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Rick Bayless Mexican Kitchen



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About The Book

Bursting with bold, complex flavors, Mexican cooking has the kind of gusto we want in food today. Until now, American home cooks have had few authorities to translate the heart of this world-class cuisine to everyday cooking.

In this book of more than 150 recipes, award-winning chef, author and teacher Rick bayless provides the inspiration and guidance that home cooks have needed. With a blend of passion, patience, clarity and humor, he unerringly finds his way into the very soul of Mexican cuisine, from essential recipes and explorations of Mexico's many chiles to quick-to-prepare everyday dishes and pull-out-the-stops celebration fare.

Bayless begins the journey by introducing us to the building blocks of Mexican cooking. With infectious enthusiasm and an entertaining voice, he outlines 16 essential preparations-deeply flavored tomato sauces and tangy tomatillo salsas, rich chile pastes and indispensable handmade tortillas.

Fascinating cultural background and practical cooking tips help readers to understand these preparations and make them their own. Each recipe explains which steps can be completed in advance to make final preparation easier, and each provides a list of the dishes in later chapters that are built around these basics. And with each essential recipe, Bayless includes several “Simple Ideas from My American Home”—quick, familiar recipes with innovative Mexican accents, such as Baked Ham with Yucatecan Flavors, Spicy Chicken Salad, Ancho-Broiled Salmon and Very, Very Good Chili.

Throughout, the intrepid Bayless brings chiles into focus, revealing that Mexican cooks use these pods for flavor, richness, color and, yes, sometimes for heat. He details the simple techniques for getting the best out of every chile-from the rich, smoky chipotle to the incendiary but fruity habanero.

Then, in more than 135 recipes that follow, Bayless guides us through a wide range of richly flavored regional Mexican dishes, combining down-home appeal and convivial informality with simple culinary elegance. It's all here: starters like Classic Seviche Tostadas or Chorizo-Stuffed Ancho Chiles; soups like Slow-Simmered Fava Bean Soup or Rustic Ranch-Style Soup; casual tortilla-based preparations like Achiote-Roasted Pork Tacos or Street-Style Red Chile Enchiladas; vegetable delights like Smoky Braised Mexican Pumpkin, or Green Poblano Rice; even a whole chapter on classic fiesta food (from Oaxacan Black Mole with Braised Chicken, Smoky Peanut Mole with Grilled Quail and Great Big Tamal Roll with Chard with the incomparable Juchitan-Style Black Bean Tamales); and ending with a selection of luscious desserts like Modern Mexican Chocolate Flan with KahIua and Yucatecan-Style Fresh Coconut Pie. To quickly expand your Mexican repertoire even further, each of these recipes is accompanied by suggestions for variations and improvisations.

There is no greater authority on Mexican cooking than Rick Bayless, and no one can teach it better. In his skillful hands, the wonderful flavors of Mexico will enter your kitchen and your daily cooking routine without losing any of their depth or timeless appeal.


Chapter One

Essential Flavors of the Mexican Kithcen

Every cuisine has classic combinations of flavor that emanate from its platters and plates. As distinctly recognizable as these combinations are (everyone knows when a dish tastes Italian or Moroccan or Thai), rarely are they as easy to isolate into building-block recipes as they are in Mexico. No one, though, has attempted this project -- the dislodging of these cornerstones from full-built Mexican dishes -- yet it's an exercise I think can be very useful when getting to know the Mexican kitchen. So I'm formalizing a first pass at it here, and what follows is the way my 15 Essential Recipes naturally group.

All recipes, except the one for tortillas, make a salsa, sauce or seasoning. One group focuses on tomatoes (with fresh or dried chiles as flavorings), another on tomatillos (again with fresh or dried chiles), and a third on purees of rehydrated dried chiles. In addition, there's an essential recipe that focuses on fresh poblano chiles and one on the classic Yucatecan spice, achiote. These recipes together illustrate the principal flavor choruses that sing their way through dishes in Mexico. Some are utilized more than others, though I think most Mexican cooks would agree that each plays an essential role in the cuisine.

Within the recipes that feature tomatoes, one (the Essential Simmered Tomato-Jalapeño Sauce) slowly simmers them into a sauce spiked with jalapeños and seared white onion, a second (Essential Simmered Tomato-Habanero Sauce) sizzles them in a pan with fruity, renegade habaneros, and a third (Essential Quick-Cooked Tomato-Chipotle Sauce) does the same with smoky chipotles and sweet garlic. Each has a different tomato texture, each a distinct profile resulting from its featured chile.

Roasted tomatoes that don't receive any additional cooking (no further sizzling or simmering) get worked together with jalapeños, garlic and cilantro into a salsa (Essential Roasted Tomato-Jalapeño Salsa) that has both richness and robust freshness -- a combination of characteristics you don't find in any of the cooked sauces. And if freshness is your passion, then one of the two chopped salsas will satisfy -- either the classic mix of raw tomato, white onion, serrano and cilantro (Essential Chopped Tomato-Serrano Salsa) or the fiery, close cousin (Essential Chopped Tomato-Habanero Salsa) made with habaneros, plus radishes for crunch.

Tomatillos offer a tangier backdrop than tomatoes. When they're simmered with serranos, onions and garlic in the Essential Simmered Tomatillo-Serrano Sauce, there is a mellow transformation in flavor and texture. Simply working together the same basic ingredients-no further cooking -- creates a salsa (Essential Roasted Tomatillo-Serrano Salsa) with a rough texture that springs into a very zesty mouthful. Simply blend together roasted tomatillos with the smokiness of chipotles and the sweetness of roasted garlic, and you wind up with a salsa (Essential Roasted Tomatillo-Chipotle Salsa) that emphasizes tangy sweetness and fire.

The seasonings and sauces made from purees of rehydrated dried chiles transform each chile's concentrated flavor into an even more concentrated (but less raucous) experience, filled in and balanced with herbs, spices and garlic. When you make the Essential Sweet-and-Spicy Ancho Seasoning Paste you'll notice that the rich, dried cherrylike ancho flavor comes to the fore, while natural bitterness fades. The near-molasses edge on the woodsy, dried-fruit punch of black pasillas is the focus of Essential Bold Pasilla Seasoning Paste; the tangy vegetal qualities of the chile are much less apparent.

The Essential Simmered Guajillo Sauce pulls together the whirl of brilliant raw flavors into a well-proportioned sauce that casts sweetness against natural sharpness. And Essential Sweet-and-Smoky Chipotle Seasoning Salsa is an exercise in boldness: smokiness made even smokier by frying the dried chiles, roughness smoothed and piquancy concentrated by slowly cooking the puree, and everything balanced by plenty of sweetness from dark sugar and roasted garlic.

We're a long way into these essential recipes to be just arriving at Essential Roasted Poblano Rajas. This simple mixture of rich-tasting roasted peppers, seared white onions, garlic and herbs, is without doubt quintessentially Mexican and thoroughly useful -- it works with everything from condiments and salsas to salads, soups and casseroles.

While you'll find several flavors of seasoning pastes in Yucatecan markets, the rusty-colored achiote one is known and used throughout Mexico. All the garlic, herbs and spices give it a baroque quality, though the earthy flavor of achiote is what this seasoning (Essential Garlicky Achiote Seasoning Paste) is all about.

Corn tortillas are a backdrop to all Mexican flavor -- more so than beans and rice, certainly more than flour tortillas. The Essential Corn Tortilla recipe gives detailed directions for how to make them. I include this recipe not because ready-made tortillas are difficult to find, but because I want to encourage you to (occasionally) make your own: The feel of the dough, the smell of a griddleful of golden rounds and the taste of a just-baked tortilla will teach you more about the Mexican table than anything else I can imagine.

As you page through the rest of the book, you'll find that when one of these Essentials is the cornerstone of a recipe, we've highlighted it. I hope this will bring them to your attention, as well as bring to mind ways to utilize these basic flavors in dishes of your own creation. You may even find yourself making double or triple batches of your favorite Essentials to have on hand as a head start. In each dish that uses an Essential, I list the amount you'll need; if you already have the Essential made, simply measure out the appropriate quantity and move straight on to finishing the dish.


Salsa de Fitomate Cocida

You can taste the sear and sizzle in every spoonful of this well-known classic. Here the roasty sweetness of charred tomatoes and blistered chiles are all blended to a rough puree and seared in a hot pan. But why does tradition dictate that we go to the fuss of roasting and frying when a comforting sauce of canned tomatoes (perhaps with the familiar touch of tomato paste) could be slow-simmered with a little diced jalapeño? Because we want the earthy gustiness of Mexico here, not the slow-simmered sweetness of a typical pizza sauce. We're talking inimitable huevos rancheros of energetic tomato-doused sunnyside-up eggs on toasty corn tortillas.

Choose plum tomatoes for a thicker texture, round tomatoes for a lighter, brothier consistency. This sauce is so versatile you can substitute it for any tomato sauce called for in this book.

Makes 4 cups

Generous 1 pound (about 2 large round, 8 to 10 plum) tomatoes

1 to 2 (about 3/4 ounce total) fresh jalapeño chiles, stemmed

1 tablespoon vegetable oil or rich-tasting lard

1/2 small (about 2 ounces) white onion, thinly sliced

1 1/2 cups chicken broth

Salt, about 1 1/2 teaspoons, depending on the saltiness of the broth

1. Roasting the tomatoes and chiles.
Roast the tomatoes and chiles on a baking sheet 4 inches below a very hot broiler until blistered and blackened on 1 side, about 6 minutes, then use tongs or a spoon to turn them over and roast the other side. Cool, then peel the tomatoes, collecting all the juices. Roughly chop the chiles. Coarsely puree the tomatoes (with juices) and the chiles in a food processor or blender. Pulse the mixture only a few times leaving it quite chunky for huevos rancheros, for instance, or run the machine until the sauce is quite smooth if you're preparing, say, enchiladas.

2. Cooking the sauce. In a medium (8- to 9-inch) deep, heavy skillet or medium-size (2- to 3-quart) saucepan heat the oil or lard over medium. Add the onion and fry until browned, about 10 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high, and, when very hot, add the tomato-chile mixture. Stir for 5 minutes or so as the mixture sizzles, darkens and thickens, then reduce the heat to medium-low, stir in the broth and let the sauce cook at a gentle simmer for about 15 minutes, until beginning to thicken (though it shouldn't be as thick as spaghetti sauce). Taste and season with salt and it's ready to use.

Advance Preparation -- This useful sauce can be made several days in advance; it can be frozen successfully but may need to be boiled briefly to look as it did before freezing.

Shortcuts -- Three-quarters of a 28-ounce can of tomatoes can replace the fresh ones.

Other Chiles You Can Use -- The same quantity of serranos can replace the jalapeños, as can 1/2 to 1 habanero chile.

Traditional Dishes that Use this Essential as a Starting Point

Spicy Tomato-Sauced Enchiladas

Simple Ideas from My American Home

Huevos Rancheros
-- Steam-heat 8 corn tortillas. Fry 8 eggs sunny-side up. On each of 4 plates, slide 2 eggs onto 2 slightly overlapping warm tortillas, liberally spoon the sauce over everything, then sprinkle with sliced raw onion, chopped cilantro and a little crumbled Mexican queso fresco, queso añejo or Parmesan.

Layered Tortilla-Ricotta Casserole -- Steam-heat 12 tortillas, smear a little of the sauce over a baking dish, then make 4 "stacks" in the dish: Spread out 4 tortillas, spoon 3 tablespoons of ricotta (seasoned with salt) onto each, sprinkle with some sauteed mushrooms or grilled vegetables and some chopped cilantro or fresh thyme, splash with a little sauce, then repeat the layers of tortilla, ricotta, mushrooms (or vegetables) and sauce. Finish each stack with a tortilla. Spoon sauce on to cover the tortilla well, sprinkle with grated Chihuahua or other melting cheese and bake until they're bubbly and brown.

Seared Jalapeño Beef Tips -- Make the sauce with beef stock if you have it. In a large, heavy skillet filmed with oil, sear about 1 1/4 pounds of beef sirloin or other steak (cut into 1-inch cubes) over medium-high heat until browned on all sides. Add 2 cups of the sauce, then briskly boil until slightly reduced and the meat is as done as you like it.

Fresh Jalapeño Chiles

As my wife Deann says, "Jalapeños are being bred to boredom." The raw flesh of some of the cultivars has as little flavor and heat as a green bell pepper, with the same kind of juicy, grassy qualities. Others will be richer in flavor and medium hot (or more). The bigger ones seem to be blander, and I think their only good use is for stuffing, because it is easy. Jalapeños sold in the Mexican markets are often smaller and more flavorful. If the jalapeños in your recipe are chopped or pickled whole, they could easily be replaced with serranos (and in some instances probably should be, if you like a spicy green-chile zing).

Jalapeños are found in practically every market in Mexico and most supermarkets in the United States. It's in Veracruz, though, that they have their homeland and grow in the greatest variety You'll find Christmasy red ones, and ones they call gordos (fat chiles), or huachinangos, or cuaresmeños -- locals swear they all taste different, though I think you need to be raised there to get some of the differences. The smallest ones are dried into chile chipotle colorado (also known as chile mora or morita); large ones that dry with a corky covering become chile chipotle meco.

Stats: An average jalapeño is bell-pepper green (lighter than a poblano), about 1/2 ounce, about 2 1/2 inches long by 3/4 inch wide, the smooth-skinned, torpedo-shaped body (with rounded shoulder) quickly tapering to a point near the end.



Salsa de Melcajeta

The first time you hear that gravelly, rock-against-rock rotation of the mortar, the first time you smell the irascible aroma of crushed roasted garlic and chiles, the first time you taste the jazz band of seasoning playing through the juicy ripe tomatoes -- you've come face to face with the real Mexico. It's a simple first step, partly because it looks like what we think of as "salsa," partly because we can find the ingredients so easily. But do go to the extra effort to buy good tomatoes. Then roast them and the garlic and chiles with a confident hand -- that's the technique that sets these flavors apart. With a lava-rock mortar from Mexico, you'll feel centuries of tradition as your hands work the ingredients together.

Makes about 2 cups

1 pound (2 medium-large round or 6 to 8 plum) red, ripe tomatoes

2 large (about 1 ounce total) fresh jalapeño chiles

3 garlic cloves, unpeeled

Salt, about a scant 1/2 teaspoon

1/2 small (about 2 ounces) white onion, finely chopped

A generous 1/3 cup loosely packed chopped cilantro

About 1 1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar (optional)

1. Roasting the basic ingredients. The broiler method:
Lay the tomatoes on a baking sheet and place about 4 inches below a very hot broiler. Boast until blistered and blackened on one side, about 6 minutes; with a spoon or pair of tongs, flip the tomatoes and roast on the other side. The griddle method: Line a griddle or heavy skillet with aluminum foil and heat over medium. Lay the tomatoes on the foil and roast, turning several times, until blistered, blackened and softened, about 10 minutes. Don't worry if skin sticks to the foil.

