Cooking with Dried Mexican Chiles
For a long time, afraid of the heat, I was shy about cooking with Mexican chiles. Then I learned that if something is too spicy hot, one can calm it down – not with yoghurt, or potatoes, or cream, but – with sweetness. Experience teaches us that you can dilute all you want and all you’ll wind up with is a LOT more of something that’s too spicy. Sugar is your safety valve when it comes to playing with fire.
Whether it’s dried cranberries or apricots, raisins, sugar, you can tame a dish that has gotten away from you, if you’ll just allow yourself to partake of one (or some) of the sweeter things in life. (Consider striking a blow against your Calvinist upbringing; you know who you are.)
Science: The Scoville Scale
Chile peppers are hot (or more accurately, piquant) to the extent that they contain ‘capsaicin,’ a chemical compound that stimulates chemical-neuro receptors in the skin and more especially mucous membranes of the body.
Wilbur Scoville’s original (1912) method for rating chile peppers was to dilute a solution of the pepper extract with sugar water until the “heat” is no longer detectable on the tongues of a panel of (usually five) tasters. The degree of dilution determines a chile’s score on the Scoville scale. Higher the dilution necessary, the hotter the pepper.
A sweet pepper or a bell pepper, contains no capsaicin at all, and so has a Scoville rating of zero, meaning no heat detectable, even undiluted.
Conversely, the hottest chiles, such as habaneros, have a rating of 200,000 and more, indicating that their extract has to be diluted at least 200,000-fold before the capsaicin present is undetectable.
A jalapeno pepper, depending on where it’s grown will be somewhere between 2,500-8000. Cayenne is 30,000-50,000. Whereas pure capsaicin, not found in nature, is, well, 15,000,000-16,000,000. Just for comparison.
From this, I deduced that when a dish gets out of hand, sugar/sweetness is the key to bring it back into the fold. I tried this first with salsas, using habanero peppers that I grew here in Vermont.
Because we got plenty of rain, these particular habaneros were not nearly so hot as a desert plant, but still, it was gutsy to think I could tame them. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Habaneros are really hot, but they also have a decidedly smokey flavor that is just wonderful, if you can dial back the heat enough to taste them.
When that experiment worked (discarding the seeds and veins, mincing the pepper fruit, sautéing it in olive oil, adding some sugar, dried apricots, chopped fresh mango, cilantro, parsley, and chopped Roma tomatoes), I lost my fear – though not my respect – for hot peppers.
Remember: latex gloves. I brushed the hair off my forehead and later saw the red trail that my gloved finger traced when I passed by a mirror in the house thirty minutes later. Take care with these puppies, even the dried ones.
So, armed with my sweet little fire extinguishing knowledge, I came home with several kinds of dried Mexican chile pods.
This is their story.
First Up: Toasting v. Soaking Dried Chiles
At first, following someone’s directions, something that is quite rare for me, (see my song on this site, “Don’t Obey,” for reference), I poured hot water over a few dried chiles, and waited. They do reconstitute after awhile, some (guajillos) have tougher skins and take a good deal longer than others, but they do soften up.
Donning latex gloves, I took a knife to them and removed the white veins and seeds, where a startling portion of the chile’s fire resides. This is a messy job and I found myself removing a good part of the inner fruit of the chiles along with the veins and seeds, something that ran counter to my instincts about preserving flavor.
By the next time I reached for the chiles, I had read that one could dry toast the pods in a heavy skillet. The thought of adding flavor by toasting them seemed like an eminently fine idea. I toast raw spice pods to make curries.
So, at this point, still intent on soaking them later, I scattered a few dried chiles in one of my cast iron frying pans over low heat and watched them. And smelled them. When you do this, move them around some, turn them over: burnt is bad, toasted is good.
Turning them over with my hands, I realized that the heat was relaxing the peppers. They were pliant, not brittle, as they warmed. I wondered if I might clean the seeds and veins out of them after the toasting, skip soaking them and avoid the mess and the loss of inner fruit I’d experienced before.
This is exactly what I did.
I have not soaked a chile since. It’s still a good idea to wear latex gloves, though, especially if you wear contact lenses. The voice of experience, here. We don’t all have to make the same mistakes, right?
You will find a variety of names, sometimes for the same chile. Jalapenos become Chipotle when they’re dried and smoked. And if they were red Jalapenos, rather than green when they were smoked they become Moritas. The ancho chile – a broad, dark, raisin-y dried chile pepper with a tame Scoville rating of 500-1000 units, is wrongly called a ‘Pasilla,’ in California. They seem to have similar flavors, but a true Pasilla chile is 5-7 inches long and skinny. You’ll find good guides to these peppers on the internet, or in any good cook book on Mexican foods.
I have been regularly using:
Ancho Chiles Wrongly labeled in the photo as ‘Pasilla’ (sigh…see above note), these smell fruity and wonderful with a distinct raisin like wrinkle and smell. They are not particularly spicy, even for the faint of heart and three or four of them find their ways into lots of sauces.
