Chiles: The World's Most Versatile Fruit
Chiles are actually a fruit that belong to the genus Capsicum. Most of the chiles found in Mexico are of the Capsicum annuum species, save for the chile manzano (C. pubescens), and the chile habanero (C. chinense). Based on archeological remains, it is known chiles were being consumed over 7,000 years ago in Oaxaca's Guila Naquitz cave. For millennia, chiles have provided a valuable source of vitamin A and C in the daily Mexican diet. Upon arriving in the New World, the Spanish conquerors and priests observed the important role chiles played in pre-Colombian society--as a tribute, medicinal remedy, weapon and versatile condiment. Early explorers and ethnographers, like Alexander von Humbolt and Fray Bartolome de las Casas, noted and compared the use of chiles in Mexico to the use of salt in Europe (i.e., used to season everything).
When discussing chiles in Mexico, it is important to talk about terroir. Chiles are as much a part of their environment as they are of the cuisine. Whether dealing with a dry and arid climate or one that is hot and humid, all of these factors have an impact on the particular flavor profile of a chile. There are many microclimates throughout Mexico that produce unique and rare chiles. Oaxaca serves as an example, as it is home to more chile microclimates than anywhere else in the world. The chile chilhuacle, chile chilcostle and the chile pasilla OaxaqueÒo, for example, are not grown outside their native Oaxaca and are essential ingredients for some of the state's well-known moles. Other chiles, like the chile manzano, can be grown only at higher elevations--at least 5,500 feet above sea level.
Chiles play an essential role in almost every ethnic cuisine on the planet, not just Mexico's. In addition to savory and traditional applications, chiles have prominently made their way onto the pastry scene in recent years, with great popularity and success. Culinary professionals should possess a basic understanding of chile varieties, preparation techniques and understand how to apply these techniques in both ethnic and regional U.S. cuisines.
Cooking with Chiles
Most cooks working with large batches of chiles should wear impermeable gloves, to prevent the sting of capsaicin, an oil from the chile that produces a stinging sensation in the mouth, eyes, skin or affected area. Press a sliced tomato firmly to the affected area, until the stinging subsides. Miraculously, the acidity of the tomato seems to combat the stinging qualities of the capsaicin oil. Some people also recommend washing hands in a solution of bleach and water to remove the oil from the hands.
The oils produced by capsicum fruits facilitate the production of saliva in the mouth and make a person thirsty, when eating hot or spicy foods. However, when eyes and nose begin to water incessantly from eating too much chile, a person is said to have become enchilada. Most Mexicans use salt to combat a good chile heat. Contrary to U.S. practices, Mexicans do not use dairy-based foods for this purpose.
Although chorizo was brought to Mexico by the Spanish, the chorizo that arrived at the time of the conquest was a different specimen, as the Spanish did not have access to paprika or chiles, prior to that time. Mexican chorizos are different than their Spanish counterparts, in that they are raw, not cured and dried, as are the Spanish ones.
Depending on the region, different chiles, spices and meats are used for the adobos that are added to chorizos. In central Mexico, both red chorizo and green chorizo are found. The red chorizo is most often made with an adobo of dried ancho and guajillo chiles and taken out of its casing, when cooked or fried. It is usually high in fat and must be rendered.
Chorizo is served on everything, from tacos, queso fundido, soup and guisos, to an endless variety of antojitos. One regionally significant variety is the green chorizo from Toluca, which is made with leafy greens, green chiles and, sometimes, peanuts or pecans.
The chorizo from Oaxaca traditionally was made with the spicy, native chile chilcostle, but it is now commonly made with the milder, inexpensive chile guajillo. Oaxacan chorizo is made from pork butt and is very lean, in comparison to the chorizos commonly found throughout Mexico. For that reason, Oaxacan chorizo is commonly fried. The states of Tabasco and Chiapas also have distinctive chorizos.
Salsas can be served on the side, as a garnish or used as a sauce. Typically, salsas are a combination of a fruit or vegetable; they almost always contain a variety of chile. All types of chiles are used in salsas, from fresh to dry-smoked.