Cool, then peel the skins, collecting all the juices with the tomatoes.

While the tomatoes are roasting, roast the chiles and unpeeled garlic directly on an ungreased griddle or heavy skillet (you already have one set up if you've griddle-roasted the tomatoes) over medium. Turn occasionally until both chiles and garlic are blackened in spots and soft, 5 to 10 minutes for the chiles, about 15 minutes for the garlic. Cool, pull the stems off the chiles and peel the papery skins from the garlic.

r2. Grinding the salsa. The mortar method: In a large mortar, use the pestle to crush and grind the chiles, garlic and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt to a coarse-textured paste (this will release a wonderfully pungent aroma), paying special attention to breaking up the chile skins. A few at a time, grind in the roasted tomatoes, transferring the ground mixture to a bowl if the mortar gets unmanageably full. The food processor or blender method: In a food processor or blender, grind the chiles, garlic and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt to a coarse paste, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl a couple of times. Add the tomatoes and pulse a few times until you have a coarse-textured puree.

Transfer the salsa to a serving bowl, and stir in any reserved tomato juices.

3. Final seasoning. In a strainer, rinse the onion under running water, shake off the excess and stir into the salsa, along with the cilantro and optional vinegar. Add water, if necessary, to give the salsa a trickish, but easily spoonable, consistency (2 to 4 tablespoons is the norm). Taste and season with salt, usually a scant 1/4 teaspoon, and the salsa's ready to serve.

Advance Preparation -- This salsa comes into its own a few hours after it's finished, especially if left at room temperature. It can be made through step 2 a day or two ahead, covered and refrigerated. Add the cilantro and onion shortly before serving.

Other Chiles You Can Use -- Besides jalapeño, serranos (3 to 5 for this quantity) are also classic. It's also made with habanero (1/2 to 1) or manzanos (1/2 to 1). With habaneros, this typical Yucatecan salsa, called chiltomate, is frequently made without chopped onion or cilantro and is flavored with sour orange juice in place of the cider vinegar.

Traditional Dishes that Use this Essential as a Staring Point

Classic Red Tomato Rice; Rustic Red-Sauced Eggs; Seafood Rice Cazuela

Simple Ideas from My American Home

A Different (but Traditional) Guacamole
-- Make the salsa as directed, but don't add any water. Coarsely mash 3 avocados, stir in a cup or so of the salsa, add a little more chopped cilantro if you wish, taste for salt and the guacamole is ready.

Spicy Chicken "Hash" -- In a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, fry an onion (sliced) in several tablespoons of oil until golden. Add about 1 1/2 cups of the salsa and cook until thick and reduced, then stir in 3 cups of boiled-until-tender, roughly mashed red-skin potatoes. Keep frying and turning and working everything together until the potatoes brown and the mixture holds together. Stir in a cup of shredded smoked (or roasted) chicken and some chopped cilantro or green onion, warm through and the hash is ready.

Falapeño-Baked Fish -- Lay four 5- or 6-ounce fillets -- such as snapper, mahimahi, grouper or bass -- in an oiled baking dish in a single layer and sprinkle with salt. Spoon 2 cups of salsa over them. Bake in a 400-degree oven until the fish just flakes when firmly pressed (it'll take about 8 minutes if your fillets are 3/4 inch thick). If you like richer flavors, sear the fillets on both sides in an oiled skillet over medium-high before laying them in the pan. If the sauce seems too juicy, pour it into a saucepan and boil gently until reduced. Sprinkle the whole dish with some chopped cilantro before serving.

What's Best? Mortar versus Blender versus Food Processor

Those chiseled-out bowls of basalt (lava rock) called molcajetes in Mexico -- the ones that sit on counters in taquerías, home kitchens, even fancy eateries -- are so tangled up in Mexican culinary history that it's nearly impossible to think there could be a replacement. But, in all honesty, for some jobs there is.

If you're talking about a chunky salsa made from roasted jalapeños, garlic and tomatoes, what you'll get from the mortar -- juicy, elegantly textured, clear in flavor -- is much better than the pulp you'll get from a blender or food processor that you've turned on and just let run. However, carefully pulsing a machine with sharp blades can yield a decent salsa.

Very few cooks these days (in Mexico or beyond) use a mortar (or its larger cousin, the metate) to make dried chile sauce; the chile skins are hard to grind. A food processor works remarkably well for such a sauce, as does a blender, though the latter usually requires the addition of a little extra liquid and repeated stopping to scrape down the blender jar. For sauces thickened with nuts and seeds (like moles andpipianes), the blender works far better than the food processor because its blades go faster and can pulverize even the smallest seeds.

I would be remiss if I didn't say that those who've been raised on mole de la abuelita (grandma's mole) say that when she grinds everything by hand the flavors and textures are better. This makes perfect sense: in the mortar or on the metate, you're crushing ingredients, hence extracting more flavor, rather than finely chopping them as you do in a blender.

Bottom line: I have a molar and I use it for grinding spices and for certain salsas (I've noted this in the recipes). The extra muscle power I expend is easily made up for by my enjoyment of the aromas and texture. In my recipes, I call for a mortar, blender and food processor; whichever I list first is my preference.

Choosing, Seasoning and Using a Mexican Mortar

It's not likely you'll find a good, heavy molcajete made of the densest basalt (lava rock) for sale in the United States, simply because the best ones weigh and cost a lot, and there's not a huge call for them here. Lightweight "tourist" models look nice on the shelf but are so rough and porous that you'll forever be grinding grit into your food. In Mexico, I suggest you search through the markets for a stall that primarily sells mortars and metates (the sloped flat grinding stones). Choose a heavy, compact, smooth-textured mortar -- the surface should look a little like unpolished granite -- that will hold three to four cups. I am partial to the ones with a decorative pig or ram's head carved on the side.

To season your molcajete, grind a handful of wet, raw rice in it once a day for several days, until you've smoothed out the roughest edges in the bowl and the rice no longer looks dirty. When grinding, hold the metlapil (the pestle) so that your fingers are parallel to its length (not wrapped around it), with the smallest end toward your palm. Keep your wrist rather loose to allow you to rotate the pestle easily around the bowl while exerting an even pressure from your palm.

When making salsa in the mortar, the idea is to work the ingredients together a little at a time. Start with the hardest (or most difficult to grind) items, then, work in the softer, juicier stuff.


Salsa Mexicana Clásica

The tenderness of ripe tomato against the crunch of raw onion, the tap dance of serranos backed up by aromatic cilantro, garlic and lime -- this is Mexican cooking at its most beguiling.

Of course, Salsa Mexicana is best when each ingredient is perfect -- from warm, just-picked tomatoes to green-tops-on white onions -- but don't miss the pleasure of this salsa even when the tomatoes are less than perfect. Chop everything with a sharp knife so nothing gets bruised and finely enough that the flavors really meld. Make your salsa within an hour or so of serving for great texture and vibrant flavors.

Makes about 2 cups

12 ounces (2 medium-small round or 4 or 5 plum) ripe tomatoes

Fresh serrano chiles to taste (roughly 3 to 5, 1/2 to 1 ounce total, or even more if you like it really picante), stemmed

A dozen or so large sprigs of cilantro

1 large garlic clove, peeled and very finely chopped (optional)

1 small (4-ounce) white onion

1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lime juice

Salt, about 3/4 teaspoon

Core the tomatoes, then cut in half widthwise and squeeze out the seeds if you wish (it will give the sauce a less rustic appearance). Finely dice the flesh by slicing it into roughly 1/4-inch thick pieces, then cutting each slice into small dice. Scoop into a bowl.

Cut the chiles in half lengthwise (wear gloves if your hands are sensitive to their piquancy) and scrape out the seeds if you wish (not only will this make the salsa seem less rustic, but it will make it a little less picante). Chop the chiles as finely as you can, then add them to the tomatoes. Carefully bunch up the cilantro sprigs, and, with a sharp knife, slice them 1/16, inch thick, stems and all, working from the leafy end toward the stems. Scoop into the tomato mixture along with the optional garlic. Next, finely dice the onion with a knife, scoop it into a small strainer, then rinse it under cold water. Shake to remove excess water and add to the tomato mixture. Taste and season with lime juice and salt, and let stand a few minutes for the flavors to meld.

Advance Preparation -- This salsa tastes best within a few hours of the time it's made, though if using as the base of a cooked dish you can make it early in the day.

Other Chiles You Can Use -- Three to five jalapeños can be substituted for serranos, as can habaneros, though in the last case you'll want to use just 1/2 to 1 chile.

Traditional Dishes that Use this Essential as a Starting Point

Guacamole; Roasted Cactus Salad; Classic Seviche Tostadas; Mexican Rice Supper; Deluxe Scrambled Eggs; Shrimp a la Mexicana

Simple Ideas from My American Home

Great Summer Supper
-- When you're making the salsa, chop an extra 2 garlic cloves and 2 serranos and mix them with 2 or 3 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce and a little grated lime zest. Use this mixture to marinate about 1 1/4 pounds of trimmed skirt steak (to serve 4) for an hour, then charcoal-grill and serve with a liberal sprinkling of the salsa.

Simple Confetti Pasta -- Make the salsa without the lime juice. Boil 12 ounces of fresh pasta for 4 people until al dente, drain, return to the pan and drizzle on a little olive oil. Mix in the salsa, tossing until everything is warm, then divide onto plates and sprinkle with finely crumbled Mexican queso añejo or Parmesan and chopped cilantro.

A Different Potato Salad -- Cube a pound of boiling potatoes and boil in salted water until just tender. Drain, and, while hot, gently toss with olive oil and a little mellow vinegar. When cool, gently stir in about a cup of the salsa and more cilantro if you like.

Fresh Serrano Chiles

In the workaday world of my kitchen (restaurant or home), fresh serranos are indispensable. They're hot and intense with a pure-and-simple flavor that only can be described as "green chile," unless of course they've matured to a sweeter -- but still hot -- red. Many Americans know instinctively to chop up serranos to add zing to a dish, yet few of us think of pickling them. We should, since just about anywhere jalapeño is appropriate, so is a serrano, especially if you like spiciness and bold flavors. And keep in mind that a serrano is more predictably hot than a jalapeño. It is certainly more beloved in Mexico, where most people call it simply chile verde, "green chile."

The compact texture of a serrano's raw flesh is compact in flavor, too: green apples and raw green beans mixed with a sharp heat and what I think of as the perfect, bright-green, almost limey, green-chile flavor that lingers with hints of olive oil and cilantro.

Stats: An average serrano is the color of a green bell pepper with some ripening to yellow or red. There are about 6 to an ounce, each 1 1/2 to 2 inches long by about 1/2 inch wide, having a bullet-shaped body, with rounded shoulders that tapers to a point near the end.


Great tomatoes are a critical ingredient in Mexican cuisine, second only to chiles. So what do you do when it's winter, you want to make great Mexican food and you live in St. Louis? Well, the situation has improved. Sinaloa, in northwestern Mexico, ships crates of plum tomatoes our way during the winter months. Though they're picked pretty green and gassed to ripen, they are certainly okay in cooked sauces. In fact, if you let the tomatoes ripen on the counter, and never refrigerate them unless they're so ripe they'll spoil, the sauce will be quite good.

Plum tomatoes (called tomates guajes or jitomates guajes in much of Mexico) work well in cooked sauces because they have a pulpier, less juicy texture that cooks up rich and thick. For chopping raw or for roasting and crushing into a salsa, I prefer the juicy texture of round tomatoes (called tomate or jitomate with or without the adjective redondo). Cherry tomatoes taste riper than round tomatoes in off-peak months, but their skins are tough in salsas; the small round hothouse varieties (especially those imported on the vine) are a better, though expensive, option.

Bottom line: Ripeness is more important than shape, and by "ripe" understand that I mean "very ripe, soft ripe, riper than you'd usually think of as ripe." For cooked sauces, canned tomatoes (preferably plums) may be substituted for fresh (a 28-ounce can is equivalent to 1 1/2 pounds fresh), though you're sacrificing some texture and all the flavor you'd get from roasting the tomatoes.

At farmer's markets, look for a high-acid tomato if you want your dishes to really sing. I love an heirloom variety they sell in Chicago called costoluto. It's very similar to a deeply fluted tomato folks seem to like so much in Oaxaca -- medium pulpy and good both for cooking and eating raw. I highly recommend roasting and peeling tots of late-summer ripe tomatoes to freeze for the winter.

Stats: An average plum tomato weighs 2 to 3 ounces, a medium-small round weighs 6 ounces, a medium-large weighs 8 ounces, and a large weighs 10 ounces.



Yucatecans live in a tasty world of bright flavors. The natural sweetness of ripe tomatoes invigorated with the ignitable potential of habanero, the aroma of cilantro, the zing of sour orange or lime, and the resonant crunch of raw radish and onion. That's xnipec (say "shnee-pek," Mayan for "nose of the dog" the books say, refraining from further comment). If you leave out the tomatoes, most Yucatecans call the resulting mix salpicón, an enlivened sprinkle for their otherwise quite simply flavored fare. I doubt you'd think of the tomatoless version as a salsa (especially one for chips), but its possibilities as a relish are numerous. Either version is essential in my kitchen to accompany anything flavored with achiote.

Makes about 2 cups

1 small (4-ounce) red onion

2 tablespoons fresh sour orange or lime juice

10 ounces (2 small round or 3 or 4 plum) ripe tomatoes

6 radishes

1/2 to I Whole fresh habanero chile, depending on your personal attraction to the "burn"

A dozen or so large sprigs of cilantro

Salt, about 1/2 teaspoon

Very finely chop the onion with a knife (a food processor will make it into a quickly souring mess), scoop it into a strainer and rinse under cold water. Shake off as much water as possible, then transfer to a small bowl and stir in the juice to "deflame" the onion's pungency. Set aside while you prepare the remaining ingredients.

Core the tomatoes, then cut them crosswise in half and squeeze out the seeds if you want (it'll make the sauce seem less rustic). Finely dice the tomatoes by slicing them into roughly l/4-inch pieces, then cutting each slice into small dice. Scoop into a bowl. Slice the radishes 1/16 inch thick, then chop into matchsticks or small dice. Add to the tomatoes. Carefully cut out and discard the habanero's seed pod (wear rubber gloves if your hands are sensitive to the piquancy of the chiles), mince the flesh into tiny bits, and add to the tomatoes. Bunch up the cilantro sprigs, and, with a very sharp knife, slice them 1/16 inch thick, stems and all, working from the leafy end toward the stems.

