Chiles. Gotta start off with The Big Kahuna, right? The word ‘chile’ may be confusing at first, but fear not. Checking in my dictionary again for ‘Chile’, I get only a reference to a South American country between the Andes and the Pacific. It’s only when I look up ‘chili’ that I find reference to the seed pods from members of the Capsicum Tribe. Over the last couple of decades, the southwest has gradually come to agree that the dish made from meat and chiles is called Chili, while the fruits from the plants are called Chiles. Got that? There’ll be a quiz later, so… And do note, please, that I wrote fruit and not vegetable. Yes, Virginia, chiles are fruit, just like tomatoes.
Chiles are grown and eaten all over the world, but it’s the varieties that do well here in the States and throughout Mexico that fuel Tex Mex. Before we speak to specifics, know that chile names are not 100% set in stone. Take the noble Anaheim chile, which you can find almost year ‘round in stores these days. These guys got their name when Emilio Ortega brought the chile to California from New Mexico in the early 1900s, (And yes, Emilio is the guy who begat the Ortega brand of canned chiles and other Hispanic sundries, an enterprise that is very much alive and well to this day). OK, back to that Anaheim. In most places, it’s called just that, but fact is, a lot of what we call Hatch chiles are the same fruit. In Texas, they’re most often called Long, Green chiles. Big Jim, Colorado, and Guajillos, all the very same. Anyway, don’t let this stuff concern you, most of what we’ll use is very straight forward, and you’ll plenty of time to explore further after you get your feet wet.
Many recipes you’ll encounter are gonna call for a specific chile in most instances. When you’re just starting out, it’s a good idea to try as many different varieties as you can. Once you find what you like best, there’s not a thing wrong with using them instead of the called for chile if you like yours better. The list I’ll provide is by no means complete. You can consider rounding out that task as your homework for tonight.
Heat Rating. The recent popularity of hot chiles and sauces has developed a culture that makes rating the heat level, (Or piquancy if you like), of a given variety sound like wine descriptions, ‘A provocative heat, pointed yet amusing…’ The widely used Scoville Scale measures chile heat in terms of SHUs, or Scoville Heat Units. I am proud to point out that Wilbur Scoville, who in 1912 invented the test process that bears his name, was another Massachusetts Yankee, so how about that? Many sales and descriptive sites for chiles will offer a heat rating in SHUs. This can give you a decent measure to go by, once you have an idea of what a given rating means to you personally. The obvious kinks in the system are presented by the fact that heat perception and tolerance are very personal things, and once again, a supposedly ‘mild’ chile can from time to time be a killer!
Respect for chiles: I remember back in the early ’80’s, working on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, some friends and I got together for a communal meal. Molly, from Texas, had a little canning jar full of some evil looking green chiles. She noted they were “Real hot”, (Classic Texas understatement), and that anyone handling them needed to be “Real careful.” One of the guys, perhaps under the influence of too many cervesas, didn’t heed the warning and headed off to take a leak. I will never forget the expression that spread across his face upon his return. From wonder, to surprise, to mild fear to full born panic, at which point he ran out of the house, across the lawn and straight into the river, where he stood, waist high, moaning.
Charitable and cautious are the bywords for handling chiles! There’s a reason cops carry pepper spray, OK? Dang near any chile can and might be real hot, even if all its buddies aren’t. One of the gnarliest chiles we ever cooked was “Just a jalapeno,” but it literally drove us to open all the windows and doors and run fans, in the middle of winter. Best practices for chile handling are:
1. Test before you cook. When I cut the top off a chile to begin prepping it for cooking, I very lightly touch the freshly sliced chile top, and then very lightly touch my lip. That will tell you what you’re dealing with and you can adjust the amount used and prepping procedures accordingly.
2. Get some food prep gloves and wear them when you work with chiles.
3. Fresh or dried, it’s best to ‘field strip’ your chiles prior to use. Remove the top, inner membrane, (Or pith), and seeds and discard them, the guts and seeds are where most of the heat comes from.
4. Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth right after prepping chiles, (Other than for field testing, as discussed above).
5. To clean up after chile work, wash your hands with hot water and plenty of soap, and use a fingernail brush too. Squeezing a little lime or lemon juice on your hands thereafter will help get rid of any residual capsaicin.
