Posts Tagged ‘Mexican food’

The Winter Kitchen: Salsa Macha

When I’m on a Mexican cooking binge I have to make some condiments to serve with meals and Salsa Macha is among my favorites. I love the name, which could be translated roughly as “bold sassy woman sauce,“ and I love the flavor, which manages to be very hot and very delicious. This one is for fire-loving palates. When most Americans hear “salsa” they think immediately of the tomato-based pico de gallo, but in fact there is a huge range of salsas and table condiments in Mexico and, as far as I can tell, most of them are delicious.

Among published recipes there are infinite variations, and my preference is for the simplest version, which I learned from the writing of Zarela Martinez more than a decade ago and have been making with only slight alteration ever since. You will need both a spice grinder and a mini food processor. The blender doesn’t work, since too much oil would be needed to keep the blades turning.

1 ounce chiles de Arbol, about 25

1 cup roasted peanuts

2 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon cider vinegar

salt and mild olive oil as needed

Snip the stem end off each chile and shake out all the seeds you can. Discard the seeds. Put the chiles in a small saucepan over the lowest heat and cook somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes, stirring and shaking occasionally. When you start, notice the sound they make when you stir them, because your best indication that they are done is when the sound becomes higher pitched and somehow drier. They will be a couple of shades darker and a little smoother and glossier than when you started, and more brittle if you squeeze one between your fingers. Be careful not to scorch them.

At the same time, put a small skillet over low heat, put the garlic cloves still in their skins in the skillet, and turn them occasionally while the chiles cook. When the skins are browned in spots, take them out of the skillet. The important thing is that the cloves inside be a bit cooked and no longer raw-tasting. At times when I have leftover roasted garlic or garlic confit in the refrigerator I often use that, using several cloves instead of two to compensate for the milder flavor.

Grind the chiles in the spice grinder to a fine powder. Put the powder in the mini prep and add the peanuts. Process until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs.

Peel the cooked garlic cloves, add them, and process to the fine-crumb stage. Sprinkle in the teaspoon of vinegar and add olive oil to taste. I add the oil a tablespoon or two at a time, processing briefly between additions, and add only enough to coat the “crumbs” and bring the salsa together. Many commercial versions are swimming in oil, which doesn’t appeal to me, but suit yourself. Now taste and salt as needed. I can’t guess at a quantity because it depends how much salt was on your peanuts, but this is a condiment and in my opinion it should lean salty, to balance the heat.

It’s great on a grilled tortilla as a snack or cook’s treat, and good as a table condiment with any dish that isn’t too delicate in flavor. I’ve enjoyed it with shrimp rubbed with chipotle and garlic and grilled. It would be good with simply cooked and salted earthy greens. Today I dished up simply cooked black beans from Rancho Gordo, grilled some asadero on top, and dolloped  some creme fraiche and salsa macha on the side. Simple, filling, and interesting to eat.

 

The Winter Kitchen: Colorado Seasoning Sauce

Lately I have been on a Mexican kick. Not the light, bright, tropical flavors that are so refreshing  in the summer, but the darker and earthier ones that are so warming in the winter. In my last post I wrote about the darkest and richest of my home-composed seasoning sauces, and this time I’ll give the recipe for my Colorado sauce. I call it Colorado, the Spanish word for brick-red, because it is that color and to distinguish it from red chile, which is made everywhere in my area with local chiles and is truly bright red. It is quite different from the Oaxacan mole colorado, which is enriched with nuts, seeds, and often fruits or sugar. This one is pure chile.

The selection, toasting, deseeding, soaking, and grinding of chiles can be a prolonged process. I’ve gotten around this by making a base that can be used about 85% of the time as a start, modified as needed with additional chiles and seasonings to suit a particular dish. That way I can make the base once and use it for quick meals.

First and foremost, get good chiles. This is not as easy as it sounds. For instance, a lot of places sell dried anchos, but they are generally dried out, brittle, and have lost much of their special flavor. A proper ancho chile is bendable and leathery, has a scent of good pipe tobacco, and when tasted raw has tobacco and raisin notes. In areas with a large Mexican population, you can usually get good ones, but in other areas the chiles often will be dried out, crumbly, and short on flavor. You can order from The Chile Guy and be certain of getting good stock.

