Getting the Most out of Dried Chiles
Dried chiles, with their concentrated, complex flavors and aromas, are what give much of Latin cooking—especially in Mexico—its depth. Not surprisingly, we call for a wealth of them in this issue—including rich, sweet (and indispensable) anchos; chiles de árbol, which have a sharp, penetrating heat; earthy guajillos, moderately hot and tinged with smoke; and pullas, which are smaller and hotter than their cousin guajillos. In most of our recipes, the dried chiles need to be seeded and toasted before using. Before beginning, wipe them off with a damp cloth if they look sandy or dusty (they’re often dried outdoors) and snap on a pair of protective gloves; capsaicin, the potent chemical that gives chiles their heat, is oily, and it lingers. Capsaicin is stored in the placenta, that spongy mass in the center of a fresh chile that forms the ribs and seeds. (1) After breaking off the stem, tear or cut open the chile. Then shake out the seeds and, depending on the recipe, cut out the dried ribs, or veins, for less heat. (2) Toasting dried chiles is a bit different from toasting fresh ones: You don’t want to char and blister the skin, or whatever you’re adding the chiles to will be bitter. The goal instead is to release the chiles’ natural flavor and aroma. Heat a heavy skillet or a comal over moderate heat and, working with a few chiles at a time, put them in, skin side down, and press them flat with tongs briefly. Turn them over, and press them flat again. (In cases such as the Veracruz chicken recipe, just tossing lots of them at once in the pan to warm them is fine.) You’ll know they’re done when they’ve changed color slightly and, most importantly, are fragrant. If they start to smoke (or if you start coughing), either they’ve been left in the pan too long or the pan is too hot. Dried chiles are available at Latino markets, many supermarkets, and by mail order from Amigo Foods (800-627-2544).
Thinking out of the Box (Of Rice)
Food editor Maggie Ruggiero explained that she used the it-takes-a-village approach to perfect her recipe for yellow rice and pigeon peas. She had to forget many of the ironclad rules she follows when cooking rice (“For one thing, I was taught never to stir”) and rely instead on the advice of people who know their rice and beans, including the Dominican woman who works in the travel agency downstairs from Ruggiero’s apartment; her Puerto Rican dental hygienist; our Cuban staff photographer, Romulo Yanes; and our Colombian test kitchen assistant, Margarita Sanabria, who learned from her Puerto Rican mother-in-law. (“She always seeded the chiles, so I do,” she said.) Patience, Ruggiero discovered, was the key: You must let the water almost cook out, uncovered, before stirring and covering the pot with parchment paper (to help seal in the moisture that’s left) and the lid. The layers of flavor that make this dish so special come in large part from a generous amount of the Latin cooking sauce called sofrito. When sofrito hits a hot pan slicked with annatto oil, the smell is just amazing. So do as we do and make five recipes of sofrito. Use one and tuck the rest in separate containers in the freezer; they’ll keep about six months. For more information on sofrito and some of the ingredients we use in this recipe, see “Advanced Latin Studies” in the September issue of Gourmet.
Banana-leaf packets keep slow-cooked short ribs moist and also lend a gentle herbaceous flavor to their contents. We find 1-pound packages of the (inedible) leaves, enough to make 8 to 10 12-inch squares, in the frozen-foods section of Latino and Asian markets (we like La Fe brand); let the package thaw completely before unfolding the (enormous) leaves so that they don’t crack. Slowly move the leaves back and forth over moderately high heat until they become shiny and pliable, then cut them into squares.
Seven-plus pounds of pork shoulder is both majestic and humble. And a great Puerto Rican pernil requires that you coax the best out of every ounce of skin, fat, and meat. First, separate the skin from the fat layer with a sharp small knife, making a wide pocket on top of the roast. Then, working underneath the skin, cut 1-inch slits through the fat into the meat and push some of the marinade into the openings. Its garlicky goodness (not to mention that luxurious fat) will sink into the meat, and the skin will crisp up beautifully.
Quick Chile Hit
Years ago, media food editor Zanne Stewart started whizzing up a can of chipotles in adobo in the blender to make a purée; it keeps almost indefinitely in the refrigerator. Now, almost all of us do the same thing because it’s such a great way to add a smoky kick to soups, stews, and sandwiches (add one part purée to four parts mayonnaise for a spicy mayo).