder.
My advice? The next time you come across dried chiles in your grocery store, snap up a few bags and start experimenting. Your meals will be much richer for the effort.
DRIED CHILE PEPPER PRIMER
Here are a few dried peppers you’ll easily find locally. Dried peppers are a good source of vitamin A and are high in fiber.
Guajillo: Easily one of the most popular chiles used in Mexican cooking. This large, maroon chile offers a slightly smoky but mild flavor. Ideal all-around dried pepper.
New Mexico: This is a slightly smaller dried pepper, but it boasts a faint sweet flavor and tends to be somewhat hotter than the guajillo. Grind it for chili powder or reconstitute for traditional enchilada sauce or chili con carne.
Chiles de arbol: Smaller, skinnier and more brightly colored than New Mexico and guajillo peppers, this little guy packs a wallop, so use with discretion if you like your heat mellow. Perfect pepper to crush and sprinkle on foods for a little fire.
Pequin: The vivid red pequin may be the smallest of the bunch, but it’s also the hottest. Crush these sweet but incendiary peppers and sprinkle them on pizza or add them whole to a bottle of olive oil to impart some heat.
Deya’s Rustic Salsa Roja
Hands on: 15 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes
Makes: about 2 cups of salsa
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 guajillo chiles, stems snipped
6 chiles de arbol (if you want a mild salsa, you can use 2 dried California or New Mexico chiles, instead)
5 garlic cloves, cut in half
3 whole fresh Roma tomatoes
1 (14.5-ounce) can fire-roasted whole or diced tomatoes (plain works, too)
1/2 cup fresh cilantro
1/4 of a white onion
1 teaspoon salt
Add oil to a medium saucepan or skillet, turn heat to medium.
When the oil is hot, add the chiles and garlic to the pan and toss them around for about 10 minutes until the garlic is a deep golden color and the chiles darken slightly. Take care not to burn the garlic or chiles.
Remove chiles and garlic from the pan and place in a blender.
Place the Roma tomatoes in the pan and add a bit more oil if you need to, and shake the tomatoes over medium heat until some of the skin turns dark and starts to blister. It should take just a couple of minutes.
Cut the stem end off of the tomatoes, quarter them and place them in the blender with the cilantro, onion and salt.
Blend until smooth.
Per 2-tablespoon serving: 42 calories (percent of calories from fat, 43), 1 gram protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 2 grams fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 196 milligrams sodium.
Bourbon Dried Chile Hot Sauce
Hands on: 10 minutes
Total time: 30-40 minutes, depending on how long the peppers take to soften
Makes: approximately 1 cup
I love hot sauce on eggs, and I’m pretty fond of bourbon, so creating this version of a bottled hot sauce was a natural.
It’s the perfect hot sauce to shake on your eggs, in soups or even your bloody mary. It has a slightly sweet start with a warm, bourbon-infused finish. Very easy to prepare, and the sauce makes a terrific gift for any chile-head.
3 guajillo chiles, cut the stems with scissors and pour out the seeds
3 New Mexico chiles, prepared the same as the guajillos
A handful of chiles de arbol, about 20; use fewer for a milder sauce
1 clove fresh garlic
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon molasses
2 tablespoons bourbon (I use Maker’s Mark)
1/8 teaspoon salt
Fill a medium saucepan halfway with water and bring to a boil.
Add the chiles to the water, cover the pan and turn the heat down to simmer. Cook the chiles for about 20 to 30 minutes or until they’re soft. The small chiles de arbol usually take longer to soften than the larger peppers.
Drain the chiles, discard the water and place the softened chiles in a food processor or blender.
Add the garlic and process for about 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Add the apple cider vinegar, molasses, bourbon and salt and process about 2 minutes more. The sauce won’t be perfectly smooth and you’ll notice flecks of skin and seeds.
Press the mixture through a fine sieve, and pour the sauce into a clean glass jar or bottle. You can refrigerate for several weeks.
Per 1-tablespoon serving: 25 calories (percent of calories from fat, 3), 1 gram protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 20 milligrams sodium.
Blazing Chile Butter
Hands on: 5 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Makes: approximately 1/2 cup
This is my take on the trendy French seasoned butter, Bordier Piment d’Espelette, flavored with Basque Espelette peppers, which, of course, originated in Mexico.
Shape the spicy butter into a log and stash it in the freezer. Place a pat on grilled meats and seafood and add a spoonful to jazz up pasta. Spread it on crostini for a bit of drama. Note that a rich European-style butter tempers the bite from the fiery chiles, but regular unsalted butter works, too.
5 dried chiles de arbol
1 dried New Mexico chile, stem snipped
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Pinch kosher salt
1 stick unsalted, European-style butter, room temperature (Plugrá is found in most grocery stores)
In a mini food processor or coffee grinder (one that’s not going to be used for coffee beans), add the dried chiles, oregano and salt. Process until the ingredients are the texture of salt.
You should have about 1 tablespoon of ground pepper mixture.
Stir the mixture into the softened butter and mix well. Shape into a log and wrap tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for a couple of weeks or freeze.
Per 1-tablespoon serving: 123 calories (percent of calories from fat, 82), 1 gram protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 12 grams fat (7 grams saturated), 31 milligrams cholesterol, 20 milligrams sodium.