Combine radishes, chile and chopped cilantro with the tomato mixture, stir in the onion and juice mixture, taste anti season with salt and it's ready to serve in a salsa dish for spooning onto tacos, grilled fish and the like.

Advance Preparation -- The salsa is best within a few hours of its completion, and be forewarned that the longer it sits, the more picante it will seem.

Other Chiles You Can Use -- Jalapeños and serranos (3 to 5) can replace the habanero. Manzano chiles (1/2 to 1) also would taste good in this salsa.

Traditional Dishes that Use this Essential as a Starting Point Spicy Yucatecan Beef "Salad" Tacos

Simple Ideas from My American Home

Spicy Chicken Salad
-- Mix cubed cooked chicken (try smoked chicken for even more flavor) with mayonnaise until you get the chicken salad as moist as you like it. Stir in salsa a spoonful at a time (draining off as much liquid as possible) until the salad is spicy and nicely flavored. Diced jícama adds a nice crunch; a little more cilantro adds liveliness.

Seafood or Asparagus Salad -- As a substantial appetizer for four, very briefly boil 1 pound of shrimp or steam 1 pound of asparagus until tender; cool. Mix 2 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil with 2 tablespoons sour orange or lime juice, stir in a cup or so of the salsa and taste for salt (it should be a little salty). For seafood: Combine salsa and cooked seafood, and let stand an hour or so, stirring regularly, before serving on a bed of sliced lettuce. For asparagus: Divide the asparagus among 4 lettuce-lined plates and spoon the salsa mixture over them. You may want a little extra chopped cilantro.

Seared Fish with Tangy Habanero -- In a large, heavy skillet filmed with oil, sear 4 fish fillets over medium-high heat until brown on both sides. Remove from the pan, add the salsa and stir until wilted and the liquid reduces. Stir in 1/4 to 1/3 cup of heavy cream or crème frêiche, then nestle the fish back in the pan. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat until the fish barely flakes. Transfer to dinner plates. If the sauce is thinner than you'd like, boil it briskly to reduce, then spoon over the fillets.

Fresh Habanero Chiles

Wow! The aromatic of a fresh raw habanero -- I'm talking about an orange, ripe one -- smells like passion fruit or guavas, apricots and orange blossoms, all mixed up with green herbs and a piquancy your nose can detect. All the flowers and fruit come through in the taste as well, along with sweetness and a tangerine tang -- and a glorious heat that overtakes the front two-thirds of your mouth and heightens your senses.

These are not Scotch bonnet peppers, the latter being more aggressively flavored (though noticeably similar) and equally hot. The related Scotch bonnet looks different, too, usually smaller and sunken at the shoulder with a stem that rises from a nipple-shaped bump.

A final note about habaneros: we use so little of them in each dish that I recommend buying a handful when you find them and storing them whole in the freezer up to 3 months. Frozen ones slice in half easily and taste as good to me as fresh ones in cooked sauces and even in fresh salsas, where there's so little chile that the textural difference is hard to notice.

Stats: An average habanero ranges from light green to bright orange, is about 1/3 ounce, about 1 1/2 inches long by 1 inch wide at the squared-off but not sunken shoulder, the lantern-shaped body quickly tapering to a point just before the end; almost all will be deeply dimpled and the points of some will look like a nipple.

"Deflaming" Onion

I'm not a scientist, but am thankful they can give us useful information about why onions make us cry: Listen to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking: "The volatile substance in onions that makes the eyes water...arise[s] from another cysteine derivative that is rearranged by enzymes when the cell contents are mixed." By mixed, I think he means when we cut into the onions. And the juice that flows out (the mixed contents of the cells) is that same aggressive juice that's responsible for what I call the "American-Mexican Restaurant Syndrome," that rather annoying repetition of flavors you experience hours after you've left one of the less-careful Mexican restaurants.

From good cooks in Mexico, who love to put raw onion in and on just about everything, I've learned to take the "flame" out of the cut-up vegetable by scooping it into a strainer and rinsing it under cold water. If you need to chop an onion several hours ahead, soak it for a few minutes in a bowl of cold water to which you've added a splash of vinegar, then drain it well. In some recipes that call for citrus juice or vinegar, I've directed you to deflame the onions right in the acidy liquid.


Jemate Frito

How the mettle of roasted tomatoes changes when simmered with habanero! Sure, the hot chile gives them some piquancy (though the chile in this recipe is just cut in half in traditional Yucatecan style, so it won't impart much), but they also take on that flavor so many of us have grown to love -- fruity, herby, complex. In short, deliciously, unusually habanero.

This is a cooked mixture (hence the name sauce), but it's thought of more as a salsa in Yucatan, set out at room temperature to spoon on another preparation. That's mostly how we've used it throughout the book, but feel free to add 1 cup of chicken broth to it once it's reduced and simmer for an additional 15 minutes. You'll have an all-purpose habanero sauce to use on enchiladas or eggs.

Yucatecans roast lots of their vegetables, usually on a griddle since ovens with broilers are not common. I've described the traditional method for the tomatoes, then given you the simpler, more controlled broiler method. Replacing fresh tomatoes with good-quality canned is an option (you'll need a 28-ounce can); you'll miss the toasty flavor, but the sauce will certainly be worth making.


1 1/2 pounds (3 medium-large or 9 to 12 plum) ripe tomatoes

1 1/2 tablespoons rich-tasting lard or olive or vegetable oil

1 small (4-ounce) white onion, thinly sliced

1 fresh habanero chile, halved

Salt, about 1/2 teaspoon

1. Roasting the tomatoes. The griddle method:
Line a griddle or heavy skillet with aluminum foil and heat over medium. Lay the tomatoes on the foil and roast, turning several times, until blistered, blackened and softened, about 10 minutes. Don't worry if some of the skin sticks to the foil. The broiler method: Lay the tomatoes on a baking sheet and place about 4 inches below a very hot broiler. Roast until blistered and blackened on one side, about 6 minutes; flip the tomatoes and roast the other side.

Cool, then peel, collecting any juices with the tomatoes. Coarsely puree tomatoes and juices in a food processor or blender.

2. The sauce. In a medium-size (2- to 3-quart) saucepan, heat the lard or oil over medium. Add the onion and fry until deep golden, about 8 minutes. Add the tomatoes and chile halves and simmer 15 minutes or so, stirring often, until nicely reduced but not dry (it should be an easily spoonable consistency). Taste (it will be wonderfully picante and nicely perfumed), season with salt, remove the chile if you want and it's ready to use.

Advance Preparation -- Covered and refrigerated, the sauce will keep for several days; it also freezes well.

Other Chiles You Can Use -- Jalapeños and serranos (3 to 5) and manzanos (1 to 2) can replace the habaneros.

Traditional Dishes that Use this Essential as a Starting Point Motul-Style Eggs: Yucatecan Tamales; Campeche Baked Fish Fillets

Simple Ideas from My American Home

Spicy Stuffed Zucchini
-- Slice 2 large zucchinis in haft lengthwise and scoop out the center with a small spoon to make 4 "boats." Warm 1/2 cup cream cheese in a microwave, then mix in 1 1/2 cups fresh corn kernels and 1/3 cup soft bread crumbs; salt. Stuff into the zucchini boats and bake at 350 degrees on an oiled baking sheet until the zucchini is crisp-tender, about 20 minutes. Spoon warm salsa over the boats and sprinkle with cilantro.

Simple Black Bean Dinner -- If you have a pot of seasoned, cooked black beans on hand, simmer it for 20 or 30 minutes with 1/2 cup chorizo sausage or with cubed smoked sausage. Serve topped with big dollops of this sauce and chopped cilantro.

Where to Buy Chiles

These days, I'm glad to say, you can find a variety of chiles in most grocery stores, especially in areas with large Mexican populations or in stores that offer specialty items. You'll find fresh chiles in the produce section, of course, dried chiles with ethnic ingredients or spices. In grocery stores and specialty food shops, dried chiles are often sold in small packages; you'll need to go there with an idea of what you're looking for (they're sometimes mislabeled) and be prepared to pay the specialty-store price. Mexican groceries are the best places to buy your chiles, since a greater demand usually translates into freshness. There, too, you'll need to know what you're looking for, since the chiles may not be labeled at all.

To find a Mexican grocery, ask around for a Mexican community, then visit its business district, preferably on a Sunday afternoon when the grocery stores tend to be hopping and have special offerings (like carnitas, barbacoa, cactus salad, chicharrón, masa for tortillas or tamales -- all the special stuff for a great Sunday dinner). If there's no Mexican grocery nearby and no specialty food shop that is Mexican-friendly, refer to Sources, where I've listed a few mail-order companies that offer good variety of high-quality dried chiles and other ingredients.

Onions in Mexican Cooking

Onions (and garlic) form the warp in a Mexican sauce, into which more assertive flavors are woven. They add texture and brightness when stirred in raw (see notes on Deflaming Onions, for the Mexican way to tame their bite); they enrich with a delicate sweetness when cooked.

North of the Río Grande, we think of onions as yellow; south they are white. Yet despite the similarity of the two, they really are not interchangeable. Yellows have a more complex, herbal, sweeter flavor; whites are tangy and sharp with a clean, crisp flavor and texture. In Mexican food, that yellow-onion complexity translates as a muddy taste, I feel, especially when used raw.

Thankfully, white onions are readily available in most grocery stores throughout the United States. The green-tops-on variety that Mexicans love to slice raw over finished dishes can be found in Mexican groceries and farmer's markets.

Red onions are used extensively in Yucatan and regularly throughout the rest of the country (though, to my understanding, they're thought of as a specialty onion -- one used for pickling). Supersweet types like Vidalia are not part of the general offerings in Mexico, and I doubt they ever will be. Their pure sugariness seems inappropriate for the role of onions in the cuisine.

Stats: All the recipes in this book were cooked using an exact weight of onion that corresponds to whole white onions as follows: a small onion weighs 4 ounces, a medium 6 ounces and a large 8 ounces. A medium red onion weighs 8 ounces.


Salsa de Chile Chipotle y Jitomate

This earthy-hued Essential Sauce, gently balanced between smokiness and natural sweetness, is used as the starting point for more dishes in this hook than is any other dried red chile Essential.

The concentrated, roasty flavor of blackened tomatoes gets focused in this classic when they're blended with the smokiness of chipotles and sweetness of garlic, then seared in a hot oiled pan (I do hope you won't be afraid to use a little high-heat-rendered pork lard; the sauce tastes all the better). Leaving the sauce fairly thick makes it more versatile (you can use it as the base for shrimp cocktail, for instance), though if you're looking for that tomato-sauce sauciness for huevos rancheros, stir in 1 cup of chicken broth and simmer over medium-low heat for 15 minutes or so. You can make the sauce with good canned tomatoes -- a 28-ounce can here -- if there were no ripe tomatoes to be found, skipping the tomato roasting step, of course.

Makes about 2 cups

3 to 4 (about 1/4 ounce total) dried black-red chiles chipotles colorados (chiles moritas)

OR 2 to 3 (about 1/4 ounce total) dried tan chiles chipotles mecos

OR 3 to 4 canned chiles chipotles en adobo

4 garlic cloves, unpeeled

1 1/2 pounds (3 medium-large round or 9 to 12 plum) ripe tomatoes

1 tablespoon rich-tasting lard or olive or vegetable oil

Salt, about 1/2 teaspoon

1. Toasting and roasting the key ingredients.
Set a heavy ungreased skillet or griddle over medium heat. If using dried chiles, break off their stems. Toast the chiles a few at a time: Lay on the hot surface, press flat for a few seconds with a metal spatula (they'll crackle faintly and release their smoky aroma), then flip and press down to toast the other side. Transfer the toasted chiles to a bowl, cover with hot water and let rehydrate for 30 minutes, stirring regularly to ensure even soaking. Pour off all the water and discard.

If using canned chiles, simply remove them from the adobo they're packed in.

On a heavy, ungreased skillet or griddle over medium heat (you'll already have it on if you're using dried chiles), roast the unpeeled garlic, turning occasionally, until blackened in spots and soft, about 15 minutes. Cool, slip off the papery skins, and roughly chop.

Lay the tomatoes on a baking sheet and place about 4 inches below a very hot broiler. When they blister, blacken and soften on one side, about 6 minutes, turn them over and roast on the other side. Cool, then peel, collecting all the juices with the tomatoes.

2. The sauce. Scrape the tomatoes and their juices into a food processor or blender and add the rehydrated or canned chiles and garlic. Pulse the machine until the mixture is nearly a puree -- it should have a little more texture than canned tomato sauce.

Heat the lard or oil in a heavy, medium-size (2- to 3-quart) saucepan over medium-high. When hot enough to make a drop of the puree sizzle sharply, add it all at once and stir for about 5 minutes as it sears and concentrates to an earthy, red, thickish sauce -- about the consistency of a medium-thick spaghetti sauce. Taste and season with salt.

Advance Preparation -- The sauce will keep for several days, covered and refrigerated; it freezes as well, though upon defrosting, boil it briefly to return its great texture.

Other Chiles You Can Use -- You can replace the chipotles with dried cascabel, árbol or dried serrano (serrano seco) chiles.

Traditional Dishes that Use this Essential as a Starting Point

Smoky Shredded Pork Tacos; Layered Tortilla-Tomato Casserole; Scared Zucchini with Roasted Tomato, Chipotle and Chorizo; Browned Vermicelli with Roasted Tomato, Zucchini and Aged Cheese; Smoky Shredded Chicken and Potatoes with Roasted Tomatoes; Smoky Braised Squab

Simple Ideas from My American Home

Sweet-and-Smoky Pork Chops
-- Lay 4 thick pork chops in a baking dish and pour the sauce over them. Bake in a 325-degree oven until tender but still a little pink inside (allow about 35 to 40 minutes for 1-inch chops and warm sauce). Remove the chops to a baking sheet and increase the oven to 500 degrees. Pour the sauce into a saucepan and simmer briskly until as thick as you like. Mix 3 tablespoons with 3 tablespoons honey and brush over chops. Bake until nicely browned. Serve with the remaining sauce spooned around.

Simple Chilaquiles -- To feed 4, combine in a large skillet a full recipe of the sauce with 2 cups of broth, 8 cups (8 ounces) of tortilla chips (preferably thick ones), a handful of epazote leaves (or 1 cup or 2 of sliced chard or spinach if that's easier). Cover and simmer over medium-high heat for 3 minutes, until the chips are softening. Uncover, stir well (the chips should be soft but not mushy; the mixture should be a little saucy), then spoon out onto plates and sprinkle generously with crumbled Mexican queso añejo or Parmesan.

