It’s the salsa that draws me to Mexican food. A mediocre carnitas is easily salvaged when doused with a slightly tart tomatillo sauce. But even an exemplary steak taco is rendered a crashing bore to me without a jolt from fresh pico de gallo or a squirt of bracing salsa roja.
Around supper time in many households throughout Mexico, there’s a buzz of activity in the kitchen that has less to do with the main course, and everything to do with that most intrinsic element of the meal — salsa — made fresh daily.
On this side of the border, most of us think of salsa as a combination that definitely involves tomatoes, maybe onion, some cilantro and a bit of fresh jalapeno or a more volatile chile like habanero. And while that’s certainly the base for many a good salsa, in Mexico dried chiles often take front and center, with tomatoes bringing up the rear, if they’re invited to the party at all. It’s the earthy, sometimes floral and slightly bitter finish of dried chiles that makes for a more complex and memorable salsa.
While versatile dried chiles make strong foundations for sauces and pastes, they’re also ideal when pulverized into homemade chili powder or rubs, which can be left plain or enhanced with dried herbs, coffee beans and other flavors limited only by your imagination.
The next time you come across dried chiles, snap up a few bags and start experimenting.
Your meals will be much richer for the effort.
BLAZING CHILE BUTTER
Hands on: 5 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Makes: About ½ cup
This is a take on the trendy French seasoned butter, Bordier Piment d’Espelette, flavored with Basque Espelette peppers, which, of course, originated in Mexico.
Shape the spicy butter into a log and stash it in the freezer. Place a pat on grilled meats and seafood and add a spoonful to jazz up pasta.
Spread it on crostini for a bit of drama.
Note that a rich European-style butter tempers the bite from the fiery chiles, but regular unsalted butter works, too.
- 5 dried chiles de arbol
- 1 dried New Mexico chile, stem snipped
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- Pinch of kosher salt
- 1 stick unsalted, European-style butter, room temperature
In a mini food processor or coffee grinder (one that’s not going to be used for coffee beans), add the dried chiles, oregano and salt.
Process until the ingredients are the texture of salt.
You should have about 1 tablespoon of ground pepper mixture.
Stir the mixture into the softened butter and mix well. Shape into a log and wrap tightly with plastic wrap.
Refrigerate for a couple of weeks or freeze.
Per 1-tablespoon serving: 123 calories, 1 gram protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 12 grams fat (7 grams saturated), 31 milligrams cholesterol, 20 milligrams sodium.
RUSTIC SALSA ROJA
Hands on: 15 minutes Total time: 20 minutes Makes: about 2 cups of salsa
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 6 guajillo chiles, stems snipped
- 6 chiles de arbol (if you want a mild salsa, you can use 2 dried California or New Mexico chiles)
- 5 garlic cloves, cut in half
- 3 whole fresh Roma tomatoes
- 1 (14.5-ounce) can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
- ½ cup fresh cilantro
- ¼ of a white onion
- 1 teaspoon salt
Add oil to a medium saucepan or skillet, turn heat to medium.
When the oil is hot, add the chiles and garlic to the pan and toss them around for about 10 minutes until the garlic is a deep golden color and the chiles darken slightly. Take care not to burn the garlic or chiles.
Remove chiles and garlic from the pan and place in a blender.
Place the Roma tomatoes in the pan and add a bit more oil if you need to, and shake the tomatoes over medium heat until some of the skin turns dark and starts to blister. It should take just a couple of minutes.
Cut the stem end off of the tomatoes, quarter them and place them in the blender with the cilantro, onion and salt.
Blend until smooth.
Per 2-tablespoon serving: 42 calories, 1 gram protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 2 grams fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 196 milligrams sodium.