Tomatoes and tomatillos are the most common bases for salsas and can be used raw, cooked, charred and dry-roasted, or fried. There are also salsas made exclusively with chiles and can be seasoned with scant amounts of onion or garlic. Other ingredients, such as fresh and dried herbs, spices, nuts, vinegars, pulque, beer, lime juice and oils, can also be added to salsas.
In some regions of Mexico, edible insects are popular additions. For example, the salsa de gusanito in Oaxaca is made with the prized gusano rojo, a red worm harvested from the maguey plant. Escamoles, ant eggs, are popular in the Valley of Mexico. There are also dish-specific salsas, like the salsa borracha, made with pulque or beer and served with barbacoa in central Mexico.
Shades of Red and Green
Salsas generally fall under the categories of green and red and varying shades thereof. Green salsas should have a pleasant acidity from the tartness of the tomatillo and are made with fresh green chiles. Some green salsas incorporate avocado for a more creamy consistency. Red salsas can be made with tomatillos and dried red chiles or with tomatoes. Darker salsas are usually made with smoked chiles, like the chipotle meco or the chile pasilla oaxaqueno, or other dark dried chiles, like the ancho, pasilla Mexicana or mulato varieties.
Blending vs. Stone-grinding
Salsas can be pureed in a blender or ground in a molcajete--a pre-Colombian, volcanic stone mortar and pestle. It should also be noted that a blender and a molcajete produce different flavored salsas, due to the way a metal blade processes food and the earthiness that is produced by stone-grinding ingredients in a molcajete. Once a salsa is ground, it can be served immediately or fried in oil and then served. Salsas that are ground in a molcajete are usually served immediately and do not undergo further cooking. Reasons to use a stone molcajete include: to produce a salsa with complex flavors and textures; to create a salsa which brings out the earthy flavors of stone-ground garlic, as opposed to the biting flavor of raw garlic pureed in a blender; and to achieve a chunkier, more textured salsa.
Regional Moles of Oaxaca and Puebla
In contemporary Mexico, the word mole refers to a thick sauce seasoned with an elaborate list of chiles, spices, herbs, nuts, seeds, dried fruit and other ingredients. Everything is painstakingly toasted, dry-roasted, ground and then fried--a process that brings out the individual flavors, while creating a harmonious orchestra of complementary ingredients. When making a mole, let the mole stand on its own--free of competing flavors. For this reason, proteins are usually poached, not seared or grilled, to accompany moles.
While Oaxaca is home to more unique chile-growing microclimates than anywhere else in Mexico or the world, Puebla also produces a wide variety of chiles, including the rare Miahuateco chile. At the time of the conquest, Fray Bernardino Sahagun, one of Mexico's most important ethnographers, described the preparation of a mole in the Florentine Codex, coming from the Nahuatl word molli, or mulli, meaning a mixture or mixed sauce made with chiles.
Looking at the cornucopia of pre-Colombian ingredients being consumed at the time of the Spanish conquest, indispensable ingredients, like the maize, tomato, tomatillos, dozens of varieties of chiles, peanuts, pepitas (squash seeds) and, of course, chocolate (albeit in a different form) were an integral part of the pre-Hispanic diet. However, after 500 years of mestizaje, Mexican cuisine has prospered through its marriage of indigenous ingredients with those of Europe, the Middle East and Asia. In this regard, it is important to mention the Manila Galleons that crossed the Pacific, linking the spice trade routes of the Philippines with those of the Americas, landed and sailed from Acapulco in the state of Guerrero. Perhaps Oaxaca's proximity to Guerrero, and the numerous convents linking Puebla and Oaxaca, played an important part in the region's culinary evolution.
Moles: Common Misconceptions and Errors
Mole is not a chocolate sauce, as many people mistakenly think. True, some moles do include small amounts of Mexican chocolate, added in conservative doses at the end of the cooking process, but this is a far cry from a "chocolate sauce."
Not all moles are supposed to be sweet. A traditional mole should be paired with simple, complementary foods, not ones that compete. For instance, white rice and freshly made corn tortillas will go a lot further than grilled vegetables or sautÈed spinach. It is not advisable to place several moles on the plate at once, as this can overload the palate. pf
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