Chiles – the Heart and Soul of the Southwestern Cooking
Southwestern cooking is earthy, rich and deeply rooted in regional traditions. Its food reflects the colors of the land and blends Native American, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo-American styles. Chiles are the heart, soul and heat of Southwestern cooking.
Chiles are ancient; they were first cultivated in North America about 9,000 years ago in the Valley of Mexico. In spite of being so old, they were not introduced into Europe until Columbus brought them back with him around the end of the 1400s. From there, the Portuguese took them to the East Indies, Asia and Africa. In the 1600s Europeans rediscovered chiles and took them back to the Americas when they immigrated.
In Mexican and Southwestern cooking, chiles are very commonly used as a main ingredient. Not only do they add savoriness, they are also rich in vitamin C. For some dishes, it is traditional to use only fresh chiles and for other dishes only dried are used. Typically, it’s usually the smaller hot chiles that are used fresh; think Jalapenos and Serranos. Although there is no sure way to tell how hot a chile will be, generally the smaller ones pack more heat. When using dried chiles, look for suppleness. Don’t worry if they are dusty; just wipe them off gently. Large dried chiles like Anchos tend to be milder than small dried ones.
Best places to find chiles besides farmers’ markets – Ranch Markets.
Frequently, you will want to roast and peel fresh chiles and it’s easy to do if you have a gas range.
- holding with tongs, blister them over the flame, turning several times, until charred
- put them into a ziplock bag, seal, and let them sweat for about 10 minutes
- to peel, hold them under cold running water. The skins should slip right off
- discard the seeds and ribs
If you don’t have a gas range, you can broil them on a baking sheet, turning several times, until charred, or roast them in the oven, uncovered, at 450 degrees for about 20 minutes. Again, you will want to turn them several times to char them evenly. Place into the plastic bag, sweat and peel them.
To bring out the most flavor from dried chiles, dry roasting them in a non-stick skillet works the best. When the skillet is hot, add the chiles and press down on them with a wooden spoon to sear. Remove from the heat as soon as they begin to plump up and soften. You do not want to burn them. If a recipe calls for pureed chiles, tear or cut them into pieces and soak them in hot water for about 1 hour to soften. Scissors are some of the best tools when working with dried chiles!
Other things to consider when working with chiles:
- the longer a chile is cooked, the hotter the flavor
- simmering a dish with chiles results in a dish that is hot overall; adding to stir-fries adds zip, flavor and spice
- smaller, chopped fresh chiles will provide a uniform heat, like in salsas, but if the recipe calls for removing the chile before serving, larger pieces are easier to find
- and, last but not least, less is always more! You can always add more heat, but you can’t take it out once it’s in there.
Written by Susan Cypert, Phoenix Farmers Market Examiner at Examiner.com