If you want to try a chile that you know is hot, but you don’t want to get nuked, what do you do? If field stripping doesn’t cool ‘em enough for you, then soak the stripped chiles in 4 tablespoons of salt dissolved in a quart of cold water, that will also help reduce the fire. Finally, roasting does a lot to chill things out as well; between all those options, you should be able to try just about anything and survive.
If you just ate a nuclear chile and you’re now dying a slow, horrible death, what should you do? Do NOT drink water! All that’s gonna do is wash the hot stuff down your gullet. Eat saltine crackers or bread and wash it down with cold milk. That will cool the fire. I might add that lemon or limeade will bind nicely to the capsaicin and cool you down pretty well too. There is a reason that so many margaritas are sold with Tex Mex ya know!
Fresh Chiles. More and more, a decent variety of fresh chiles is showing up in your local grocery. From Washington State, to Maine, to Minnesota, I’ve found decent chiles without too much effort, and so will you!
Jalapeno. We begin with the best, the King, the go-to chile for Tex Mex. In our house, you won’t always find bell peppers or other fresh chiles, but you will always find jalapenos! They’re a, (Usually), medium-hot chile with a distinct peppery flavor profile. In dishes, salsas, or as a side item either pickled or fresh, Jalapenos are always present in Tex Mex. Jalapenos are most often in the 3” to 5” length range, kind of torpedo shaped, and with a glossy, green skin. Look for chiles that have a nice smooth skin, no wrinkles or soft spots, and no sign of rot or age at the base of the stem.
Anaheim. Around 5” to 9” long, slender and light green, the Anaheim and its variants are unsurpassed in creating great Tex Mex food. Anaheims vary from mild to hot and, like the Jalapeno, have a nice peppery flavor profile. The Anaheim is a bit wrinkly when fresh, but should not ever feel soft or mushy to the touch. Anaheims are often roasted, peeled, pureed and used for sauces.
Poblano. The fresh form of the venerable Pasilla and Ancho dried chiles, the Poblano is the go-to wrapper for Chiles Rellenos. Dark green and glossy, between 4” and 8” in general, with a strong, rich pepper flavor, Poblanos vary from mild to hot. Look for chiles with smooth, firm skin and no signs of rot or age at the base of the stem.
Serrano. A small, bullet shaped, medium-green chile that usually packs a pretty good heat wallop. Usually around 2” to 4” in length and slender, the Serrano may not be as widely known as the Jalapeno, but is dang near as popular in Tex Mex cooking. My Tejano friends like ‘em better than Jalapenos because they have more heat and a more complex, earthy flavor profile. Choose smooth skinned, firm chiles with no signs of rot or age.
Habanero. Widely touted as “The hottest chile,” (It ain’t even close – The dreaded Ghost Chile currently holds the title), the Habanero has gotten a bad rap as having nothing to offer but heat, and nothing could be further from the truth! Granted, in general, these little buggers are way hot compared to everything else we’ve discussed so far. That said habaneros have a delicious, fruity flavor profile that no other chile I know offers. Habanero fueled dishes have become increasingly popular in certain facets of Tex Mex cooking over the last five years or so, but again, most of that I’ve tried is just a gimmick to offer the heat. The best examples of using these guys I’ve come across stems from Caribbean cookery. That said, remember what I wrote earlier about using what you like! Even habaneros can be tamed such that taste overrides heat.
Dried Chiles. From simple sauces to the masterpiece that is Mole, dried chiles are a must. There are many, many chiles out there, but once again, we’ll focus on the main players and leave the future research to you! Finding good quality dried chiles used to be tough, but now we have this thing called the internet, and it’s made shopping a breeze. With outfits like World Spice, Pendrey’s, and Mesa to choose from, you’ll have no trouble building a working supply.
Ancho. Also known as a Pasilla, this is a dried Poblano chile. The signature Ancho is dark brown in color and flat as a pancake. The flavor of an Ancho is really something, earthy, fruity, and deep, with a hint of heat that can sometimes become a roar.
Mulato. Similar in appearance to the Ancho, but smokier, deeper, and sweeter in taste. Makes great sauces, heat varies from medium to hot.
