PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COX, ALEX LUHRMAN AND AMANDA HEYSE
In search of the perfect chile pepper
My culinary relationship with chile peppers started at a hole-in-the-wall adobe cafe in Santa Fe in 1990.
Our family had just moved to northern New Mexico and my grandparents were visiting from Dallas. Granny, a notoriously austere woman and light eater, ordered a cup of chili for dinner.
When the somewhat skeptical server asked whether she would like red or green, Granny responded, “Red,” with a similar tone.
Things got worse when the server asked if Granny would care for tortillas or sopapillas, and then kindly let Granny know saltine crackers were unavailable.
The chili, or more accurately chile, that Granny got that night was a far cry from the ground beef and tomatoes she expected. It was a smooth, crimson pool of fire. Never one to waste food or to complain, Granny ate it all, bite by bite, her stoic composure betrayed only by a sheen of sweat.
Despite the common misconception, the enjoyment of chiles isn’t about a bombardment of brow-mopping intensity; it’s about the often subtle layering of flavors that stimulate the taste buds.
Many cultures have mastered the art of cooking with chiles, from Thailand to Mexico, Spain to China.
Sichuan cuisine in particular is known for its ability to send the diner’s palate on an exquisite, albeit sadistic, journey through cooling, numbing and then igniting the tastebuds with an addictive blend of chiles and peppercorns. Just like a master winemaker, a chile savvy chef can coax the exact level of flavor and spice from peppers by harmonizing a multitude of capsicums in a single dish.
Without the heat and flavor of chiles, the dishes of my childhood in New Mexico would be little more than piles of bland meat and unseasoned tortillas. Even 20 years into my career, I still rarely make a dish without including some form of hot pepper.
New Mexican red, guajillo, arbol, smoked paprika, harissa, Aleppo, jalapeño, pasilla — of the hundreds of varieties, each has its own distinct flavor and punch. With so many chiles to choose from, how do you pick the perfect one for your recipe?
Before you add a chile pepper to a dish, you first need to decide whether to use fresh or dried. Many peppers have a dual identity, one when they are fresh and another when they are dried.
The most common example of this would be jalapeños, known as chipotles when they are smoked and dried.
Unlike many fresh herbs that become sad and dull during the drying process, chiles undergo a metamorphosis into something inspired and mysterious. That said, I would advise throwing away your paprika and cayenne. You know the ones, those crusty little canisters that have been shoved in some dark corner of your spice cabinet for the last decade.
I’m not recommending it just because they are old and stale, but because there are so many superior options available. Cayenne is my least favorite of the dried chile options. It provides an insipid sting to the tongue, but lacks complexity of flavor and balance. Paprika has its time and place as well. If you must buy paprika, buy a true smoked Hungarian paprika for a rich and decadent goulash; don’t just taint a dish with a stale and musty sprinkle of ubiquitous red powder.
Think of fresh chile peppers and dried chile peppers the way you think of wine and wine pairing. A bright green jalapeño is the New Zealand sauvignon blanc of the pepper world, green and tropical, ideal for pairing with light fresh flavors such as sliced tomato, marinated fish and avocado.
A refined dried chile, such as Chimayo red, has many of the subtle earthy undertones and tannins found in a classic pinot noir. As with a light bodied pinot noir, these chiles lend themselves to pairing with a wide variety of dishes, but work particularly well with slow braised meats.
As peppers ripen and dry, the herbaceous notes give way to an Old World bouquet of dried cherry, leather and wood smoke.
Neither fresh nor dried is inherently superior. In fact, that’s the entire reason why most self-respecting New Mexicans choose “Christmas” when ordering their meals. This is in response to the unofficial state question: “Red or green?”
The two types of chiles bring out different subtleties in a dish. Transitioning from the green chile side of the plate to the red chile side of the plate is to explore a whole spectrum of flavors.
The way you prepare chiles also affects how they influence the final dish. It is important to remember when working with peppers that most of the actual flavor is contained within the thin wall of meat sandwiched between the membrane and skin of the pepper.
Many peppers have a dual identity, one when they are fresh and another when they are dried.
To capture the flavor of a raw jalapeño, for example, without too much heat, with a sharp knife, remove the stem and tip, then lay the pepper flat on a cutting board and use the knife to roll out the pepper into a thin sheet, extracting and discarding the seeds and membrane. To subdue the spice even further, soak the cleaned jalapeño flesh in a bit of ice water for 20 minutes before chopping.
