Mexico dried chili, left, is medium hot. Chile de
arbol, center, is blazing hot. Guajillo dried chili
pod, right, is mild.
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
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.
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
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.
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 web-like 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.
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.
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
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.
a variety of dried chiles are 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.
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.
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.
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
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
advice? The next time you come across dried chiles, snap up
a few bags and start experimenting. Your meals will be much
richer for the effort.
DRIED CHILE HOT SAUCE
on: 10 minutes Total time: 30-40 minutes, depending on how
long the peppers take to soften
approximately 1 cup
hot sauce on eggs, and I’m pretty fond of bourbon, so
creating this version of a bottled hot sauce was a natural.
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.
guajillo chiles, cut the stems with scissors and pour out
Mexico chiles, prepared the same as the guajillos
handful of chiles de arbol, about 20 (use fewer for a milder
clove fresh garlic
cup apple cider vinegar
tablespoons bourbon (I use Maker’s Mark)
teaspoon salt Fill a medium saucepan halfway with water and
bring to a boil.
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.
the chiles, discard the water and place the softened chiles
in a food processor or blender.
the garlic and process for about 1 minute. Scrape down the
sides of the bowl.
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.
the mixture through a fine sieve, and pour the sauce into a
clean glass jar or bottle. You can refrigerate for several
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
on: 5 minutes
time: 10 minutes
approximately ½ cup
is my take on the trendy French seasoned butter, Bordier
Piment d’Espelette, flavored with Basque Espelette
peppers, which, of course, originated in Mexico.
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.
dried chiles de arbol
dried New Mexico chile, stem snipped
teaspoon dried oregano
stick unsalted, European-style butter, room temperature (Plugrá
is found in most grocery stores)
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.
should have about 1 tablespoon of ground pepper mixture.
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.
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.
RUSTIC SALSA ROJA
on: 15 minutes Total time: 20 minutes Makes: about 2 cups of
tablespoons olive oil
guajillo chiles, stems snipped
chiles de arbol (if you want a mild salsa, you can use 2
dried California or New Mexico chiles, instead)
garlic cloves, cut in half
whole fresh Roma tomatoes 1 (14.5-ounce) can fire-roasted
whole or diced tomatoes (plain works, too)
a white onion
oil to a medium saucepan or skillet, turn heat to medium.
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.
chiles and garlic from the pan and place in a blender.
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.
the stem end off of the tomatoes, quarter them and place
them in the blender with the cilantro, onion and salt.
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.