Chipotle. A smoked, dried Jalapeno by any other name. Like the Habanero fad, chipotle seasoned pseudo Tex Mex has exploded lately, but these too shall pass… Chipotles are little, wrinkly guys that vary from tan to dark brown in color, with a distinct smoky note and a surprisingly complex taste profile. This is likely the go-to chile for making chili powder, (Which we will do, right in this here book, afore too long!) Heat level is moderate to hot.
Colorado. Ripened and dried, this is what becomes of the Anaheim, Hatch, etc chile. Dark red and shiny, these are what comes into your mind’s eye when you think of a ristra of dried chiles hanging in somebody’s kitchen. If that somebody happens to be you, and you thought those things were just window dressing, think again! These guys can be rehydrated for use in sauces, or ground and made into chili powder. The heat varies from mild to wow, with everything in between.
Guajillo. The dried form of the very popular Mirasol Mexican chile. Guajillos are shiny red and thin fleshed and their flavor profile is truly wonderful. Tannic, with fruit tones and a minor smoky note, Guajillos shine in sauces and salsa, and make great chili powder as well.
Pasilla. This ‘little raisin’ pepper in its true form is a dried Chilaca chile; as noted previously, dried Anaheims can sometimes be called pasillas, but it just ain’t necessarily so… Pasillas are found as Pasilla Oaxaca and Pasilla Negro and the two are somewhat different. The Oaxaca chile has a distinct, smoky fruit flavor and heat that hits you later than sooner The Pasilla Negro is fruity and milder, with less of a dominant smoke note. The Negro, Mulato and Ancho chiles are often known as ‘The Holy Trinity’ for making mole.
Pequin. Another of my favorites to grow, not the least because they used to grow wild all over Texas and northern Mexico. Tiny and very hot, they hit hard and dissipate fast. Birds love to eat ‘em and who ever knew they were Chileheads too? A nice, peppery fruit taste profile goes with the fast heat.
Chile de Arbol. These ‘Bird’s beak,’ or ‘Rat tail’ chiles are small, skinny, shiny red balls o’ fire. While they will add chile flavor and red color to a dish, they’re claim to fame is heat, plain and simple. These days you are starting to see fresh de Arbols more often. Used as a more complex option than a plain ol’ cayenne.
Cascabel. The ‘rattle’ chile, so named because they do just that when you shake ‘em. Mild heat and a very nice, light smoky flavor make these a wonderful choice for rubs and sauces.
Herbs & Spices. Truth be told, whether you’re cooking Tex Mex or dang near anything else, you need a decent spice collection. There are a number of ‘secrets’ that separate amateurs from professionals in cooking and fresh, high-quality ingredients is arguably first among them.
When it comes to dried herbs and spices, trust me when I tell you that you don’t want anything from the plain ol’ grocery store. Job Number One is getting your stuff from the right place. For most of you, I’d be willing to bet that if you Google ‘Spice store, your town’, you’re going to find that there is one. Go forth, sniff around, ask questions, and load up!
If you’re not graced with a local purveyor, hit the internet. I’m an advocate of not shopping blind, and the internet can be scary in that regard. Fortunately, I’ve done the investigative legwork for you, so you can dig right in with confidence. See the suppliers addendum at the back of the book and you’ll be good to go. Whether you choose World Spice, Pendrey’s, Penzey’s, Butcher & Packer, or Mesa, you’re gonna get top quality, fresh stuff.
General rules for purchasing and storing dried herbs and spices are as follows.
1. Do not buy huge quantities of anything, fresh is the key, (And yes, even though they’re dried, there are huge differences in quality!)
2. Store herbs and spices in clean glass jars, and keep them out of direct sun and wide temperature swings, (AKA in a spice cabinet!)
3. Smell, feel and look at what you’ve bought. You’ll be surprised how different high quality spice and herbs smell or look compared to supermarket stuff!
4. Whenever possible, buy whole spice, not ground. This is why you have a spice grinder, right? Freshness is much easier to maintain and deliver to your dishes when you get ‘em whole.
Dried herbs and spices.
Annatto Seed. Annatto is the dried, processed pulp from around the achiote seed. It comes from the Achiote bush, and so it’s sometimes known by that name as well. It imparts a very distinct red color to food, and is often used solely for that quality. It also has a wonderful taste profile, kind of sweet and peppery, with almost a hint of nutmeg or allspice. Annatto is found fairly commonly in Yucatan and Oaxacan dishes. I like to use a little in rubs and sauces where the color and subtle taste lend a real sparkle to a dish.