To accentuate the sweetness of a fresh pepper and bring out more flavor, place it directly over the flame on your stove, turning periodically until it is uniformly blackened. Wrap the charred pepper in plastic and steam it in a pan for 10 minutes. Using a sharp paring knife, scrape away the blistered skin and then use either the entire pepper or remove the seeds.
When it comes to dried chiles, you will have more versatility when working with whole dried pods rather than with powder. Just like working with fresh chiles, the majority of the oils and capsicum within the pepper are contained in the membranes and seeds. For dried chile pods, simply crack off the stem and then shake out the seeds.
Then toss the pods in a dry sauté pan over medium heat until they begin to smoke and become aromatic. The pods can be left whole for use in blended sauces and braises, or ground in a coffee grinder for sprinkling over a dish or stirring into an aioli or root vegetable purée.
Autumn is the perfect time to explore the world of chiles. In New Mexico, the first cool breezes from the mountains coincide with the alluring aroma of chile roasters set up in parking lots around the state, roasting freshly harvested chiles in tumblers over live fire.
While there isn’t a chile roasting tradition in the Monterey Bay area, you will still find a cornucopia of heirloom peppers at local farmers’ markets at this time of year.
To preserve the flavor and vibrancy of fresh green chiles (jalapeños, poblanos, serranos, Anaheims, Habañeros, to name a few) a quick pickle is a great option. Make a pickling brine by bringing 1 part vinegar and 2 parts water to a simmer and then add sugar, salt, onion, spices and other aromatics to taste.
You want the brine to be about 30% more potent than your desired final product, so don’t be shy with the sugar, salt and aromatics. Once the brine comes to a simmer, pour it over whole or sliced chiles. These can be kept for a few months in the refrigerator or indefinitely if properly canned.
Another option for preserving the flavor of fresh chiles is to roast them over an open flame, remove the charred skins and seeds then cool and freeze in individual Ziploc bags. Drying ripe peppers is also a great option for stocking your larder. Look for the darkest, ripest peppers and then dry them out using a dehydrator or low oven.
If you use a wood or charcoal barbecue, you could also load the chiles into the grill after you are done cooking and once the temperature has fallen below 300° F. Leave the chiles in the grill overnight and then finish drying them in the oven if needed.
For one of the most ancient forms of chile preservation, you can tie your own chile “ristra,” a long braided strand of peppers typically hung in a sunny, breezy area to dry. These are sadly used primarily for decorative purposes these days, but are also a delicious and practical option for home chefs.
Whether your ideal pepper eating experience is an innocuous pile of roasted bell peppers on a Philly cheesesteak or a heap of blistering pickled Habañeros on a plate of pork in the Yucatán, there is a perfect chile experience out there for just about everyone…even Granny.
EIGHT OF MY FAVORITE CHILES TO EXPLORE
Top picks for dried chiles
CHIMAYO RED CHILE
These thin-walled peppers are said to have been planted in northern New Mexico by Spanish conquistadors in the late 1600s. For the last four centuries they have been guarded as a local treasure and protected from cross-pollination by multi-generational family farms. The scarlet powder has the aroma of dried cherries, tobacco and leather with a subtle sweetness that transforms into fire across the tongue. This chile has gained so much popularity over the last few years that there are now counterfeit Chimayo chile powders for sale online. If you can get your hands on the real deal, I highly recommend saving some for very special recipes, especially slow braised meats and sauces.
These unassuming yellow chiles are a staple in kitchens throughout Peru. While fresh aji amarillos are becoming more widely available locally, they are most commonly found as a jarred paste or dried pod. These chiles reach a respectable level of heat and are potent enough to leave most people a bit tearyeyed. While undeniably spicy, they still have a very pleasant flavor, reminiscent of dried mango and green passion fruit. They are particularly well suited for pairing with raw fish.
This Turkish chile was introduced to me by Thamin Saleh at Jeninni Kitchen + Wine Bar. The peppers are harvested when they are deep red or maroon in color and then left to partially dry in the sun before being covered by a cloth in a process called “sweating” to prevent the pepper from completely drying out. This unique process yields a pepper that is remarkably unique and complex with aromas of chocolate, smoke and plum, and a flavor profile that oscillates between heat, acidity, sweetness and savory salinity. Because of Urfa’s dynamic taste and flavor, it can effortlessly enhance most dishes in a subtle, almost magical, way. Try these peppers sprinkled over roasted vegetables.