Chipotle & Morita Chiles Smoked green and red jalapenos, respectively, these are interchangeable. The Chipotle (green) chiles are a little hotter. The Morita, a bit tamer. Both supply a wonderfully smokey quality to whatever dish includes them.
[**I recently tossed one into a bunch of sautéing Vidalia onions, added a couple of cut up apples and put the pork roast I’d browned in the pan back in, burying it in the apples. I covered this and put it in a very slow oven (240 degrees, F) and left it alone for a few hours. The savory apples that resulted were stunning. The Chipotle was just perfectly moderated by the sweetness of the apples and the apples were appropriately smoked up and spicy.]
Guajillo Chiles These are shiny, smooth-skinned, burnt red to reddish brown in color. They are widely available and are hotter than the more tame Ancho chiles.
Typically, I’ve been using three or four Ancho; two or three Chipotle or Morita Chiles; and two Guajillo chiles. This provides rich and interesting flavors and a heat index that can easily be moderated for even the tenderest Northern palettes.
Dried Chiles in a White Sauce: Once toasted, deveined and seeded, I have reduced chile mixes like these in a half a bottle of reasonably dry Chardonnay, adding the balance of the bottle as it cooks along, less a glass or two for the cook. Then pureed this with an immersion blender (one of my very favorite sauce tools), and add either a puree of caramelized onions or heavy cream (or a little of both) to thicken it into a sauce for roasted vegetables, meat or fish.
This particular sauce was not at all hot in the mouth. We were all enjoying our first bites over chicken breasts and asparagus with considerable relish, when perhaps ten minutes into the meal, we were all mopping sweat off our our foreheads. This is a part of the beauty of these chiles. Their heat often appears from inside the body, not necessarily inside the mouth. It is a wonderful, stealthy trait that continues to delight me.
Mexican Chile Barbecue Dry Rub:
Toast until pliant, devein and seed:
4 dried Ancho Chile pods
2 dried Guajillo Chile pods
3 dried Morita Chile pods
Break the pods up into pieces and place in a food processor with a chopping blade.
Add a couple tablespoons of strong instant espresso. I used the ‘Cafe Bustelo’ brand.
Grind this up into a fine powder.
Add and then blend together:
1 – 1-1/2 c. Brown sugar.
I brine the pork ribs for a couple hours in a standard brine (proportions: 2 qt. water, 1 cup kosher salt, 1/3- 1/2 c. sugar) with the juice of a lemon squeezed into it, rinds added.
Then I drained them, discarding the brine and drying off the racks with paper towels.
Food Safety Note: I always keep a very close eye on where raw meat has been in the kitchen. I have yet to let unwanted bacteria loose on my friends and family. (Knock on wood.) I keep a spray bottle of weak bleach-water handy, use hot soapy water liberally, and sometimes wear latex gloves to protect my hands as I’m handling the meat. Brines, marinades, and such are either carefully discarded, or in the case of flavorful marinades, heated to well above the 160 degrees F for five minutes or so, to make sure the little buggers expire. You can’t tell if they’re there or not by sight or smell, necessarily, so best to treat all raw meant as contaminated and behave accordingly.
I spread a couple layers of plastic wrap long enough to fully wrap the racks on a clean cutting board. Spreading some of the dry rub with brown sugar, dried chile and coffee dust prepared above, I lay the rack on it and begin to massage it in to both sides of the meat, paying special attention to the meatier side, but making sure there is some on both sides.
I wrap these up tight and put them in a non-reactive high-sided baking pan and move on to the other racks, using up all the dry rub and the meat together. Fully wrapped and seasoned, I put these in the fridge overnight. You could leave them longer if you think that far ahead. Being a touring musician, today and tomorrow are about it for my innate sense of time. No yesterday. No next week. Everything else is written down somewhere.
I smoked these at between 180-250 degrees on our charcoal grill/smoker, with a pan of water underneath them, coals and fire to the side, for about three hours, basting them regularly with the marinade that wept off the meat overnight (that had been brought up to a boil for a few minutes to kill of the bad bugs).
These ribs, my first attempt, were stunning.
I’m writing about them so I won’t forget what I’ve done, or when I do, I can be aimed back here to remember. A part of making it up as you go along is forgetting how to repeat dishes. Barb wanted the blog, I think, so she can gently remind me of the dishes here and get some fairly close approximation, accepting on the spot variations as a part of my temperament.
Dried chiles are turning up in groceries all over the nation, following latino workers and immigrants into the heart of even remote rural farm regions around the country. I encourage you to get some and start playing with them in your kitchen. You will be delighted with their murkiness, smoke, and flavors. Asking advice, you might also make new friends among our Latino companions. After all, not many Anglos are buying these ingredients. Be the first on your block….