Hugh Carpenter is an acclaimed teacher and award-winning
cookbook author. He has teamed up again with photographer Teri
Sandison for a primer on contemporary Mexican cuisine with Mexican Flavors. (You can enter our contest for your chance to win one of
three copies.) The book includes classic recipes as well as
gastronomic surprises such as banana salsa, quesadillas with papaya
and Brie, and barbecued Caesar salad with chile
We asked Hugh to expound on his latest work, and he
elected to focus on one chapter in the book called "Flavor Building
Blocks." This chapter is an in-depth exploration of chile peppers,
a fundamental ingredient in Mexican cuisine. The synopsis below is
like getting a free master class from this renowned
Chiles are central to Mexican cuisine - The King of all
ingredients. Native to the Americas and cultivated for at least one
thousand years, the Spanish spread chiles around the globe within a
hundred years following the arrival of Cortez and thus transformed
the cuisines of far-flung countries. Before the 16th century, there
were no chiles found in Szechuan!
Remember, when fresh chiles are dried, their name always
changes. For example, fresh poblano become ancho, and
jalapeño become chipotle chiles. Generally, the size determines the
spice level. Most dried chiles of the same size have about the same
level of hotness.
Jalapeño and Serrano chiles are the two most commonly used fresh
chiles in Mexican cooking. Jalapeño chiles vary in spice, ranging
from moderately spicy to as mild as a bell pepper. Serrano chiles
are hotter, but these, too, vary in intensity. Here is a
simple way to know how hot the chile tastes: cut off the
stem and taste the cut surface for hotness (in other words lick the
cut stem!). Adjust the quantity to use accordingly.
Anaheim and Poblano chiles are mildly spicy. Used for Chile
Rellenos and for many other dishes, they have about the same spice
level and can be used interchangeably. These are never eaten raw,
and are always given a preliminary charring. When dried, poblanos
are called ancho chiles and Anaheim chiles are called New Mexican
chiles ("chile seco del norte") or chiles Colorado.
To seed or not to seed: I'm always amazed when I see a
cook cutting a serrano lengthwise in half and then carefully
scraping away the seeds. It's true that the seeds and ribbing
have the most spice - but when using jalapeño and serrano chiles,
never extract the seeds and ribbing! Just adjust the hotness of the
dish by mincing less of the chile. To mince, use an electric
The plastic bag technique: Habanero and Scotch
Bonnet chiles are extremely spicy. When handling these, always
protect your hands by placing them inside plastic baggies, or wear
plastic food gloves. The chile will burn your skin and eyes if you
don't remember to protect your hands. If substituting habanero or
scotch bonnet chiles for serrano chiles: 1 habanero or scotch
bonnet = 8 Serrano chiles.
How to char fresh chiles: All Mexican cooks char fresh
chiles by placing them on a thin metal pan called a "comal" over
the highest heat on a gas stovetop. Any heavy frying pan can be
substituted for the comal. No oil is added to the pan. Or, gripping
chiles with tongs, hold the chiles directly over a gas burner
turned to high. This can prove frustrating since the chiles are
inclined to fall into or away from the gas flames, and causes
constant repositioning, but can be solved by using a metal screened
cooling rack that is dedicated to this function. When chiles char
on one side, rotate and continue to char until blackened on all
sides. Don't try to char the chiles on a gas grill or under
the broiler. The heat won't be sufficient to
blacken the chiles.
To wash or not to wash charred chiles: Never wash the
chiles to remove the char. Once the chiles are charred on all
sides, transfer the chiles to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap,
or place in a paper bag and then seal the bag. (Note:
don't use a plastic bag as the plastic bag will melt if there is
any contact with the hot tongs used to rotate the chiles).
After five minutes, rub off the char using paper towels.
Don't wash the chiles as this will wash most of the roasted flavor
down the drain.
Ancho chiles and their confusing name: In California,
ancho chiles are packaged as "pasilla chiles." But in Mexico ancho
chiles are dried poblano chiles, and pasilla chiles are a different
chile called "chile negro."
Don't obsess about finding the "correct type" of chile:
I know that Mexican cooking authorities recommend specific chiles;
but chiles of the same size can typically be used interchangeably.
Always check the hotness of chiles, both fresh and dried, by taking
a little "taste test" and adjusting the amount to use accordingly.
Most chiles of the same size have roughly the same amount of
"hotness." The following dried chiles can all be used
interchangeably: Ancho (dried poblano), Cascabel, Guajillo,
Mulato, and Chile Negro (or Pasilla).
To toast or not to toast dried chiles: Mexican cooks
usually give dried chiles a preliminary toasting in a hot skillet
or pan (comal). But if the chiles are toasted a few seconds too
long, the chiles acquire a bitter taste and the recipe is ruined.
If you skip the preliminary toasting, the chiles will still give
the food a fantastic taste. A preliminary toasting of the dried
chiles is unnecessary.
To seed or not to seed before adding to liquid: Mexican
cooks soften dried chiles by submerging them whole in boiling water
or chicken broth. Then the softened chiles are stemmed and the
seeds rinsed out. But some of the soft, pulpy interior of the chile
can be lost. A better techniques is to snip off the dry stem end,
and shake out the seeds. Now the dried chiles are placed in a
saucepan or bowl and covered with boiling water or chicken broth.
Submerge the chiles with a small plate or bowl. Soak 30 minutes
until softened (Note, the water or broth is not kept at a simmer
during the soaking process. It gradually cools during the soaking
process). Sometimes dried chiles are too wrinkled to cut them open
and shake away the seeds. In that case, just remove the stem and
seeds after submerging the chiles.
Other Mexican Chile Products
Chipotle chiles in adobo sauce: These are smoked
jalapeños simmered in a spicy sauce, and sold in 4-ounce cans at
every Mexican market, and many American supermarkets. To use:
Finely mince the chiles, including the seeds, and use along with
the sauce. Warning: these are extremely spicy. To store:
transfer to a plastic container and refrigerate. Lasts
Chile sauce, your favorite: This is a general term
covering many chili sauces such as Cholula. Easily substitute with
the Asian chile sauce, Rooster Brand Sriracha hot chile sauce, sold
in a clear plastic bottle with a green cap. And remember to always
refrigerate after opening. Crushed red pepper also serves as a
great substitute to chile sauce and is sold in the spice section of
all markets. It's also what appears on the table at all pizza
restaurants and is very spicy, so use sparingly.
Chili powder, ancho and chipotle: If you can't locate
this in your local market, it is always available in Mexican
markets. You can also make your own by cutting the dried chiles
into small pieces, and powdering them in an electric spice blender.
Package, label, and store with your other spices. One powdered
ancho chile equals 2 tablespoons.