These red peppers from the Basque region have all the flavor you could hope for in a chile, without the searing heat. In many parts of the Pyrenees, these peppers have all but replaced black peppercorns in regional cooking. I love working with espelettes, because you can use enough that the flavor comes across without worrying about making a dish overly spicy for non-pepper lovers. Try mixing ground espelettes into fresh goat cheese for a delicious and vibrant spread.
Go-To Choices for Fresh Chiles
NEW MEXICAN GREEN CHILE
Clearly there is some bias going on here, but roasted New Mexican chiles are an incredibly versatile ingredient. Keeping a bagful in the freezer is absolutely essential. They have a real affinity for cheese, but do well with any neutral ingredient that can carry the flavor, such as potatoes and eggs.
These tiny wild chiles are also known as bird chiles and can be found in many parts of the world including Southeast Asia. Clocking in at 100,000 Scoville units, these chiles may be tiny but they pack a serious punch! In Hawaii these peppers are used to make chile pepper water, a condiment seen on most tables. The recipe is simple: a few whole chiles, some vinegar, water and sea salt.
CORNO DI TORO
Heirloom Italian frying peppers, these chiles are mild but full of flavor. You can roast them in a pan with olive oil, finish with sea salt and eat whole like a large Padrón pepper. They are also large enough to stuff or dice in a variety of recipes as a substitute for less flavorful bell peppers.
You can find jalapeño peppers just about anywhere, which is great because they really are the Swiss army knife of hot peppers. Use them in salsas and guacamole or even grilled whole as a spicy accompaniment to a dish. My favorite way to enjoy them is in the form of a “popper.” Stuff with a decadent cheese, wrap in bacon and slow cook on the smoker until the bacon is crispy, and the cheese and jalapeño form a molten core.
RECIPE: Courtesy chef Michelle Estigoy, Cultura comida y bebida in Carmel
Chef Michelle Estigoy developed this recipe after general manager Sarah Kabat-Marcy raved about something similar she tried at Boulenc pizzeria in Oaxaca. Estigoy says she puts this addictive sauce on everything from sandwiches to soups, but that it is especially delicious on mushroom tacos.
RED CHILE SAUCE
RECIPE: Courtesy chef Michelle Estigoy, Cultura comida y bebida in Carmel
If you are able to get a great red chile such as Chimayo red, I recommend keeping it very simple to start, and letting the pure flavor of the chile shine.
NEW MEXICAN STYLE BREAKFAST BURRITO
RECIPE: Courtesy chef John Cox
To make it a smothered burrito, like in the photo, you will need another 2 cups of diced green chiles, 2 cups of red chile sauce and 1 cup of cheese…
LOCAL FOODS IN SEASON
SEPTEMBER, OCTOBER, NOVEMBER
Apples • Asian Pears • Avocados • Blackberries** • Cactus Pears • Dates Feijoas* • Figs • Guavas* • Kiwis • Kumquats • Lemons • Limes* Mandarins* • Melons • Nectarines • Oranges • Peaches* • Pears Persimmons • Plums • Pluots • Pomegranates • Pomelos* • Quince Raspberries • Strawberries
Beans • Beets • Bok Choy* • Broccoli • Brussels Sprouts* • Burdock • Cabbages Carrots • Cauliflowers* • Celeriac • Celery • Chard • Collards • Corn • Cress • Cucumbers Dandelions • Eggplants • Endive • Fennel • Garlic • Herbs • Horseradish • Kale • Leeks Lettuces • Mustard Greens • Okra • Olives • Onions • Orach • Parsnips • Peas • Pea Shoots Peppers • Potatoes • Radishes • Rhubarb • Rutabagas*** • Salsify • Scallions • Shallots Spinach • Sprouts • Squash, Summer and Winter • Sunchokes • Sweet Potatoes Tomatillos • Tomatoes • Turnips
Almonds • Hazelnuts • Pecans • Pistachios • Walnuts
Abalone • Halibut, Calif. • Lingcod • Rock Cod/Rockfish • Sablefish, aka Black Cod • Sanddabs • Sea Bass, White • Sole • Spot Prawns Squid, Market • Tuna, Albacore
- = September only ** = Only through October ***= October and beyond All fish listed are rated “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and are found in abundance in local waters. See seafoodwatch.org for more information
The former executive chef at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar, John Cox is now pursuing a number of projects, including serving as a partner and consulting chef at Cultura–comida y bebida in Carmel and chef-partner at The Bear and Star at the Fess Parker Ranch in Los Olivos. For more, go to www.chefjohncox.com or follow him on Instagram and Facebook.