The intensity and taste of the various types of chiles that are found in Mexico determines how and when they are used in cooking,bringing a range of flavors to the table,from fruitiness and subtle spiciness,to no-holds-barred heat. Since the University of California identified Mexico as the official birthplace of the chile pepper this April,it’s safe to say that this Latin American nation can teach the world a thing or two about how to use them in everyday meals.
“The milder chiles add complexity as well as (and sometimes instead of) heat,and may be thought of more as subtle spice that results in mysterious flavors you can’t duplicate otherwise,” writes food columnist Mark Bittman for the New York Times. “They’re fun rather than fearful.”
Much of the world,including the U.S.,Canada and Europe,have traditionally used chile peppers sparingly if at all,but in recent decades the intermingling of cultures internationally has spurred greater interest in – and even obsession with – spicy foods from around the world. Mexico is home to a wide variety of chiles and the nation’s cuisine reflects the culture’s love of this amazing and diverse fruit.
“For the most part,we simply don’t use them enough,” writes Bittman. “We don’t understand them,and that lack of understanding results in a limited pantry.”
Chipotle peppers,for example,are most commonly – especially outside of Mexico – made from a smoked and dried jalapeno. However,in Mexico there are many so-called “chipotle” peppers that are obviously made from other varieties. Crafted by smoking mild chiles over a smoldering fire for hours or even days,chipotle peppers are used to lend gentle warmth and a unique flavor,but not too much heat,to a wide variety of dishes.
Poblano peppers,by contrast,are generally somewhat large,inexpensive and have a distinct dark green color when fresh that becomes even darker when dried. The flavor seems indecisive about whether it should be hot or not,which makes them a versatile option often used in Mexico to make popular dishes like chile rellenos (stuffed peppers),mole sauce or rajas de chile poblano con crema (strips of poblano pepper with cream).
In Mexico’s Riviera Maya,which lies along the nation’s Caribbean coast just south of Cancun,chiles are used in traditional Mayan cuisine more for their subtle flavors than as a source of nourishment. Even when incorporating the infamous habanero,for example,Mayan cooks often use them to add just a minor amount of heat and are even able to coax a distinct fruity flavor out of these intensely hot peppers. Today,cuisine throughout the Riviera Maya artfully blends these ancient culinary influences with flavors from around the globe,resulting in an intoxicating blend.
Other varieties of chile pepper in Mexico include the guajillo,puya,pasilla (dried chilaca) and cascabel. The guajillo is deep red and often used in pastes,butters or rubs to flavor meat,and to lend sweetness to salsa,exhibiting a mild flavor with green tea and berry overtones and minimal heat. Puya peppers are similar but smaller and hotter. They are often pureed,mashed or diced to make a mouth-watering sauce after soaking in water to pull out the flavor. Pasilla peppers,also known as “little raisins,” are actually dried chilaca peppers used to pep up dishes containing fruit,duck,seafood and lamb. Pasillas also work well with dishes containing honey,mushrooms,garlic,oregano and fennel. Cascabel chiles are somewhat spicy and also known as the “rattle chile” because of how the seeds rattle around in side when dried. The cascabel is a variety of Mirasol that is ideal for adding a bit of heat to sauces,stews,salsas and soups.
Cooking with chile peppers requires a bit of knowledge and skill. If possible,take a moment or two and roast the peppers over a gentle flame,in a skillet or in a hot oven before cooking,as this will release the complex flavors and aromas contained within. Since all chiles – even the mildest of bell peppers – can contain some level of heat,stored in the seeds,stems,veins and skin. Removing these parts will reduce the heat of the pepper and ensure that (most!) chiles are ready to enjoy without packing too much heat.
“They can turn a dish one-dimensional if allowed to dominate,” writes Bittman. “I have yet to find a stew-like dish that doesn’t benefit from adding the shells – that is,what’s left over after removing stems,seeds and veins – of several kinds of dried,mild chiles. Learn to love them – and tame them – and you can use them daily.”