Dried Chipotle Chiles

These darlings hardly need an introduction these days. We've become enamored with their smoky heat, but few of us understand that there are really two main types of chipotles, a black-red one and a light-brown one. They have different smoky flavors, though both are smoke-dried cultivars of fresh jalapeño. Most of us, I believe, are familiar with and attracted to the dried-fruit fruitiness of the black-red ones, the ones we know from the can that are packed in a vinegary, tomatoey, slightly sweet sauce (adobo).

Black-Red Chipotle -- This category is called most often, I've found, chile chipotle or chile chipotle colorado in the Gulf region, or chile mora or chile morita, depending on size, in the Central region. A puree of toasted, rehydrated black-red chipotles is a very spicy but near-complete flavor -- it'll remind you of great, sweet smoked ham, if ham were naturally picante. Or smoky dried sweet cherries, or dried orange rind. And its full (and forward) heat is backed up by a flavor that's rich and lingering. The black-red chipotle puree comes out a dark, rosewood red.

I usually don't distinguish between black-red and light-brown chipotles in the recipes throughout this book; use what you can get, they'll both be good. For any chipotle-based salsa or cooked sauce, I generally prefer the black-red ones; for stuffing with a warm, shredded-pork or smoked fish picadillo, I like the larger light-tan chipotles.

Stats: An average black-red chipotle is purple-red to black with an intense, sweet smoky aroma; it'll be 1 to 1 1/2 inches long by a good 1/2 inch wide, 8 to 12 to an ounce, wrinkle-skinned (a good one will be slightly flexible), a little twisted and pointed.

Light-Brown Chipotle (chipotle meco) -- Through the years, I've known these beauties (they look like well-worn suede) to have a variety of flavors, from very hot, grassy smokiness to sugar-and-smoke medium spiciness. In front of me right now is a puree of toasted, rehydrated light-brown chipotle that isn't very hot at all. I'm thinking of brown sugar, ripe pineapple, tobacco and mesquite chips as I taste it -- all in a good way, though the sum isn't as rich, complete and lingering as the flavor I find in black-red chipotles. The puree is mincemeat brown.

Stats: Typical light-brown chipotles are a jute (or craft-paper) brown, 6 to 8 to an ounce, about 4 inches long by 1 inch wide, their striated, slightly wrinkled body (with rather square shoulders) tapering gently to a point.

The Whys of Soaking Chiles

When you taste a bit of dried ancho chile, chewing it and turning it over in your mouth until it softens up, an intense flavor seeps out that's untamed, even brash. But when toasted, then plumped in hot water, that ancho can be worked into a beautifully balanced salsa or sauce.

Over the years, I've tested different ways of rehydrating chiles and decided I don't think boiling them is a good idea; it takes out too much of their flavor. Instead, I use hot tap water for softening the chiles.

The chiles should be in enough water to float freely. Stir them now and again to ensure they're plumping evenly (you may find it easier to lay a small plate on top of them to keep them submerged). Soaking longer than half an hour leaches out too much flavor for me, and for salsas where I want a pungent punch, I suggest in the recipes soaking the chiles only Dong enough to make them pliable, usually 15 to 20 minutes.

I usually discard the soaking liquid (it often adds a bitter edge) and use water or broth to blend the chiles and finish the dish. If pouring out the soaking liquid goes against your grain, taste the liquid, and, if it's not bitter, use it.


Salsa Verde Cocida

Tomatillos are wonderfully adaptable. Sure, any dish that employs them for sauciness will showcase their lovely, earthy-green tartness. But depending on which steps of preparation are chosen, what balance of flavors in the dish and what variety is at hand, tomatillos can contribute a wide range of flavors.

This simmered sauce is the perfect example of the tomatillo's congeniality. For a light (both in color and flavor), bright sauce that's great for fish or enchiladas, I've given directions for barely boiling the tomatillos during the first stage of preparation. For a rich, more complex sauce that I love with beef or lamb, there are directions for roasting the tomatillos first. A thorough frying of the tomatillo puree mellows the tartness by concentrating the sweetness. The richer-flavored the broth (meat broth being the richest in flavor), the more genial the sauce. And, if it seems appropriate for your finished dish, incorporating practically any dairy product (from yogurt or cream in the sauce, to fresh, aged or melted cheese over the dish), offers even more balance.

Makes about 2 1/2 cups

1 pound (10 to 12 medium) tomatillos, husked and rinsed

Fresh serrano chiles to taste (roughly 3, 1/2 ounce total), stemmed

1 1/2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil or rich-tasting lard

1 medium (6-ounce) white onion, roughly chopped

2 large garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped

2 cups chicken, beef or fish broth (depending on how the sauce is to be used)

1/3 cup roughly chopped cilantro

Salt, 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon, depending on the saltiness of the broth

1. The tomatillos and chiles. The roasting method:
Lay the tomatillos and chiles on a baking sheet and place about 4 inches below a very hot broiler. When the tomatillos and chiles blister, blacken and soften on one side, about 5 minutes, turn them over and roast the other side. The boiling method: Half fill a medium (2- to 3-quart) saucepan with water, salt generously and bring to a boil. Add the tomatillos and chiles and simmer vigorously over medium heat until the tomatillos have softened a little and lost their brightness everywhere except on the indented stem end, 2 to 4 minutes. Drain and cool.

Transfer tomatillos, chiles and any accumulated juices to a food processor or blender.

2. The puree. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a deep, medium-large (9- or 10-inch) heavy skillet over medium. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until deep golden, about 8 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook a minute longer, then scrape the browned mixture into the processor or blender. If using a blender, cover it loosely. Now, pulse whatever machine you're using to reduce the ingredients to a rough-looking puree -- smooth enough to hold together, but rough enough to keep it from that uninteresting baby-food blahness.

3. Finishing the sauce. Wipe the skillet clean; then heat the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of the oil over medium-high. When hot enough to make a drop of the puree sizzle sharply, pour it in all at once and stir constantly for 4 or 5 minutes, as your sauce base sears and sizzles into a darker and thicker mass. (You'll notice that characteristic roasty, tangy aroma fill the kitchen.) Stir in the broth, let return to a boil, reduce the heat to medium and simmer briskly until thick enough to coat a spoon, about 10 minutes. (You can check the consistency by spooning a little on a plate: If it looks watery, solids separating quickly from the broth, simmer it longer; if it mounds thickly, stir in a little broth or water.) Stir in cilantro, then taste and season with salt.

Advance Preparation -- The sauce can be prepared 4 or 5 days ahead. If frozen, whiz it in the blender or processor to get it back to a beautiful texture.

Other Chiles You Can Use -- Fresh jalapeños can stand in for the serranos.

Traditional Dishes that Use this Essential as a Starting Point

Tacos of Tomatillo Chicken; Tangy Tomatillo-Sauced Fish Enchiladas; Roasted Mexican Vegetables in Green-Sesame Pipián; Pan-Roasted Salmon in Aromatic Green Pipián; Tomatillo-Braised Pork Country Ribs

Simple Ideas from My American Home

Simple Enchiladas Suizas -- Steam-heat 10 or 12 corn tortillas; shred about 1 1/4 cups of cooked chicken into a skillet and warm with a moistening of the sauce. Roll a portion of the filling into each tortilla, lay them in a baking dish, douse with more of the hot sauce and sprinkle with about 1 1/2 cups of grated Chihuahua or other melting cheese. Broil until browned and bubbly, then serve topped with rings of white onion.

Mexican Scalloped Potatoes -- Slice 3 pounds of boiling potatoes into a large bowl, toss with salt, then spread half of them into a 13 x 9-inch baking dish. Drizzle in 3/4 cup each of the tomatillo sauce and whipping (heavy) cream; sprinkle on 3/4 cup shredded Chihuahua or other melting cheese. Repeat with the remaining potatoes and equal amounts of sauce, cream and cheese. Bake at 400 degrees for about half an hour, until browned.

Grilled Pork Tenderloin Encebollado -- For 4 servings, cut 2 large pork tenderloins in half. Sprinkle with salt. In a large skillet filmed with lard, bacon drippings or vegetable oil, fry 2 sliced white onions over medium-high, stirring, until nicely browned but still crunchy. Add the sauce and bring to a simmer; taste for salt. Grill the pork tenderloins over a medium-hot charcoal fire until just losing the pink at the center, about 15 minutes. Lay on warm plates and spoon the sauce over the pork. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and serve.


Those walnut-size, pale-green globes covered with a pretty, papery, lantern-shape husk are one of the primary colors on the Mexican palette of flavors. They're called tomate verde (green tomato) in most of Mexico, confusing North Americans, since they are not green tomatoes. We call them tomatillo in the States (after the northern Mexican moniker), and they have a tangier, more citrusy flavor and richer texture than green tomatoes.

It's wonderful to know that fresh tomatillos don't have the ripeness problems that tomatoes do, and that they are available from coast to coast in the States. In fact, in the decade since I wrote Authentic Mexican, good-quality fresh tomatillos have replaced canned tomatillos at almost every grocery. If canned is all that's available to you, remember that an 11-ounce can is equivalent to 1 pound fresh. Fresh tomatillos keep very well, several weeks at least, loose in the vegetable bin of your refrigerator.

Enormous (golf-ball size and bigger) tomatillos seem to have the least flavor, and what flavor they have is sharp and slightly bitter. Smaller, yellower tomatillos would be my first choice; they're sweeter and fuller in flavor. Occasionally at the restaurant, we get the purple-blushed tomatillos (they're common in much of Mexico), and they have a wonderfully rich, herbal flavor; if you get them, be forewarned that they make a sauce or salsa that veers toward golden, rather than green. The tiny, wild miltomates that are so prized in Oaxaca for their intensely sweet-tart, deeply complex flavor look like the closely related wild ground cherries around Chicago; miltomates are less golden, less sweet than ground cherries.

Choose tomatillos that have grown to fill their husks. They're not fully mature if they haven't. When you're ready to use them, peel off the papery husk, then rinse off the sticky coating that makes the husk occasionally difficult to remove.

Tomatillos are commonly cooked, since that's when their best flavors emerge. If you boil them, as many Mexican cooks suggest, do so only briefly, to soften them a little. I haven't given you details for roasting tomatillos in the traditional way on the griddle, because I find the process difficult. The thin skin of the tomatillos tends to burn (and stick to the griddle) before the fruit is soft. I prefer to roast the tomatillos until dark on a baking sheet under a very hot broiler to concentrate their natural sweetness. If your finished sauce seems tart, season it with a hint of sugar to bring it into balance.

Stats: A medium tomatillo weighs about 1 1/2 ounces.


Salsa Verde Cruda

Sophie Coe, my guru when it comes to early Meso-American cooking, in her masterpiece, America's First Cuisines, tells us that the tomatillo (also known in Mexico as miltomate, tomate verde, or simply tomate) was likely the most-consumed tomatl (Nahuatl for a general class of plump fruit) in pre-Columbian times. Yes, more than the jitomate or red, ripe tomato to us English speakers. That explains, I think, why a mouthful of tomatillo salsa transports you straight to Mexico. It is the gustatory essence of the country -- a gleaming contour of fresh green spiciness, herbal perfume and zest.

Though most initiates to Mexican cooking probably will start with a recipe for tomato salsa, I'd encourage this tomatillo one as a first foray. Besides being clearly authentic, it's easier: Ripe tomatillos are easier to find than ripe tomatoes; tomatillos don't get peeled; they give the salsa a consistently lovely thickness; and they come out a better texture than tomatoes when chopped in the blender or food processor.

For a salsa that's the quintessence of freshness and spiciness, make the recipe that follows with just a half pound of raw tomatillos, roughly chop them, then coarsely puree them in a blender or food processor with all the rest of the ingredients (left raw), and add a tablespoon or two of water (it should be the consistency of a relish or fresh chutney). Clearly, this all-raw version is very quick to make, but you need to enjoy it within an hour or so.

Makes about 2 1/2 cups

1 pound (10 to 12 medium) tomatillos, husked and rinsed

Fresh serrano chiles to taste (roughly 5, about 1 ounce total)

2 large garlic cloves, unpeeled

1 small (4-ounce) white onion, finely chopped

1/4 cup loosely packed, roughly chopped cilantro

Salt, about 1 generous teaspoon

Sugar, about 1 scant teaspoon (if needed)

1. Roasting the key ingredients.
Lay the tomatillos on a baking sheet and place 4 inches below a very hot broiler. When the tomatillos blister, blacken and soften on one side, about 5 minutes, turn them over and roast the other side. Cool completely on the baking sheet.

Roast the chiles and garlic on an ungreased griddle or heavy skillet over medium heat, turning occasionally, until blackened in spots and soft, 5 to 10 minutes for the chiles, about 15 minutes for the garlic. Cool, then pull the stems from the chiles and peel the garlic.

2. The puree. Scrape the roasted tomatillos (and any juices that have accumulated around them) into a food processor or blender, along with the roasted chiles and garlic. Pulse the machine until everything is reduced to a rather coarse-textured puree -- the unctuously soft tomatillos will provide the body for all the chunky bits of chiles and garlic.

Scrape the salsa into a serving bowl, then stir in between 1/4 and 1/2 cup water, to give the sauce an easily spoonable consistency. Scoop the onion into a strainer, rinse under cold water, shake off the excess and stir into the salsa, along with the cilantro. Taste and season with salt and a little sugar.

Advance Preparation -- This salsa should be eaten within several hours after you've added the onion and cilantro, though you can make the puree a day or more ahead.

Other Chiles You Can Use -- Fresh jalapeños can replace the serranos.

Traditional Dishes that Use this Essential as a Starting Point

Tomatillo-Green Guacamole

Simple Ideas from My American Home

Scrambled Eggs with Mushrooms and Spicy Tomatillo
-- For 4 servings, beat 8 eggs with 3 tablespoons cream or yogurt and a generous teaspoon of salt. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large (12-inch) skillet over medium-high, then add 2 cups sliced mushrooms (I'd choose shiitakes, portobello or any wild mushrooms I could find). Stir-fry until thoroughly wilted, then stir in 2/3 cup of the salsa. Continue to stir until the salsa is reduced and thick. Stir in the eggs, then stir every 10 or 15 seconds until the eggs are done to your liking. Divide onto warm plates, spoon on a little more salsa and sprinkle with chopped cilantro.

Tangy Seared Chicken and Spinach for Pasta -- For 4 servings, cut 1 pound (a little more if you like larger servings) of boneless, skinless chicken breasts into one-inch cubes and season with salt. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high. Stir-fry the chicken until nicely browned and barely done, then remove with a slotted spoon. Add 12 ounces of stemmed spinach to the pan along with 1 cup of the salsa; stir until the spinach is wilted. Taste for salt. Serve over pasta, sprinkled with fresh Mexican cheese, feta, goat cheese or Parmesan.

