Chile today

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Pretty as a stained-glass window

Let me be honest about this right up front: You have to be slightly desperate to make your own chile sauce.

It’s a lot of work if you’re not hungry for it. That’s why I make a few quarts at once and freeze it in bags. Keeps the shakes at bay.

But if you swoon for the taste and you live in Buffalo, N.Y., you have no choice. You suffer, or you get to work.

The first problem is getting your hands on some decent dried chiles. Since Mexican is not a staple here, the local stores that do carry dried chiles often have lousy stocks. Much of the flavor is in essential oils that evaporate eventually. Generally, chileheads recommend using dried chiles less than six months old.

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They don’t normally come with expiration dates, so you have to look for clues. A well-kept dried chile is similar to dried fruit – you want leathery, glossy, pliable, well-scented specimens. Dust, broken pieces, brittleness, and spots are all clues to mishandled chiles.

That’s why I’ve been wary of chiles that have spent months hanging around in plastic bags on a supermarket rack. If I’m going to the trouble, I usually mail-order the chiles.

There are probably lots of good vendors, but I’ve gotten used to Pendrey’s. I’ve been ordering from them for years, whole chiles, ground chiles, spice pastes and other needs. Their stuff arrives in good condition, and has consistently been of excellent quality. (Unlike some places; MexGrocer.com, I’m looking at you.)

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Here’s the basics. You’re going to toast and rehydrate dried chiles (as at right) and add other flavors, such as charred tomatoes, onions, garlic, cumin and oregano. Then puree the mix, and either freeze it, or cook with it, frying out the water first if you want to intensify the flavor.

The resulting paste can serve as the base of sauces, marinades, braises or even soups. To make the sort of red chile sauce you’d find at Hermanos (Concord, N.H.), over the beef enchiladas, or at Gold Street Caffe (Albuquerque, N.M.) over the breakfast burrito, you take some of the chile sauce and thin it a little with broth, or cook it with a bit of roux if you like it more velvety.

My recipe should be considered a starting point. I’ve tried different ratios of chiles to approach a taste I enjoy, but your palate might enjoy more heat, say, or less fruitiness. Chipotle peppers, which are smoked jalapenos, will be included in my next trial. The only way to know for sure what you like is experiment, and take notes.

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I’ve also done some cheating. You can use tomato paste and just brown the onion in a little oil, but it’s not as good. You really miss the smoky undertone. I’ve also dallied with chile pastes, such as the MexiChef brand (pictured at left), but have largely been disappointed. The vibrant, big flavors don’t come through from that product. It might be handy for something, but not as the foundation for this chile sauce.

WARNING: The stuff that makes chiles spicy can easily spread in uncomfortable ways. You might rub your eye the next day and be reminded of this, while making the sort of noises usually heard only in horror films. That’s why I wear disposable gloves, and turn on the exhaust fan while toasting chiles or frying chile paste. One more thing: Chile puree can stain things, especially white plastic.

Red chile sauce

8 ounces (about 40) New Mexico red chiles
4 ounces (about 10) ancho chiles
1 large onion, peeled, cut in half
8 plum tomatoes, about 1 pound
1 head roasted garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt

Tear open the chiles and remove the stems. Discard the seeds, unless you want the sauce as spicy as possible. Heat a flat skillet – not a nonstick pan – over medium heat. Toast the chiles in the pan a few at a time, pressing the spread-open chiles against the hot metal with a spatula. You can see them change color in a few seconds, a tiny wisp of smoke maybe, and they’re done. Do not burn them. Submerge them in enough hot water to cover them until soft, 30 minutes or so.

P2110131Blacken the tomatoes and onions in a skillet over high heat or under a broiler, essentially charring the outsides. Put the mess in a blender, if you have one, or a food processor. Add the rehydrated chiles, garlic, cumin, oregano and salt. Taste the chile soaking water; if it tastes like the chiles smell, add enough chile water to get the mix blending smoothly. If it’s unpleasantly bitter, throw it out and use plain water instead. Blend until smooth, as above.

P2110139You can freeze it at this point. Before you use it, fry it. In a pan, heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil or bacon fat for each cup of puree. Fry the paste over medium-high heat for three to five minutes, until thickened; taste a tiny dab to check for salt, and add more if desireable.

Smear some on a warmed tortilla. Add a handful of carne adovada, sprigs of cilantro, lime-marinated onion and crumbles of queso fresco. Close your eyes and see the sun come up over the desert while the smell of pinon smoke perfumes the morning breeze.

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