The chiles used here are anchos, guajillos, pasillas  negro, and chipotle meco, shown from left to right above.

8 anchos

6 guajillos

5 pasillas negros, often sold just as chiles negros

2 chipotles mecos

1 large onion

4 cloves garlic

1/4 cup home-rendered lard or avocado oil

3 cups chicken broth or water, heated to near boiling

1 14.5 ounce can fire-roasted tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon oregano

With kitchen shears cut  the stem ends off all the chiles, slit them down one side, pull out most of the seeds and veins, and flatten out as much as possible. Slice the onion fine, peel and chop the garlic, and heat up 3 cups of water or broth in a bowl.

Heat a comal or iron skillet to medium-hot. Be prepared to work very fast. Put one chile  at a time in the skillet, hold down firmly with a metal spatula, and toast about 20-25 seconds, even less if your skillet is really hot. For this recipe, you don’t want them to darken, blister, or burn. As each one is finished, toss it into the hot chicken broth or hot water. As chiles pile up, stir frequently so that they all get soaked. When all are soaking, rinse and dry the skillet. Put 2 tablespoons lard or oil in the skillet over medium heat, add the sliced onion, and sauté slowly with frequent stirring until medium gold. Meanwhile, put the chilies and their soaking liquid and the tomatoes and oregano in the blender and grind to a smooth purée. When the onions are cooked, add the chopped garlic and sauté another few minutes until the garlic is cooked. Pour in the purée  from the blender and cook the mixture over medium-low heat until it boils, then turn down to a simmer and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until it is very thick. This may take up to an hour depending on heat, but be very careful not to scorch it. Now taste and add salt.

You now have a thick chile concentrate which can be smeared on tortillas or sopes or chalupas or meat or chicken as is, but can also be added to rich broth to make wonderful sauces on very short notice. I keep it in the refrigerator in a jar, but if you don’t think you’ll use it that much, freeze it in large ice cubes and calculate about two cubes per cup of broth for a thin sauce or three cubes for a thicker one. It has a little capsaicin heat but not a lot. It’s my favorite seasoning to add to good cooked hominy corn to make posole, and can be used as is or with a little broth added to reheat leftover meat or poultry to make tacos. If you are fond of Oaxacan mole colorado you may be able to elaborate this base into some version of it, although if that’s your preference I think you’d be better advised just to make mole Colorado paste in the first place.

Don’t underestimate the capacity of chile pastes to bring vegetables to life. Stirred into a stir-fry or as part of a rub for roasted vegetables, they can help old favorites show a new side. I can also imagine a little eaten with tortitas, the wonderful Mexican vegetable fritters that are not much seen in the US. You can read more about them here, and I hope that you will, because Zarela Martinez is a truly interesting food writer. However you use your elixir, just be aware that scorched chiles taste acrid and unpleasant and don’t let this happen when using chile pastes.

The toasting step is vital in bringing out the flavor of the chiles. I always do it on the comal because that’s the way that I originally learned, but many sources recommend  oven toasting. I haven’t tried it, but here are directions if you want to experiment: Cook’s Illustrated. In my previous post on Earth and Fire Sauce toasting is replaced by frying in oil, a different and even more complex flavor.

 

 

 

The Winter Kitchen: Earth and Fire Sauce

 


In the past, when I traveled in Oaxaca, I fell in love with the moles, as nearly every traveler there does. My favorite is the rich, complex, highly seasoned mole negro, and I have made the mole paste for it a few times but find that I seldom have enough uninterrupted time to collect all the ingredients, prepare and fry them individually, grind them together, etc. There are a few good commercial brands of mole negro paste, and on the rare occasions when I want this special dish, I tend to use them.

 

But I often crave flavors that are somewhat reminiscent of mole negro, involving deep, rich, earthy tones with a spicy seasoned overlay and an element of slow, dark fire. For those occasions, I have come up with a seasoning paste that I can make in the winter, keep in my refrigerator, and add where appropriate. Properly speaking it’s a salsa, but in the American minds salsa is the fresher lighter tomato concoction, so I call it a sauce. The ingredient list is simple, although if you live in an area that lacks a substantial Mexican population you may need to order the chiles by mail. The prep may seem time-consuming, but comfort yourself that it’s insignificant compared to the time spent making mole negro. You’ll need a blender.