Avocado Soup with Orange and Tomatillo -- For 6 servings, roast 6 cloves of garlic on a griddle or skillet over medium heat, turning regularly, until soft. Peel and puree in a blender or food processor with 2/3 cup of the salsa, 2 ripe avocados, about a tablespoon of orange zest and 2/3 cup roughly chopped cilantro. Stir in 2 1/3 cups beef broth (the richer, the better) and season with salt. Serve cool with a dollop of salsa and sprinkle of chopped cilantro on top.

The Rich Sweetness of Roasted Tomatoes and Tomatillos

Many modern recipes call for roasted vegetables these days, no matter what the cuisine, so the whole procedure seems less foreign than it did a decade ago. And, I think most of us are aware that the payoff of roasting is enormous -- sweet, concentrated, caramely flavors that quite simply make just about everything taste better.

Although the tidy cleanliness of the television-ad kitchens certainly has appeal, it's precisely that modern tidiness that's meddling with Mexican flavor, even in Mexico. It has led cooks to replace the Mexican grandma's charcoal- or dry-heat roasting with boiling in many cases, and the flavor's just not the same. Boiling is simple, bland.

I love old-fashioned roasted flavors and up-to-date convenience, so I adapt the modern kitchen to achieve traditional results. Roasting tomatoes and tomatillos on a baking sheet (one with sides to catch juices) under a very hot broiler is as effective as roasting them directly on the griddle or in the fire: It's simpler and you don't have to watch them constantly. When properly roasted, they should be blackened on the outside (splotchy) and completely soft within; they should not be hard and carbonized. With tomatoes, I usually peel off the blackened skin (though I don't try to get every bit) and I find that the tomatoes still have a rich, roasty flavor. Some cooks like to leave the charred skin on to add texture, flavor and black flecks throughout the sauce. Tomatillos are not peeled; you'll find that dark-roasted ones taste sweeter than lightly roasted ones.

Tomatoes and tomatillos can be roasted (and peeled, if appropriate) up to several days ahead; cover them and refrigerate. At the height of tomato season, I recommend freezing roasted, peeled tomatoes for later use.


Salsa de Chile Chipotle y Tomate Verde

These are the most attractive salsa flavors I know: tangy (almost citrusy) from the tomatillos, smoky and hot from the chipotles and sweetly aromatic from the roasted garlic. Add anything else but salt (and a pinch of sugar if the tartness of your tomatillos seems to be prominent) and you're gilding a naturally perfect lily. I just love this salsa.

Unlike salsas that have lots of raw ingredients, this one can be kept for days in the refrigerator. As you approach the final step of this simple salsa, you can choose whether you like the rusty-colored, fully integrated flavors of the smoother version, or the olive-colored, flecked with red, rougher-looking version that'll offer surprise bursts of chipotle in every mouthful. When you have the time, try a third alternative in the mortar, crushing together the garlic and chiles, then working in the tomatillos; the garlic and chiles will be noticeably richer and fuller, the texture of the tomatillos beautifully coarse.

Makes about 1 1/4 Cups

3 to 6 (1/4 to 1/2 ounce total) dried chiles chipotles colorados (chiles moritas)

OR 2 to 4 (1/4 to 1/2 ounce total) dried chiles chipotles mecos

OR 3 to 6 canned chiles chipotles en adobo

3 large garlic cloves, unpeeled

8 ounces (5 to 6 medium) tomatillos, husked and rinsed

Salt, about 1/2 teaspoon

Sugar, about 1/4 teaspoon

1. Toasting and roasting the key ingredients. Set an ungreased griddle or heavy skillet over medium heat. If using dried chiles, break off their stems. Toast the chiles a few at a time: Lay them on the hot surface, press flat for a few seconds with a metal spatula (they'll crackle faintly and release their smoky aroma), then flip and press down to toast the other side. Transfer the toasted chiles to a bowl, cover with hot water and let rehydrate for 30 minutes, stirring regularly to ensure even soaking. Pour off all the water and discard.

If using canned chiles, simply remove them from the adobo they're packed in.

On a heavy ungreased skillet or griddle over medium heat (you'll already have it on if you're using dried chiles), roast the unpeeled garlic, turning occasionally, until blackened in spots and soft, about 15 minutes. Cool, slip off the papery skins, then roughly chop.

Lay the tomatillos on a baking sheet and place about 4 inches below a very hot broiler. When the tomatillos blister, blacken and soften on one side, about 5 minutes, turn them over and roast the other side. Cool completely on the baking sheet.

2. The salsa. Method 1 (the smoother alternative): Scrape the tomatillos (and any juices that have accumulated around them) into a food processor or blender and add the rehydrated or canned chiles and garlic. Pulse the machine until everything is thick and relatively smooth. Method 2 (the chunkier alternative): Scrape the tomatillos and juices into a food processor or blender and add the garlic. Pulse until everything is coarsely pureed. Chop the rehydrated or canned chiles into tiny bits, then stir them in.

Transfer to a serving bowl and stir in enough water, usually 3 to 4 tablespoons, to give the salsa an easily spoonable consistency. Taste and season with salt, plus a little sugar to soften the tangy edge.

Advance Preparation -- The finished salsa will keep about 1 week in the refrigerator, though the tomatillos have the brightest flavor for the first 24 hours.

Other Chiles You Can Use -- Dried árbol (use 3 to 6) or cascabel (use 2 to 3) can replace the chipotles. Dried chile pasilla oaxaqueño taste delicious here (use 1 to 3) if you can lay your hands on them.

Traditional Dishes that Use this Essential as a Starting Point

Smoky Braised Mexican Pumpkin; Grilled Catfish Steaks; ChipotleSeasoned Pot Roast; Seared Skirt Steak with Chipotle and Garlic

Simple Ideas From My American Home

Crusty Chipotle-Beef Sandwich
-- Marinate very thinly cut (minute) steaks (bistec in Mexico) with lime juice and salt, then sear them in a large, very hot, lightly oiled pan or on a grill. Slice into thin strips and, in a pan over medium heat, toss with enough salsa to coat nicely. Split crusty submarine rolls or Mexican teleras, hollow them out slightly, then pile in the meat and sprinkle with crumbled Mexican queso añejo or Parmesan. I love these sandwiches with a smear of leftover fried black beans on the bun.

Great Chicken Livers -- For 4 people, rinse a generous pound of chicken livers, pat dry then toss with a little salted flour. In a large, hot, heavy skillet filmed with oil or bacon fat, fry the livers in an uncrowded layer until crusty and still pink in the center. Pour in a full recipe of the salsa, let come to the boil, then serve with rice or pasta.

Salsa versus Sauce

Salsa, surveys tell us, now outsells ketchup in the United States. Salsa -- the stuff you eat with chips, spoon on crunchy tacos, even slather over hamburgers. You know, the cool and zesty condiment, usually made from chunky tomatoes with at least a hint of green chile.

In Mexico, the word salsa embraces a wider range than it does in the States. Yes, it includes the condiments, but they're more varied, spicier and less chunky, meant to be drizzled on a soft taco rather than scooped up with a crispy tortilla chip. But the word salsa reaches out to embrace "sauce" too, as in "spaghetti sauce" or "cream sauce."

In these pages, I've used the word "salsa" in the English titles for anything that's a condiment (they're all served cool): Roasted Tomato-Jalapeño Salsa, for example. I've used "sauce" for something that's cooked (they're nearly always served warm), as in the Simmered Tomato-Jalapeño Sauce. The only possible confusion you may encounter will be the Spanish titles: both condiments and simmered sauces are called, appropriately, salsa (always in italics); the first of our examples is Salsa de Molcajete, the second, Salsa de Jitomate Cocida.


Adobo de Chile Ancho

If you take a few minutes to make this medium-spicy seasoning paste from toasted, rehydrated ancho chiles, sweet roasted garlic and spices, you'll have a gold mine in the refrigerator. More versatile than salsas (which are spooned on as condiments), this deepburgundy, almost fluffy puree can be turned into the most complex dishes in the Mexican collection, from slow-simmered, rich, red mole and quick-seared red-chile enchiladas to garnet-colored rice. I even use it to flavor American-style baked beans.

Start with this seasoning to learn how to clean, toast, soak, puree and strain dried chiles -- it'll seem awkward if you haven't done it before, but when you taste what the seasoning does to different dishes, you'll keep making it until the process seems second nature.

Makes about 1 cup

8 large garlic cloves, unpeeled

8 medium (about 4 ounces total) dried ancho chiles

1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican

1/2 teaspoon black pepper, whole or freshly ground

1/8 teaspoon cumin seeds, whole or freshly ground

A scant 1/4 teaspoon cloves, whole or freshly ground

2/3 cup beef, chicken or fish broth (even vegetable broth or water), whichever is appropriate for the dish you're going to use the adobo in, plus a little more if needed

Salt, about 1 teaspoon

1. The garlic and chiles.
Set a heavy ungreased skillet or griddle over medium heat. Lay the unpeeled garlic on the hot surface and let it roast to a sweet mellowness, turning occasionally, until soft when pressed between your fingers (you'll notice it has blackened in a few small spots), about 15 minutes. Cool, then slip off the papery skins and roughly chop.

While the garlic is roasting, break the stems off the chiles, tear the chiles open and remove the seeds. Next, toast the chiles a few at a time on your medium-hot skillet or griddle: Open them flat, lay them on the hot surface skin-side up, press flat for a few seconds with a metal spatula (if the temperature is right you'll hear a faint crackle), then flip them. (If pressed long enough, they'll have changed to a mottled tan underneath. If you see a slight wisp of smoke, that's okay, but any more will mean burnt chiles.) Now, press down again to toast the other side. Transfer to a bowl, cover with hot water and let rehydrate for 30 minutes, stirring regularly to ensure even soaking. Pour off all the water and discard.

2. The seasoning. If using whole spices, pulverize the oregano, pepper, cumin and cloves in a spice grinder or mortar, then transfer to a food processor or blender, along with the drained chiles and garlic. Measure in the broth and process to a smooth puree, scraping and stirring every, few seconds. (If you're using a blender and the mixture won't move through the blades, add more broth, a little at a time, until everything is moving, but still as thick as possible.) With a rubber spatula, work the puree through a medium-mesh strainer into a bowl; discard the skins and seeds that remain behind in the strainer. Taste (it'll have a rough, raw edge to it), then season with salt.

Advance Preparation -- Covered and refrigerated, the marinade will keep for about 2 weeks; it also freezes well.

Other Chiles You Can Use -- Though I want you to learn the unique flavor of ancho by making this seasoning solo, it's very commonly made with half ancho (for rich sweetness) and half guajillo (for tangy brightness); a few chipotles in the mix adds heat and complexity. Always substitute an equivalent weight of chiles.

Traditional Dishes that Use this Essential as a Starting Point

Spicy Chile-Baked Oysters; Street-Style Fled Chile Enchiladas; Simple Red Mole Enchiladas; Chile-Glazed Sweet Potatoes; Red Chile Rice; Red Chile-Braised Chicken; Ancho-Marinated Whole Roast Fish

Simple Ideas from My American Home

Very, Very Good Chili
-- In a large, heavy skillet or Dutch oven filmed with oil or bacon drippings, fry 2 pounds of coarse-ground beef (or half beef, half pork) and one large chopped onion over medium-high heat, stirring to break up clumps, until nicely browned; drain off most of the fat. Add a full recipe of the seasoning, stir for several minutes to temper the raw flavor, then stir in enough water or beef broth so that everything's floating freely. Partially cover and simmer gently for an hour, until it looks like chili; season with salt and a touch of sugar. If you like a less intense flavor, add 1 cup or so of blended canned tomato along with the water, and, if you prefer your chili with thickened juices, mix together a little masa harina and water, and whisk it into the chili during the last few minutes of simmering. I like my chili with whole boiled beans stirred in at the end.

Ancho-Broiled Salmon -- Mix 4 or 5 tablespoons of the seasoning with 1 1/2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and 1 tablespoon of brown sugar. Use this to marinate 4 salmon fillets (you can also choose sea bass, mahimahi or snapper) for a few minutes, then lay on a baking sheet and set about 6 inches below a hot broiler. After about 4 minutes, flip them over, drizzle on any marinade left in the bowl and broil a few more minutes, until the fish flakes under firm pressure.

Dried Ancho Chiles

If I could have but one dried chile to work with, it would be ancho. The solidity of its earthy sweetness mixed with a small dose of heat, gives ancho that Robert De Niro character that is as perfect in a tux as it is in boxing trunks.

Anchos are mostly grown and sun- or force-dried in West-Central Mexico, but you can buy them in practically every, town in Mexico and most towns in the United States. They suffer from the Michoacan Nomenclature Predicament (that is, they're called pasillas there), which means you often hear "pasilla" in California, too. One of my suppliers in California distinguishes between Mexican ancho and what he calls California pasilla, saying the California pasilla is a variety of ancho/mulato grown in Baja California; it is smaller, redder, milder and more wrinkled than Mexican ancho. To his knowledge there are no anchos grown in the United States. Now, if that's not enough to confuse anyone...

Tasting a bit of pureed, toasted, rehydrated ancho, I sense a mix of earth and fruit: sweet dark cherries, prunes, fresh tobacco (with all its licorice and dried-leafy bitterness) and dried calimyrna figs. It is rich and unctuous, and ranges from mild to medium-hot. The puree is the color of henna on black hair.

Though anchos are used almost exclusively in cooked dishes (cooking definitely rounds their flavor), crumbled toasted bits are a common garnish on soup in Michoacan (there's a great appetizer of almost-crisp-tried anchos and onions, too) and whole ones (pickled or not) are occasionally stuffed.

Stats: An average ancho is very dark cranberry (it you tear it open and hold a single layer up to the light, you'll see that beautiful cranberry color), about 1/2 ounce, 4 inches long by 3 inches wide, the wrinkled-skin, heart-shaped body tapering slowly to a point; notice that the stem is recessed a bit.

Why Toast Dried Chiles?

To my tongue, toasted dried chiles have more flavor. Toasting adds complexity, a hint of char and a bit of smokiness, all elements that balance a chile's natural astringency.

Toasting chiles isn't a very exact science; in fact, you could skip it altogether and your dish would come out all right, though a bit less rich. Overtoasting is a greater problem than not toasting at all, since overtoasted chiles have an acrid flavor.

Many Mexican cooks prefer to toast whole dried pods on their medium-hot comales (griddles), turning them until they're fragrant and slightly browned at the spots the chiles directly touched the hot surface; those cooks break off the stems and shake out the seeds after toasting. I use that method for small chiles like chipotle and árbol. For toasting large chiles (like ancho, pasilla, mulato, guajillo and New Mexico), I feel more comfortable following the lead of a Pueblan cook who first stems and seeds the chiles, tears them into flat pieces, then presses them against the hot surface with a spatula. The toasting seems to be more even, though a bit slower, since you can only work with one or two chiles at a time.

