If you think of chiles as only a source of pleasure (releasing endorphins) or pain (burning your mouth), the complex and varied flavors that can be coaxed from large dried red chiles will amaze you. Countless varieties of chiles are used across the spectrum of Mexican cuisine. They are so important that Diana Kennedy's From My Mexican Kitchen devotes almost 30% of her section on Mexican ingredients (40 pages out of 140) to chiles and their uses in Mexican cooking. Not surprisingly, the chile is native to the Americas and the word "chile" derives from the Nahuatl language word chili (Nahuatl is an indigenous language of Central Mexico).
Starting at the bottom and going clockwise, the photo above shows chipotle (a smoke-dried jalapeno, the name is derived from the Nahuatl words chili, "chile", and pectli, "smoke"), chile de arbol, guajillo, New Mexico, and pasilla, with chile cascabel in the center. The flavors are as different as their appearance. The ancho, for example, has a sweet, fruity flavor that reminds me of cherries and raisins, with just a little bit of heat. A chipotle imparts a rich smokiness and a lot of heat. The cascabel has a deep flavor with hints of chocolate and coffee.
When I lived in beautiful Ventura, California, I visited the grocery stores that specialized in ingredients from Latin America. I still remember the first visit to one of the larger stores. Near the produce section were five 55-gallon drums filled with large dried red chiles. I wondered, "Why would anyone need so many chiles? What could they be used for?" Since then, I have learned the answer, and learned how to use them in my own kitchen. Examples include enchilda sauce (I'll post on that in a few days), table salsas, mole (a complex sauce for meat and tortillas that sometimes---not always---contains chocolate. 2 articles about mole: World on a Plate and the LA Times), in a marinade for fish, and even in a chocolate cake.
If you don't live near a store that specializes in Latin American ingredients, there are plenty of mail order sites and sometimes the big grocery stores carry small bags of dried chiles. Once you have the chiles, consult books by Diana Kennedy, Rick Bayless, and Susanna Trilling (to name a few) for recipes and techniques.
In the next week or so I will have a few posts about how dried red chiles are used in my kitchen, so stay tuned (or RSS'd).
tags :: food : food+drink : chiles : Mexico