The long, narrow Pasilla negro and the light brown chipotle meco are the two on the right

7 chiles Pasilla Negro, often just sold as chiles negros

7 chiles chipotle meco (medium-sized and light brown, not small and dark red)

1 7 ounce can chipotles in adobo, including all the liquid

8 cloves garlic, not peeled

1/2 cup raisins

3 cups chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon Ceylon (canela) cinnamon or a bit less standard cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground allspice

2 tablespoons grated piloncillo or coconut sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt, oak-smoked if available.

2 cups avocado oil for frying

1/4 cup homemade lard or more avocado oil for searing the sauce

 

Cut the stem ends off all the dry chiles, cut them open down one side with kitchen scissors, and scrape out most of the seeds and veins. Snip each one across the length a couple of times. In a small deep sauce pan, heat the avocado oil intended for frying to about 350 or until a piece of chili put into the oil immediately bubbles and sizzles. Have paper towels ready for draining. Put a small handful of the chiles into the oil at a time, fry them until the color changes visibly turning as needed, fish them out with a slotted spoon, and drain them. Now put the cloves of garlic, still in their skins, in the oil and let them fry until the skins are somewhat browned, and drain them. Put the raisins in the hot oil and fry just until they swell and puff, then drain. Now set the saucepan of oil aside in a very safe place to cool off.

Heat the chicken broth to boiling in another pot, turn off the heat, and put all the fried chiles in the hot broth to soak for 20 minutes. Peel the garlic cloves and add them.

Put the soaked chiles and peeled garlic cloves and their fluid in the blender jar along with the seasonings, the sugar, and the canned chipotles with all their adobo fluid. Grind smooth, scraping down the blender as needed. Add a little more water if needed to keep the blender blades turning.

Now for the dramatic step that pulls the sauce together. In a large frying vessel (I prefer a wok to minimize the inevitable splattering,) heat the lard or avocado oil over high heat. When it’s very hot, pour in the purée from the blender jar. Use an apron and don’t lean over the stove, because it will sizzle and splatter viciously. Stir cautiously with a wooden spoon. After 3-4 minutes turn the heat down to simmer and simmer the sauce for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
When ready, the sauce is very thick and will hold indentations when stirred, but it’s not cooked down to a paste. Taste it and adjust the salt if needed, but in my opinion use table salt and not smoked salt at this point. If it tastes a little bit on the acrid side, you may need to add a little more dark sugar.

Now you’re done and can quickly and efficiently add notes of earth and fire wherever you think they are needed. Use diluted or undiluted. The finished sauce can be spread directly on hamburgers immediately after grilling. A tablespoon or two per serving of black beans adds immeasurably to their meaty richness,  and this combination is especially good with a dollop of crème fraîche on top. A few tablespoons per cup of chicken or turkey broth makes a wonderful sauce for roasted or smoked birds. It could be used as a rub for grilled chicken, although you need to be careful not to burn it. I think that it might make a good grilling rub for salmon or other strong-flavored fish. It adds wonderful depth to sautéed mushrooms, and I think it would be great on grilled carrots or roasted sweet potatoes, especially with a pat of butter on top. For a quick snack or lunch, nothing beats a quickly griddled tortilla with a smear of Earth and Fire sauce, a sprinkle of crumbled cotija  cheese, and a few quick-pickled vegetables. A quick soft taco also makes a great cook’s treat. If you’re hungrier than that, add some frijoles negros or frijoles refritos as shown at the top of this post. A good dollop in a bowl of good posole elevates it to a feast.

It can be frozen after preparation for use later, either in jars or in individual portions in large ice cube trays. On late afternoons when you need something warm and not too filling, a cube could be dropped in a cup of hot chicken broth to make a warming “instant” soup.

 

A few notes on ingredients:
The best chiles that I know of come from The Chile Guy
The best beans and posole corn that I know of come from Rancho Gordo
The only lard worth using is the lard that you render yourself, not the awful commercial stuff. If you don’t want to render a little, use oil instead.
My favorite tortillas are the nixtamalized heirloom corn tortillas from Masienda. In my area, Whole Foods carries them.