The actual time each chile is on the griddle may surprise you. If you have an even, medium heat under your griddle (or heavy skillet), you'll hear a faint crackle when the chile is pressed flat, skin-side tip. In a few seconds, you'll smell a roasty, chile-spiked perfume, and, when you flip the chile, you'll notice it's changed to a mottled tan. Press it down to toast the other side and that's it.

Another widely used toasting method is frying in oil (we've used it here for Braised Turkey in Teloloapan Red Mole). The flavor difference is remarkable -- so much so that even a novice can tell the difference in the finished dish. You sense a richer toastiness and texture.

Our restaurant-style chile-toasting method involves a broiler, though only when you've mastered griddle-toasting should you try this. We open the stemmed and seeded chiles flat on a baking sheet and place them about 6 inches below a commercial salamander heated to its lowest setting (about medium on a home broiler); the chiles begin to move about (it's quite a sight), and within seconds we catch their aroma and see a faint wisp of smoke. That's when we quickly pull them out, flip them over and toast the other side.

When pulverizing chiles into powder, you can toast them thoroughly on the griddle or bake them in the oven until thoroughly crisp. Oven-crisping is okay for powder (where thorough, dry toasting and crispness is important), though it doesn't add the complexity you get from the direct-surface or oil toasting.


Salsa Negra

Having around a jar of this swarthy, very concentrated, yes, very smoky-spicy stuff opens even more seasoning possibilities than a bottle of Asian chile paste or hoisin or Worcestershire. Skillet-seared shrimp tossed with a little salsa will attract any spice-loving friend; smeared on a warm tortilla with a little crumbled cheese, it becomes an addictive snack.

The first time around, you have to convince yourself that it's okay to cook something calling for 50 chipotles that are fried in an oil bath, then soaked in dark sugar water, blended and fried again. For years, even I avoided following the strange-sounding directions of this recipe, until Carmen Ramírez Degollado, one of Mexico's most dynamic cooks, walked me through the traditional Veracruz preparation when she came to teach at our restaurant. Now we're all converted.

The first time you stir a spoonful into that bowl of black beans you're having for dinner, the first time you add a little to that bland barbecue sauce you bought, you'll know why I think of it as "essential," even when it isn't widely known or used in Mexico.

Makes about 1 1/4 potent cups

2 1/2 ounces (roughly 2 1/2 small cones) piloncillo (Mexican unrefined sugar)

OR 1/3 cup dark brown sugar plus 2 teaspoons molasses

Vegetable oil to a depth of 1/4 inch, for frying

4 ounces (about 50) dried chipotle chiles (preferably the cranberry-red
colorados [moritas], not the sandy brown mecos), stemmed

3 garlic cloves, peeled

Salt, about 1/2 teaspoon

1. Salsa basics.
Into a medium-size (2- to 3-quart) saucepan, measure 1 1/4 cups of water, add the piloncillo (or brown sugar and molasses), bring to a boil, remove from the heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved.

Set a medium-size (8- to 9-inch) skillet of oil over medium heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add half of the chiles. Stir as they toast to a spicy smelling, mahogany brown, about 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to scoop them out, leaving as much oil as possible behind, then drop them into the sweet water. Treat the remaining chiles the same way.

Pour off all but a thin coating of oil in the skillet and return to medium heat. Add the garlic cloves and cook, stirring regularly, until golden, 4 minutes. Add to the chiles. Pour the chile mixture, water and all, into a blender or food processor, and whir into a smooth puree.

2. Frying the salsa. Return the well-oiled skillet to medium-high heat. When hot, add the chile puree all at once. Stir for a minute, scraping up anything that sticks to the bottom of the skillet, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently, until the salsa is as thick as tomato paste. (It will be very spicy smelling and will have darkened to nearly black. If you've left a nice coating of oil in the skillet, it'll be shiny on top when perfectly reduced.) Taste gingerly and season with salt.

If you're planning to use the salsa as a condiment on the table for each of your guests to spoon on or stir in, you'll probably want to stir in a little water to give it a more saucy consistency. For use as a seasoning, you can simply scrape it into a glass jar, store in the refrigerator and dole it out a tablespoon or so at a time.

Advance Preparation -- This salsa keeps for weeks, covered and refrigerated.

Other Chiles You Can Use -- This unique preparation is really best made with chipotle colorado/chile morita. Chipotle meco is an option, though you'd get a different taste and color; canned chipotles shouldn't be used.

Traditional Dishes that Use this Essential as a Starting Point

Puffed Black Bean-Masa Cakes; Broiled Chipotle Chicken; Chipotle Shrimp

Simple Ideas from My American Home

Spicy Clams or Mussels
-- For 4 people, fit 32 to 40 well-scrubbed medium-size clams or mussels into a good-size pot. Mix together I tablespoon or 2 of the seasoning salsa and a cup of fish broth, water or white wine. Pour over the mollusks, cover and boil over high heat until the shells have opened, usually 3 to 5 minutes. Pile into bowls. Taste the pan juices and season with salt, then served with chopped cilantro.

Cheese Spread for Sandwiches or Nibbles -- Mix together 1/2 pound each cream cheese and goat cheese with 3 chopped green onions, 2 or 3 tablespoons of the seasoning salsa, enough chopped fresh thyme or cilantro to taste and salt and fresh pepper. Spread on crusty bread, lay on slices of tomato and you'll have quite a meal.


Adobe de Chile Pasilla

Pasilla is one of the most sophisticated chile flavors: pungent and tangy, deeply rich and woodsy. When you're used to using the gentler Ancho Seasoning Paste, graduate to pasilla. The techniques for making it are the same as those you encounter with the ancho seasoning. Here, we accentuate and balance their muscley, less-sweet flavor by using their soaking water, adding more garlic and elaborating their woodsiness with more herbs, fewer spices.

The near-black pasilla tastes perfect with black beans, mushrooms and richer meats like lamb and duck. Its spicy pungency becomes more focused when dark sugar or honey are part of the finished dish. If you enjoy rich, bold flavors, you'll love dishes made from pasilla.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

1 small head of garlic, broken apart into cloves but not peeled

12 large (about 4 ounces total) dried pasilla chiles

2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican

1/2 teaspoon black pepper, whole or freshly ground

1/4 teaspoon cumin, whole or freshly ground

Salt, about 3/4 teaspoon

1. The garlic and chiles. Set a heavy ungreased skillet or griddle over medium heat. Lay the unpeeled garlic on the hot surface and let it roast to a sweet mellowness, turning occasionally, until soft when pressed between your fingers (you'll notice it has blackened in a few small spots), about 15 minutes. Cool, then slip off the papery skins and roughly chop.

While the garlic is roasting, break the stems off the chiles, tear the chiles open and shake and/or pick out all the seeds; for the mildest sauce, be careful to remove all the stringy, light-colored veins. Next, toast the chiles (to give them a richer flavor) a few at a time on your medium-hot skillet or griddle: Open them fiat, lay them on the hot surface skin-side up, press flat for a few seconds with a metal spatula (if the temperature is right you'll hear a faint crackle), then flip them. (If you pressed them just long enough, they'll have changed to a mottled tan underneath. If you see a slight wisp of smoke, it's okay, but any more than that will mean burnt chiles and bitter taste.) Now, press down again to toast the other side (you won't notice as much change in color on the skin side). Transfer the toasted chiles to a bowl, cover with hot water and let rehydrate for 30 minutes, stirring regularly to ensure even soaking. Pour off the water, reserving about 2/3 cup.

2. The puree. If you're using whole spices, pulverize the oregano with the pepper and cumin in a mortar or spice grinder, then transfer the ground spices to a food processor or blender, along with the drained chiles, the garlic and the reserved soaking liquid. Process to a medium-smooth, thick puree, scraping and stirring every few seconds. (If you're using a blender and the mixture won't move through the blades, add water a little at a time until everything is moving, but still as thick as possible. Not only is a soupy mixture a watery, uninteresting marinade, but the pureeing capabilities of the blender are much reduced when too much liquid is added.) Taste and season with salt.

Advance Preparation -- Covered and refrigerated, the seasoning will keep for a week or more: it can be successfully frozen.

Other Chiles You Can Use -- While this recipe looks similar to that for ancho, the fact that it uses the soaking liquid and more garlic gives it a balance just right for pasilla. Mulato could work here, though it doesn't have the roundness of pasilla. As with Ancho Chile Seasoning Paste, you can embroider pasilla with chipotle for a smoky edge.

Traditional Dishes that Use this Essential as a Starting Point

Spicy Pasilla-Mushroom Tacos; Layered Pasilla-Tortilla Casserole; Seared Lamb in Swarthy Pasilla-Honey Sauce

Simple Ideas from My American Home

Robust Lentil Soup
-- As a hearty supper for 4, simmer 2 cups (about 12 ounces) lentils in 8 cups water with 3 chopped bacon slices until the lentils are very tender and beginning to fall apart and the broth is thickening a bit (allow 30 to 45 minutes). Stir in as much of the seasoning as you like (since it's pretty picante, I'd start with 1/4 to 1/3 cup), 2 large chopped tomatoes and 6 chopped green onions. Simmer 15 minutes, season with salt and 1/3 cup chopped cilantro (or a couple of tablespoons of chopped thyme or slightly less rosemary). Serve in big bowls topped with a little more chopped tomato and herbs.

Hardy Hamburgers -- For 4 good-size hamburgers, mix together 10 ounces of coarse-ground chuck and 8 ounces of ground lamb or pork with 3 or 4 tablespoons of the seasoning and 3 chopped green onions. Form into patties and sear in a hot skillet or over glowing coals.

Dried Pasilla Chiles

It took me years to get comfortable with pasillas, but now I understand their swarthiness. Jean Andrews, the most careful and easy-to-understand chile writer I have read, points out that these chiles never lose their chlorophyll when they ripen and redden (these are chilacas when fresh), and that's what accounts for their deep chocolaty brown color. It's the dark, rich flavor, though, that I've grown to love, as much when it's seared and simmered to a concentrated near-black (think of balsamic vinegar's depth) or toasted and crumbled onto tortilla soup.

Woodsy and tangy come to my mind when I taste a puree of toasted, rehydrated pasillas. The prunelike, dried-fruit flavor of ancho and mulato seems more in the background, so you notice the tang; a spicy, dark flavor reminiscent of dried tomatoes and baked-potato skin is what you're working with here. The puree is mahogany brown, with a voluptuous texture.

The Michoacan Nomenclature Predicament affects pasillas: In Michoacan (and often in California) they are known as negros. In Oaxaca, there is a redder, smaller, hotter, smoky-smelling chile called pasilla or pasilla oaxaqueño that is stuffed or used in salsas; it is very different from standard pasillas which, in Oaxaca, usually go by the name pasilla mexicano.

Stats: An average pasilla is almost black, about 1/3 ounce, about 7 inches long by 1 inch wide, the wrinkled-skin, long, straight body (with sloped shoulders) tapering to a blunted point just before the end.

Garlic and Onion on the Griddle: A Lesson in Roasting

Roasted garlic has become a modern cliché, though to most it means garlic roasted in oil by the radiant heat of an oven. Mexican roasted garlic differs: It is cooked on the direct heat of an ungreased griddle or open fire. While old-fashioned Mexican cooks recommend roasting a whole head directly in the coals, when cooking at home, I break the head into cloves and roast just a few at a time on a griddle. Direct dry-heat roasting browns the garlic a little, while the papery skin protects it from burning -- all working together to yield a toasty sweetness, rather than the buttery sweetness of the oil-roasted garlic.

Roasted onions in Mexico are also done without oil and, especially in Yucatan, they're regularly roasted whole directly in the fire. For small quantities, I roast slices of onion, either directly on a seasoned charcoal or gas grill, or on a foil-lined griddle or skillet. Since foil is flexible, you can peel it off the sticky onion slices, rather than trying to scrape the onion from the bottom of a dry pan.


Salsa de Chile Guajillo

The bright and sassy flavor of this slow-simmered guajillo sauce is, I think, what first enticed me into real Mexican cooking; I know it's what keeps me wedded to it. The simple, quick procedure of toasting these readily available dried chiles will fill the kitchen with warm, roasty redolence; skip that step and the brightness of guajillos tastes ungrounded.

Searing the sauce in a hot pan is the most unusual technique you'll encounter here, though after doing it several times it will be old hat. Skip it and move straight to the simple simmer? The sauce will be simple; it'll never lose that raw-chile harshness.

A perfectly made Guajillo Sauce is a harmonious, cherry-red beauty: spicy, rich and tangy, seasoned with a good dose of salt and enough sugar to balance the natural astringency of the chiles.

Makes about 2 1/2 cups

6 garlic cloves, unpeeled

16 medium-large (about 4 ounces total) dried guajillo chiles

1 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican

1/4 teaspoon black pepper, whole or freshly ground

1/8 teaspoon cumin, whole or freshly ground

3 2/3 cups meat, poultry or fish broth, whichever is appropriate for the dish you're making, plus a little more if needed

1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil

Salt, about 1 teaspoon, depending on the saltiness of the broth

Sugar, about 1 1/2 teaspoons

1. The garlic and chiles.
Set a heavy ungreased skillet or griddle over medium heat. Lay the unpeeled garlic on the hot surface and let it roast to a sweet mellowness, turning occasionally, until soft when pressed between your fingers (you'll notice it has blackened in a few small spots), about 15 minutes. Cool, then slip off the papery skins and roughly chop.

While the garlic is roasting, break the stems off the chiles, tear the chiles open and remove the seeds; for the mildest sauce, remove all the stringy, light-colored veins. Toast the chiles a few at a time on your medium-hot skillet or griddle: Open them flat, lay them on the hot surface skin-side up, press flat for a few seconds with a metal spatula (if the temperature is right you'll hear a faint crackle), then flip them. (If you pressed them just long enough, they'll have changed to a mottled tan underneath. If you see a slight wisp of smoke, it's okay, but any more than that will mean burnt chiles.) Now, press down again to toast the other side. Transfer the toasted chiles to a bowl, cover with hot water and let rehydrate for 30 minutes, stirring regularly to ensure even soaking. Dour off all the water and discard.

2. The puree. If using whole spices, pulverize the oregano, pepper, and cumin in a mortar or spice grinder, then transfer to a food processor or blender along with the drained chiles and garlic. Measure in 2/3 cup of the broth and process to a smooth puree, scraping and stirring every few seconds. (If you're using a blender and the mixture won't move through the blades, add more broth a little at a time until everything is moving.) With a rubber spatula, work the puree through a medium-mesh strainer into a bowl; discard the skins and seeds that remain in the strainer.