Mexican Oregano. Make sure that this is what you get! Mexican oregano is much more robust than the stuff from the Mediteranean and you need the real McCoy.
Coriander/Cilantro. Let’s clear up a foggy point right off the bat here. Technically Coriander refers to the entire Coriandrum Sativum plant. In the spice world, Coriander refers to the whole or ground seed of the plant. Secondly, yes, Cilantro does come from the same plant, but here we’re talking about just the fresh or dried leaves. You want both for cooking Tex Mex. Buy your Coriander seed whole and your cilantro fresh!
Paprika. I like the Spanish variety of this wonderful ground chile herb. I’m also of the opinion that you should have both regular and smoked in your cabinet. Avoid the stuff marked ‘Hot,’ as we already have plenty of other ammunition in that department…
Granulated Garlic. I prefer the granulated version to the powder, ‘cause I think you get better flavor and dispersal with that option.
Onion Powder. The real stuff is a revelation the first time you smell it. I remember thinking, “Wow, it smells like onions,” and then feeling slightly dorky…
Celery Seed. Not salt, seed. Another one that is amazing when it’s high quality!
Cumin, (Cumino). Cumin is the seed of the Cuminum Cyminum plant, a member of the parsley family. It has a strong, bitter flavor so should be used sparingly. You can find the seed in brown, white and black forms, brown being the most popular. Although it’s unique, I’d avoid the black, as it is really quite strong. Buy the seeds whole, of course.
Cinnamon. There’s more than one variety of cinnamon out there too, gang. Check the good online sources and you’ll find Ceylon, Madagascar, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Indonesian. The nice, soft, brown stuff from Ceylon is best for Tex Mex. Again, get it whole and grind your own!
Salt. ‘Say what, Eben?’ you ask. Salt is just salt, right? Wrong, Amigos! Salt, like water, is something taken for granted a lot in cooking, and it should not, must not be so, (You can call this number 2 of the pro’s secrets we’re givin’ away.) Plain ol’ table salt fits into the category of all the other so-called spices at the supermarket, so avoid it like the plague! For everyday use, good quality kosher salt is excellent, (I like Morton’s, but there’re plenty more good ones out there). If you thought Cinnamon had a lot of options, check out salt. I counted ten varieties at World Spice alone and seven in my spice cabinet. Laugh now, but once you try them and experience the wide variety of flavors and effects, you’ll be hooked too…
Vanilla. You’ll want both beans and extract. Be very choosy and conservative when buying whole beans, they’re expensive and they will dry out quickly. It’s best to buy a little when you know you’ll need it. For extract, you want good quality, not the supermarket stuff, (Do I sound like a broken record yet?). Mexican vanilla tastes best to me, and that’s what we use here at home.
Look Ma, no Chili Powder. ‘Why not?’, you ask. ‘Cause you’re gonna make your own from now on, in as many varieties as you like, that’s why, so read on, MacDuff!
Fresh Herbs & Spices. When you are after these, what you find in the supermarket is just fine. Choose product that looks, smells and feels fresh, as with all good things.
Cilantro. Comes in bunches and looks a lot like parsley, so be careful, (Not that I’ve ever made that mistake, mind you…) Once you get your bunch home, remove the rubber band or twist tie, cut about an inch or so off the stem ends, and stick the bunch into a glass of fresh water like you were arranging flowers. Store it in the fridge just like that.
Parsley. Used sparingly, but occasionally in Tex Mex. Choose and treat just like Cilantro.
Mint: By which I mean Spearmint and Peppermint, of course. It drives me nuts when folks don’t specify. Spearmint is the pointer leaf of the two and smells, well, like spearmint. Peppermint has a rounded leaf and a different smell, of course. Used very sparingly with meat dishes in Tex Mex.
Epazote. Around here, epazote is often called ‘Mexican Tea’ or ‘Wormseed.’ It’s huge in regional Mexican cooking and pretty rare in Tex Mex. That said, as you expand your repertoire, you’ll probably want to give it a try. Grows wild all over the place, but strangely hard to find in stores.