A Quickie Relish

After posting the above picture in my post on making halloumi, I realized that the chile relish in the foreground deserved a post because it is so easy and so good. Its origin is Mexican, and I learned it from Diana Kennedy’s superb Mexican cookbooks, where it’s called Tia Georgina’s Salsa or Scissors Sauce. It’s great with a Mexican meal, of course, but also good with almost any other kind of food that could use grounding with a dollop of full-bodied mellow flavor with a bit of heat.

First, catch your anchos. The ancho chile is the ripened dried Poblano chile, and should be leathery and bendable rather than crisp-dry. The chile has a mild sweetness and marvelous notes of coffee and darkest chocolate in its meaty flavor. Pull the stems, seeds, and internal matter out of six ancho chiles. Cut them into thin strips with scissors. Add two chopped cloves of garlic and a half teaspoon of salt. Stir in half a cup of mild vinegar; I use about 2/3 homebrewed red wine vinegar and 1/3 water to decrease the acidity just a bit. Then add half a cup of oil. I prefer a mild olive oil. Then-this is key-let it sit covered overnight. This gives the chiles time to soften and lets their flavor bloom. In the morning stir it up, taste and adjust the salt, store in a jar in the refrigerator, and eat with nearly anything. It’s wonderful with grilled meats or chicken, great alongside scrambled eggs (especially if they are cooked with a bit of onion and green chile and garnished with cilantro,) and if you aren’t ketogenic it’s superb in nearly any kind of taco or just spread on a freshly grilled tortilla with a handful of crumbled queso fresco. Ah, those were the days…

Tomatillos, Salsa, and the Summer Garden

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The flavor of tomatillos  is one of the wonderful flavors of summer. This is their glory time, when the plants I have stuck into odd corners have tangled themselves throughout the rest of the bed and are making fruits, almost hidden, which are a fascinating mixture of sweet, tangy, and tart when roasted. Right now tomatillos are ripening  in their husks and I can make one of my favorite salsas. This is an old Rick Bayless recipe, modified only slightly, and couldn’t be easier or more full of flavor. Start with about 30 large tomatillos (mine were about 2 inches in diameter) or maybe 50 smaller ones. Remove husks, rinse, and set in a single layer on a baking tray covered with aluminum foil.   Put five cloves of garlic on the baking sheet off to one side where they won’t burn, still in their skins. Broil under high heat until they look cooked on the top and have black spots, turn them over, and broil until that side is cooked.

Image borrowed from no recipes.com

Image borrowed from no recipes.com

Cool a little, skin the garlic cloves, and put the tomatillos and their juices and the garlic in the food processor.  Add at least two canned chilies chipotle in adobo and their associated juice, more if you like it hot. I like 4 large chipotles in this quantity of sauce.  Grind to the degree that you prefer. I like a chunky texture.

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Now, I add the quintessentially Mexican step of frying the salsa.  In my largest skillet I heat 2 tablespoons of chosen fat, in this case fat from my homemade bacon. When the fat is hot, pour in the pureed salsa. It should sizzle furiously.  Fry it over high heat for a couple of minutes, until it has thickened to the degree that you want.  Salt to taste, and it is ready to use. The frying step smooths and blends the flavors in a delicious way. It’s good hot on grilled or smoked meat, gratineed with cheese, room temp with chips, or any way you like to eat salsa. I especially like the tangy-smoky flavor on grilled vegetables or mixed into cooked greens just before serving, or on top of them with a good sprinkling of Cotija or queso fresco. At the top of the page you see my lunch today, a little piece of leftover steak sliced and broiled with salsa and smoked cheddar on top, a fitting reward for the very minimal labor of making the salsa.

Incidentally, in the past I have grown several different kinds of tomatillos including the small purple ones that are supposed to have a more pronounced flavor, and at least under my growing conditions they all tasted pretty much the same. The small ones  are more tedious to pick and involve a great deal more labor in preparation per unit of finished salsa, and so I grow the biggest ones I can find.