3. Cooking the sauce. Heat the oil in a medium-size (4-quart) pot (like a Dutch oven or Mexican cazuela) over medium-high. When hot enough to make a drop of the puree sizzle sharply, add it all at once. Cook, stirring constantly, as the puree sears, reduces and darkens to an attractively earthy brick-red paste (usually about 7 minutes). Taste it: You'll know it's cooked enough when it has lost that harsh raw-chile edge.

Stir in the remaining 3 cups of the broth, partially cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes. If the sauce has thickened past the consistency of a light cream soup, add more broth. Taste and season with salt and sugar -- salt to brighten and focus the flavors, sugar to smooth any rough or bitter chile edges.

Advance Preparation -- Covered and refrigerated, the sauce will keep about a week; feel free to freeze it, though you'll need to boil it to get back the lovely texture.

Other Chiles You Can Use -- An equal amount of dried New Mexico chiles can replace the guajillos, although the sauce will not be as full-flavored; a chipotle or two adds complexity.

Traditional Dishes that Use this Essential as a Starting Point

Guajillo Chilaquiles; Guajillo-Sauced Shrimp; Hearty Seven Seas Soup; Grilled Steak with Spicy Guajillo Sauce

Simple Ideas from My American Home

Cheesy "Tex-Mex" Enchiladas
-- Set out about 4 cups of grated melting cheese, such as Chihuahua, and steam-heat a dozen tortillas. Coat a 13 x 9-inch baking dish with a little sauce, then roll 1/4 cup cheese into each tortilla and fit them into the pan. Ladle a couple of cups of sauce over the top, sprinkle with more grated cheese, then bake at 425 degrees until bubbly and browned. Sprinkle with chopped white onion and cilantro and these oozy, delicious enchiladas are ready to eat.

Red Chile Vegetables for Tacos -- In salted water, boil 1 cup each cubed potatoes and carrots until just tender; drain. Film a large skillet with oil and set over medium-high heat. Add 1 medium sliced onion; cook 3 minutes. Add 1 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms (I prefer shiitakes here) and stir for 3 or 4 more minutes as the mushrooms wilt. Add the potatoes and carrots and stir frequently until everything starts to brown. Add enough guajillo sauce to moisten everything well (it shouldn't be soupy), let simmer a few minutes, taste for salt and serve with steaming tortillas and Mexican queso fresco or queso añejo.

Dried Guajillo Chiles

These are workhorse chiles with a lot of dazzle. Along with anchos, they're the most commonly used chiles in Mexico (and in my kitchen). What anchos are to "deep" and "rich," guajillos are to "spicy" and "dynamic." I can't remember ever seeing them fresh in the States. In West-Central Mexico, where they're primarily grown, I've seen fresh ones at times in the markets, called mirasoles, but the dried ones are easy to find here and practically anywhere in Mexico.

A puree of toasted, rehydrated guajillo sings with a chorus of bright flavors that combine spiciness, tanginess (like cranberry), a slight smokiness and the warm flavor of ripe, juicy, sweet tomato; the flavors go on and on. The puree is a deep, rich, red-orange -- the color of good tomato paste.

Stats: A typical guajillo (its name, "little gourd," refers to its shape) is that same deep, dark-cherry red of New Mexico chiles, four to an ounce, about 5 inches by 1 to 1 1/2 inches, with a smooth, leathery skin (smoother than most New Mexico chiles) and very sloping shoulders that give way to a body that bows out slightly in the middle, then tapers to a point.

Frying: The Key to Mexican Sauces

Though frying a sauce may sound strange, this unique technique develops the characteristics I associate with Mexico: deep, earthy colors; unctuous textures; and toasty, complex, thoroughly wedded flavors. Sauces made from rehydrated dried chiles become sweeter and lose their raw flavor during this frying step (taste a bit of the chile puree before and after the cooking); those made from tomatoes or tomatillos become more complex and richer, with all the flavors in harmony.

Since this technique is so important in creating attractive flavors, I'll spell out the details. In Mexico, sauces are fried in a wide earthenware cazuela, usually six to eight inches deep and shaped like a slope-sided bowl. The thick earthenware heats slowly (Mexican recipes often tell you to heat the cazuela half an hour before cooking) and holds the heat like nothing I've ever seen. In the States, I like to work in a wide, heavy, medium-deep pot -- at the restaurant we use heavy stainless steel with an aluminum core; at home I work in enameled cast iron (such as Le Creuset).

To be sure your sauce base (the puree of chiles and/or tomatoes or tomatillos) fries properly, heat the empty pot for a few minutes over medium-high. Next, film the bottom with oil or lard, as your recipe directs; it'll immediately become very hot. Test the temperature of the oil with a drop of puree: If it sizzles sharply, the oil is ready. Now add the sauce base all at once. It'll crackle, spatter a bit (be prepared to grab a lid or spatter screen), and boil almost instantly; it should never lose that boil. Stir constantly (I like to use a long, wide, wooden spatula to reach all corners of the pan) until the sauce base has darkened and reduced to a thick mass, about 5 minutes. Nothing should stick or scorch; you don't want to char or burn anything here. (Be sure the sauce base you start with is quite thick; watery ones won't sizzle, sear and boil like the thick ones, and they never taste rich.) Finally, stir broth into this concentrated base -- enough to give it a nice "saucy" consistency -- and let the whole thing simmer for a few minutes to give the flavors time to come together.

A tip to those who are timid about frying a sauce: In the restaurant, where we do several-gallon batches, we use a method that needs less tending and causes a little less splashing, but takes a long time. We sear and stir for several minutes in the oily hot pan, then reduce the heat to low and let the sauce concentrate for a couple of hours. You can follow our restaurant procedure with smaller batches, though you'll need only a half hour, say, rather than two hours, to concentrate your sauce.

Why Strain a Sauce?

For centuries, Mexicans have strained things. They've made colanders from clay (I bought a beautiful and ancient-looking clay tlachiquihuite in Chilapa, Guerrero, years ago) and strainers from gourds (I found my favorite in Juichitan, Oaxaca), and they've counted them as essential equipment in their sparsely equipped kitchens.

A sauce made from soaked dried chiles really is much more appealing, most Mexicans will say, if the chile skins (and stray seeds) are strained out. A mole thickened with ground nuts and sesame or pumpkin seeds will be smoother -- definitely more velvety and elegant, less seedy -- if you pass it through a strainer. A medium-mesh strainer, the kind you find cheap at the grocery store, works perfectly.

To make straining simple, choose the right equipment (I suggest a medium size -- about eight-inch diameter -- strainer set over a large bowl and a rubber spatula for working the mixture) and do it often enough to feel comfortable. There's nothing tricky here. In fact, you'll quickly learn which chiles have the highest pulp-to-skin ratio (anchos), which have the most leathery skins (guajillos or New Mexicos). Chiles that have a low pulp-to-skin ratio, like árbol and cascabel, are the hotter chiles usually used for table salsas, and they rarely are strained.

If you've done your pureeing well, there should be no more than a few tablespoons of matter left in the strainer to throw out (especially if you are straining a mixture made with the pulpy, thin-skinned chiles like ancho; more will be left with thick-skinned guajillos), and what's there should be clearly all skin or seed or hull. If you're worried that you've strained out too much, put the strained-out matter back in the blender or processor, add a little more liquid, reblend and restrain.

But is all this straining really necessary? You'll have to make that call. I doubt you'll notice much change in flavor; it's really texture we're talking about here.



Rajas Poblanas

We're all drawn to the smell of roasting peppers, I think. And when the peppers are poblanos, with their deep, concentrated richness, and they're roasted over a charcoal fire, they tap into something primordial in us. This preparation is one of the easiest true-blooded Mexican classics for American cooks to master, since most of us are now familiar with roasting peppers. Finishing the peppers with quick-fried onion, garlic and herbs produces an expeditious basis for a great variety of authentically flavored dishes. If you're wondering about the word rajas, it's Spanish for "strips," and in the Mexican kitchen they're most generally strips of chile.

Choose your roasting method based on the destination of your rajas: poblanos done over an open fire or flame roast quickly (the flesh doesn't soften much) -- perfect for salads, salsas, fillings, accompaniments, anywhere their texture and rich, roasty flavor are important. Poblanos done under the slower heat of the broiler are fine for soups and sauces.

Makes about 2 1/4 cups

1 pound (6 medium-large) fresh poblano chiles

1 large (8-ounce) white onion

1 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil

3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

Salt, about 1/2 teaspoon

1. Roasting the chiles. The open flame method:
Directly over a gas flame or on a hot gas or charcoal grill, roast the chiles, turning occasionally, until blistered and blackened on all sides, 5 to 6 minutes. The broiler method: Lay the chiles on a baking sheet and set about 4 inches below a very hot broiler. Roast, turning occasionally, until blistered and blackened on all sides, 10 to 15 minutes.

Collect the roasted chiles in a large bowl, cover with a kitchen towel and let stand about 5 minutes. With your hands (wear rubber gloves if your hands are sensitive to the heat of the chiles), peel and rub off the charred skin (if you roasted the chiles without either under-or overdoing it, the skin will come off evenly), then use a paring knife to cut out the cores and scrape out and discard the seeds. If you think it's necessary, very briefly rinse the peppers to remove clinging bits of skin and seeds, but you'll also be rinsing away some of that roasty flavor. Cut the peppers into 1/4-inch-wide slices.

2. Finishing the rajas. Cut the onion in half, then cut each half into 1/4-inch-thick slices. In a large (10- to 12-inch) heavy skillet, heat the oil over medium-high. Scoop the onion into the hot oil and cook, stirring regularly, until nicely golden but still slightly crunchy, about 5 minutes. Toss in the garlic and herbs, stir for a minute, then mix in the chiles and heat through, about 1 minute. Taste and season with salt.

Advance Preparation -- The chiles may be roasted, peeled, covered and refrigerated a couple of days ahead, or the whole preparation can be done ahead, for that matter.

Other Chiles You Can Use -- Mexican cooking is very regional, so each area's cooks make this preparation with whatever large fresh chiles are popular or available. You can do the same with anything from red bells to hot Hungarian wax.

Traditional Dishes that Use this Essential as a Starting Point

Roasted Poblano Chile Salad; Roasted Tomato Soup; Roasted Poblano Crema; Tacos of Creamy Braised Chard, Potatoes and Poblanos; Crusty Griddle-Baked Quesadillas; Crusty Baked Masa Boats; Tomato-Rice Casserole; Crusty Chayote Casserole; Oaxacan Omelette; Chicken Breasts with Poblanos, Mushrooms and Cream

Simple Ideas from My American Home

Roasted Pepper Rajas as a Sauce/Vegetable/Filling
-- lf you simmer about 1/4 cup of heavy, cream or Thick Cream or crème fraîche with the roasted pepper strips until thickened, you'll have a chunky, creamy "sauce" that's fabulous with grilled fish or chicken. If you're looking for a little more on the plate, try wilting about 3 cups of spinach leaves in with the onions, or adding a cup of fresh corn kernels or boiled, cubed potatoes. That all-vegetable version makes a great taco filling or vegetarian main dish, especially when served with a steaming bowl of rice. Though they're quite rich, I love soft tacos of creamy rajas sprinkled with crumbled Mexican queso fresco or pressed salted farmer's cheese.

Fresh Poblano Chiles

Though poblanos grow most abundantly in West-Central Mexico, their complex, rich flavor is relied on through most of the Republic, save the Yucatan and some far northern sections. They're the all-purpose fresh chile in my kitchen and, from the looks of their easy availability in the States these days, in many kitchens. Since they add flavor, spiciness and texture to a wide variety of dishes, from salsas and soups to vegetable dishes and elegant cream sauces, I even add them to potato salad and baked beans.

Because of a quirk of migratory history, some Californians still refer to this chile, and its dried counterpart, as "pasilla," as they do in Michoacan. Otherwise, everyone else knows them as "poblano," or simply "chile verde" in Mexican regions where they're the only game in town. Occasionally it's their use that's featured in their name: chile para rellenar (stuffing chile) or chile para deshebrar (shredding chile). When dried, poblanos are called "anchos" except, again, in California and Michoacan, where they're often referred to as "pasillas.")

The flesh of a raw poblano has a compact texture, usually a good amount of heat (though it can vary from mild to quite hot) and a full, green-bean green flavor; you'll notice herbal notes, too, reminiscent of fiat-leaf parsley. Roasted, it softens into a lingering, near-sweet, harmonious richness -- to me, the quintessential Mexican flavor and aroma -- that makes you think it's been cooked with olive oil, rosemary or thyme. You can use long green chiles (Anaheims) anywhere that poblanos are called for, but I don't think your dish will be as flavorful.

Stats: An average poblano is a dark forest green (occasionally they're available in fully mature red). about 3 ounces, 4 to 5 inches long by 2 1/2 inches wide (at the deeply indented shoulder), the sometimes gnarled or dimpled body tapering at the bottom to a point.

How to Roast Fresh Chiles

I prefer to roast large fresh chiles like poblanos over a charcoal or wood fire because I think that's the way they taste the best. However, I admit it's impractical on my seventeenth-story balcony in Chicago in January. My second choice is to roast them over the flame of a gas burner. Third choice is to roast them close up under a very hot broiler. With this last method, the flesh of the chile tends to cook more than I like before the skin blisters, because most home broilers aren't nearly as hot as the grill or the flame.

The reason we roast chiles at all is to cook the flesh a little (cooked chiles taste less grassy), to rid them of their tough skins, and to add a touch of smokiness. Large fresh chiles require a bit of vigilance during the roasting process: You want to evenly char -- really char -- the skin without turning the flesh to mush. That means a very hot fire and frequent turning.

Many cooks tell you to put roasted chiles in a plastic bag and let them cool before peeling. Trapping all that heat means almost certain overcooking to me, so I prefer to put them in a bowl and cover them with a towel for a few minutes. The steam they release under the towel is enough to loosen the skin, making them easier to peel.

Most small chiles, like serranos and jalapeños, are roasted directly on a dry skillet or griddle until soft and irregularly charred. Small chiles are rarely peeled after roasting.

Don't hesitate to roast and peel fresh chiles a day or two ahead; they keep well in the refrigerator. Lots of cooks, especially in the American Southwest where large chiles are grown, like to roast a lot of chiles at once and freeze them; the practice in vogue seems to be freezing the roasted chiles with the skins on; peeling them when defrosted seems to preserve flavor and texture.


Adobo de Achiote

Achiote is the saffron of Mexico: If it's not fresh or if it's used in tiny pinches, the orangey color is all you notice. More than a pinch of fresh achiote gives any dish an exotic, earthy perfume that to me is as captivating as good, musky saffron; it's certainly less expensive. You'll know you've got fresh achiote when the little chalky-feeling seeds have a punchy aroma and a vibrant rusty color that's more red than orange.

Though in Oaxaca they make "pure" achiote paste (it has only a little salt, sugar and acid added), it is the Yucatecan garlic-flavored, spice-riddled achiote paste that most Mexicans use. Even in the States, Yucatecan achiote paste is available in most Mexican groceries.

Homemade achiote paste has the brightest, most concentrated flavors (some of the commercial brands contain fillers), and it's really very simple.

Smeared over fish before it's grilled, slathered on pork before it's braised or roasted, stirred in tamal dough before it's steamed -- achiote reveals the genius of Mexican cooks. Not spicy-hot here, but spicy-complex without chile. My version nods more in that direction than some I've encountered. Silvio Campos, a Yucatecan who came to Frontera Grill to make his famous pork pibil, made his with double the achiote of mine and half the spices. Try that version for an even more true-to-achiote flavor.

Makes about 1/3 cup

2 tablespoons achiote seeds

2 teaspoons allspice, whole or freshly ground

1 teaspoon black pepper, whole or freshly ground

1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican

3 tablespoons cider vinegar

6 garlic cloves, peeled

Generous teaspoon salt

The spice-grinder method:
In a spice grinder, pulverize the achiote as finely as possible, then dump it into a small bowl. Pulverize the allspice and black pepper (if you're using whole) along with the oregano, and add to the achiote. Sprinkle in the cider vinegar and mix thoroughly (it'll be a damp powder at this point and won't hold together). Roughly chop the garlic, sprinkle it with salt, then, right on your cutting board, use the back of a spoon or the side of a knife to work it back and forth into a paste. Little by little, work in the spice mixture (it probably still won't hold together). Last, work in a tablespoon or two of water, if it's needed to give the mixture the consistency of a thick paste. The minichopper method: Pulverize the achiote, allspice, peppercorns and oregano together with the sharp blade. Add the vinegar to the spices, along with the garlic and salt. Pulse until the garlic is roughly chopped, then let the machine run until everything is as smooth as possible. Dribble in a tablespoon or two of water, if it's necessary, to bring everything together into a thick, pasty consistency.

Advance Preparation -- This seasoning will last for several months in the refrigerator, if tightly covered (I suggest a small jar).

Traditional Dishes that Use this Essential as a Starting Point

Yucatecan Grilled Fish Tacos; Achiote-Roasted Pork Tacos; Achiote Rice Supper with Pork Carnitas; Achiote-Grilled Turkey Breast; Tomato-Braised Grouper

Simple Ideas from My American Home

A Twist on Tomato Salad
-- When tomatoes are at their peak, slice them and arrange on a platter. Make a dressing from one part fruit or white-wine vinegar and three parts good olive oil. Stir in your seasoning a bit at a time until everything is beautifully orange and the achiote is nicely detectable; you may need to season the dressing with more salt. Drizzle over the tomatoes, then sprinkle with thinly sliced green onions or sliced greentops-on white onion. Strew with chopped fresh herbs (anything from cilantro to chervil will be welcome), and you're ready to serve.

Baked Ham with Yucatecan Flavors -- Roast a poblano or long green chile; peel, seed and slice. In a large skillet filmed with oil, quickly fry an onion over medium-high heat until it begins to brown, then add the chile. Cut 1 to 1 1/4 pounds ham steak into 4 portions and nestle them into the skillet. Mix together 1 cup of orange juice with 3 tablespoons of the seasoning, taste for salt, drizzle over the ham, cover, and cook over low heat for 15 minutes. Uncover and simmer over medium-high until the liquid is reduced to about 1/4 cup (it'll start to look thick). Serve the ham topped with the vegetables and a drizzle of the pan juices. For a fruitier version, add 1 cup of chopped fresh pineapple along with the orange juice.

The Fragrance of Freshly Ground Spices

I know most of us take for granted that spices come powdered in little jars, but we're missing out on so much pleasure by not grinding them fresh ourselves. Not only do finished dishes taste livelier when made from freshly pulverized spices, but the aroma wafting from the mortar or grinder as you're reducing them to dust is downright exhilarating.

Since cooks in Mexico are used to
working with whole spices (you'd be hardpressed to find ground spices in a Mexican marketplace), I suggest you look for the freshest
whole spices in a Mexican grocery here in the States. I keep a mortar and electric spice grinder within easy reach to encourage me to grind fresh, and, to make the whole process really easy, I store a small brush in the mortar to whisk out what I've ground.

Though an electric spice grinder (the kind that often doubles as a small electric coffee mill) works great for cinnamon sticks and larger quantities of spices, I prefer a medium (five- to seven-inch) mortar for small jobs. The lava-rock molcajetes from Mexico are ideal.



Tortillas de Maiz

I encourage you to make your own corn tortillas at least once, if for no other reason than to fill the kitchen with that alluring aroma and to relish the instant gratification of a toasty, pressed-baked-eaten tortilla. If you can buy fresh masa from a tortilla factory, I more than encourage you to make them, to feel that fluffy, puttylike dough between your fingers. If you've only tasted corn tortillas from the frozen-food counter case, you've tasted only Wonder bread in a world that can offer you a crusty sourdough loaf.

For centuries, this daily bread was rhythmically patted into discs between accomplished palms that flattened their first corn dough as toddlers; if not patted between palms, the masa was pat-pat-patted flat onto a large leaf. Today, many youngsters in Mexico learn only the pressing between the metal or wood plates of a tortilla press -- certainly an efficient, but less artisanal, procedure. For the first timer, or even an old hand like me, it's the only manageable approach, so that's the way I've written this recipe.

Now, the recipe may look long, but that's not because tortilla making is difficult or time-consuming -- compared to bread making, tortilla dough is ultrasimple, as the dough is very forgiving. I simply want to spell out all the nuances of the process, so you'll get the best tortillas. Once you've gotten a little practice, you'll refer to this page only for the proportions -- which are very simple, since corn tortillas are nothing but lime-processed ground corn and water. No salt, no added fat, almost whole grain. Certainly among the healthiest breads in the world. So eat lots of good corn tortillas and go light on the fat-laden flour ones, if health issues are a concern.

Fresh masa versus masa harina: Fresh masa is hands-down the best, but it's close to impossible to make at home, it's an effort to find in most communities and it's easily perishable. To get the very best tortilla, the masa needs to have been ground that day and never refrigerated; the masa will spoil within a dozen hours, and if refrigerated (or frozen) will yield a tortilla that's more dense. Get fresh masa for special occasions. Dehydrated, powdered masa (what is sold as masa harina) works quite well for tortillas (I'd use it regularly if the fresh masa weren't so readily available to me in Chicago), especially since good varieties like Maseca brand are available these days. The texture of tortillas made from masa harina is a little less smooth and meaty (they're a little mealier), but the smell of the baking tortilla is still compelling.


1 pound fresh masa for tortillas

OR 1 3/4 cups masa harina for tortillas (such as Maseca brand) mixed with 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons hot tap water

1. The dough.
For fresh masa, knead the dough with a little cool water until soft and easily malleable (I think it feels like soft Play-Doh or cookie dough); add water a tablespoon at a time and stop before the dough becomes sticky. Cover with plastic wrap.

For reconstituted masa harina, cover the masa harina-water mixture and let stand 30 minutes, then work in cool water, a tablespoon at a time, until dough is as soft as you can get it without being sticky; it will feel a little grittier, less puttylike than fresh masa, and it should feel slightly softer than masa when the proper amount of water has been worked in. Cover with plastic wrap.

2. Pressing and unmolding the tortillas. Divide the dough into 15 balls and cover with plastic wrap. Heat an ungreased double-size griddle (one that fits over two burners) or 2 ungreased large skillets so that one end of the griddle (or one skillet) is between medium-low and medium, the other end (or other skillet) is at medium-high. (If you're using cast iron, the heat will build as you're making tortillas, so you'll likely have to adjust the temperatures downward as you work.)

Cut 2 squares of medium-heavy plastic (at our restaurant, we cut up a medium-weight garbage bag) to fit over the plates of your tortilla press (a little bigger than the plates is fine). Open the press (if you're right-handed, you'll want the opened top plate to your left, the pressure handle to your right) and lay 1 square of plastic on the bottom plate. Center a ball of dough on the plastic, flattening it a little with your hand to make it stick, and cover with the other square of plastic. Close the top plate, then fold the pressure handle over onto the top plate and press down somewhat firmly. (Knowing just how hard to press will take a little practice -- too light and you'll have an uneven, thick tortilla; too heavy and it'll be too thin to get off the plastic.) You're looking for a round that is 5 to 6 inches in diameter and less than 1/8 inch thick.

Fold back the pressure handle, open the top plate, and, while the plastic-wrapped tortilla is still lying on the bottom plate, take hold of the top piece of plastic and quickly pull it off. Now, pick up the tortilla by the plastic with one hand, and flip it over, uncovered side down, onto the slightly separated fingers of your other hand -- it'll cover your fingers and half your palm. (If you're right-handed, I suggest that you pick up the plastic and tortilla with your left hand and flip it onto your right. As you get good at all this, work to align the top of the tortilla with the top of your index finger, with the circle extending just slightly past the tip of your middle finger; this will leave an inch or two of tortilla hanging down below your little finger.)

Starting at one edge, quickly peel the remaining plastic off the tortilla (go too slowly and you'll risk ripping the tortilla), leaving the raw, flattened disc of masa on your hand. If the dough is too soft, you'll have difficulty peeling off the plastic; to correct the problem, work a little masa harina into the dough and continue.

3. Baking the tortillas. Lay the tortilla on the cooler end of the griddle (or cooler skillet). Now, the practiced hand of most Mexican señoras will get that tortilla on the griddle in a flash with a deft, swift move that seems just the opposite of what you'd expect. Rather than turning her hand over to release the tortilla onto the griddle, she moves her hand (held at a 45-degree angle to the griddle) away from her, letting the overhanging portion of the tortilla go down first, then quickly rolling her hand out from underneath the tortilla (the movement looks as though she's brushing something off the griddle with the back of her hand), letting it smoothly fall flat. It looks easy, but practically all of us North Americans get to the "sweeping" part, think we're going to burn the backs of our hands (especially the backs of our little fingers), and jerk straight up rather than away from us, leaving behind a ripped or folded-over tortilla. You simply need to summon your courage -- realize that feeling the heat on the back of your hand isn't the same thing as burning yourself -- and just learn to do it. Turning your hand over to release a tortilla this size onto the griddle usually gives you a rippled tortilla that's impossible to cook evenly. (A word of advice: Try pressing, unmolding and laying the tortillas on your countertop before you start with the griddle. You can scrape up the dough, roll it back into a ball and do it all again. You'll notice that once you have that unmolded tortilla on your hand, you need to get it off and onto the counter or griddle quickly or it will start to stick to your fingers.)

When you lay the tortilla on the griddle, it will immediately stick. If you have your temperature right, it'll release itself within 15 seconds, at which point you should flip it (with your fingers a la mexicana or with a spatula) onto the hotter surface. (If the heat is too low, the tortilla will dry out before it releases itself; if too high, it'll blister. Both translate to "not great texture.")

In 30 to 45 seconds, the tortilla should be speckled brown underneath. (If it browns faster, the temperature's too hot.) Flip it over, still on the hotter surface, and brown the other side for another half minute or so. A perfect tortilla is one that balloons up like pita bread after this second flip -- something you can encourage by lightly pressing on the tortilla with your fingertips or spatula. Or, you can encourage ballooning, as many Mexicans do, by stacking a finished tortilla or two onto one that's just been flipped.

Always taste your first tortilla: If the dough is too dry, the texture will be heavy (it'll probably have cracked around the edges when pressed, too).

As tortillas are finished, collect them in a cloth-lined basket. They're best after they've rested together for about 10 minutes (and steamed from their own heat), but still have the original heat of the griddle.

Tortilla Presses

Some writers will tell you that it's possible to press out the dough for tortillas between two flat plates or to roll it out with a pin, and I suppose either is feasible if you're determined and dexterous. Then again, Mexican cooks, for millennia, have been patting out tortillas by hand or on leaves, so why would I even suggest a press? Simply put, without years of hand-patting experience, the easiest way for most of us to get a consistently flat tortilla is to press it out between the plates of an inexpensive tortilla press.

Tortilla presses are generally made of cast iron or aluminum. I prefer the cast-iron ones simply because their weight makes them less likely to move around. Either will get the job done with ease, as will the massive wooden ones that you find around Mexico (18-inch-square ones are used in Oaxaca for making tlayudas), though the wooden are probably better suited to those whose production is high and relentless (like for every meal). In the States, tortilla presses are sold in many cookware stores and most all Mexican groceries.

Corn -- Center of the Mexican Culinary Universe

Corn is used to make tortillas and tamales, of course, but first that corn has to be transformed into masa. And to understand what masa is, I think it best to talk first about what it is not. It is not "cornmeal dough," as so many American writers call it, since using the word "cornmeal" easily conjures up visions of a dry powdery something that's mixed with liquid.

And masa is not dough made from sweet corn, that delicious, tender vegetable that most Americans think of as the only corn. Rather, it is dough made from dried, starchy, decidedly unsweet field corn, the same that is used for cornmeal, hominy and grits.

To make masa from the dried field corn, you first have to boil the kernels briefly with calcium hydroxide (known as pickling or mason's lime, cal in Spanish), a process that dissolves the difficult-to-digest outer hull of the kernel and remarkably increases its nutritional potential. The boiled corn, which is called nixtamal in Mexican Spanish, is rinsed thoroughly.

At this point, the corn can be returned to the fire for several hours of gentle bobbing over the heat, until it becomes tender, puffy pozole -- the Mexican word for what we call hominy.

Or, the briefly boiled, rinsed corn (the nixtamal) can be made into masa: the damp kernels -- they're still chalky at the core -- are stone-ground into a dryish paste. For eons, the stone grinder has consisted of the metate (the three-legged lava-rock grinding stone) and mano (the rolling-pin-like crusher), powered by a strong back and biceps. Since the mid-1800s, motorized mills have helped relieve the physical work of that chore, and what they turn out is very good because they all use stone burrs (metal ones, they tell me, heat up the corn too much, cooking their starches and yielding an unworkable dough). The finest ground masa makes what most people consider the best tortillas; coarse-ground masa is often preferred for tamales.

The fresh-ground masa is patted between palms (less common these days), pressed out between metal or wood, or squeezed out between metal rollers (then die-cut) to become the flat disc that's griddle-baked into a fragrant tortilla.

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Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (October 21, 1996)
  • Length: 448 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684800066

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