Halfway into my first real Midwestern winter, it’s taking some creativity to figure out how to do warm, comforting meals night after night without everything tasting too rich, hefty and well, boring. There are only so many soups I can blend without craving something chunky and textured, and don’t ask me to make yet another delicious but depressingly dull roast.
Enter the dried chile pepper. Most commonly known for their starring roles in salsas and sauces, dried chiles are a great way to bring heat, complexity and warmth to any dish, without the weight of roasted veggies and thick stews.
Living and cooking in Texas for the past eight years, I generally took the nuances of many varieties of chile pepper for granted. Since moving up north, I’ve noticed that many menus in the Midwest tend to lump all kinds of dried peppers into one generic “chile pepper” category. Yet each kind of pepper has a unique personality, and once you become adept at incorporating them into your meals at home, it’s easy to appreciate the subtle nuances between the guajillo, pasilla, chipotle or ancho.
Below is a breakdown of some of the more common varieties of dried chile pepper, and how they can be used to spice up your winter dishes this season (listed in order from mild to hot).
Sultry and smoky with a medium dose of heat, the ancho, a dried poblano pepper, is probably the most common chile pepper you will find used in American restaurants and kitchens, next to the chipotle. While the outer flesh is relatively mild, when cooking with the seeds and veins intact, the pepper’s volume turns loud and boisterous. Anchos are one of the few dried chiles that have an inherent element of dark sweetness, like molasses sugar, in the same vein as a raisin or fig. They also boast a dark, vintage smoke personality akin to tobacco and leather. Anchos really sing when incorporated into enchiladas, squash dishes, chicken, and fatty fishes like salmon. The Flavor Bible also suggests pairing with cashews, soups, and turkey.
In Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen, the chef describes Pasillas, which are the dried version of the chile chilaca, as “woodsy and tangy,” with a underlying flavor “reminiscent of dried tomatoes and baked-potato skin.” Bayless also advises these chiles are the next step up from the ancho heat-wise, sitting around 1,000–2,000 on the Scoville heat scale. Pasillas taste rich with abundant earthy flavors, few wisps of smoke, almost no sweetness, and a timid astringency. These elongated wrinkly pods are good with black beans, mushrooms, richer meats like lamb and duck, honey and molasses. The Flavor Bible recommends using this chile for the base of any mole sauce.
The Guajillo, or “little gourd” is one of the most popular dried chiles used in Mexican cooking, next to the Ancho. Flavor-wise, it carries a bright red fruit flavor like ripe cherries or cranberries. They taste perky and dynamic with relatively straightforward heat (that ranks around 2,500-5,000, higher than both the pasilla and ancho on the Scoville scale), yet has far less sweetness and complexity than the ancho. Guajillos work well with lighter dishes like shrimp and fish, but can also carry the weight of a steak or a slow-cooked pork shoulder. The Flavor Bible suggests matching Guajillos with eggs, jicama, lime, pork, soups, stews, and tomatoes.
Chile de Arbol
Unlike the aforementioned chiles, the chile de arbol (which translates to “treelike” in Spanish, a reference to their little woody stems) doesn’t lose its vivid fire truck red color when aged to dryness. The heat level mirrors the firey appearance; they rank well above the ancho, guajillo and pasilla at 15,000-30,000 Scovilles. Arbol chiles taste much like their close relative the cayenne pepper with a direct unapologetic heat, but with a more complicated, slightly smoldering flavor. These chiles enhance almost every dish, since their primary function is to increase heat.
Before you get started, here are some tips for cooking with chiles:
Most dried chiles should be seeded and stemmed before cooking, because the veins and seeds are typically where all the heat lies. I usually leave in a few seeds to increase the heat level and keep the flavors complex, but use your judgment to find your perfect chile heat levels.
It is advisable to wear gloves when seeding and opening chiles, as the oils from the pepper tend to seep into hands, which is fine until you go to rub your eyes and all hell breaks loose.
Most chiles should be toasted before cooking. After seeding and stemming, open up the chile and place it on a hot skillet. When the chiles start to turn a darker color and bubble and smoke a bit, they are typically done. Toasting brings out more of their inherent flavor.
If the chiles are to be incorporated into a sauce or salsa, Rick Bayless advises rehydrating them after the toasting process. He puts the chiles into a bowl of hot water and lets them sit for 15-20 minutes, until they are pliable. He warns boiling water takes too much flavor out of the skins. Discard the remaining water, as it’s typically too bitter for use after the chiles have properly soaked.
Many grocery stores will sell the dried chiles in powder form in the spice aisle if you don’t want to go through the pains of using dried chiles (which can usually be bought in bulk at your local Mexican grocery store).
1 quart chicken broth
1 pasilla pepper
1 sprig epazote (Mexican herb)
1 can (14.5 ounces) of diced tomatoes, undrained (recommended Muir Glen fire-roasted)
2 cloves garlic
1 cup vegetable oil
2 corn tortillas, fried
Salt to taste
½ small avocado
¼ cup sour cream
¼ cup diced queso fresco
1 pasilla pepper, cut in small rings and fried
1 cup shredded chicken
1 sprig cilantro
Combine the chicken broth, pasilla peppers, epazote, tomato, garlic, onion and tortillas in a medium stockpot and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Adjust seasoning to taste. Cool the mixture, remove the epazote and puree in a blender in small batches. Return to the pot and heat for 15 minutes.
Serve in a soup bowl, adding the chicken, tortilla strips and sour cream. Garnish with queso fresco, pasilla pepper rings and cilantro florets.
Recipe by Chef Dudley Nieto at Barbakoa restaurant, Chicago
2 acorn squashes
1 cup artichoke hearts (chopped)
1 cup mushrooms (chopped)
¼ cup peas
½ red pepper (diced)
½ green pepper (diced)
½ red onion (diced)
2-3 chiles de arboles
2 teaspoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons butter
2 teaspoons saffron
1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ cup white wine
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups risotto
Cut the acorn squashes in half, scoop out the seeds and put a teaspoon of brown sugar in each half, along with a teaspoon of butter. Wrap each half in foil and put in the oven at 400°F for 35 minutes.
In a hot sauté pan, add olive oil and red onion and cook for 4 minutes at low heat. Add risotto, and leave for another five minute while stirring often. After 5 minutes add white wine. After 2 minutes add 2 cups of water, one teaspoon saffron and one Chile de Arbol. After 5 minutes if more water is needed add, if not add red pepper and green pepper, peas, mushrooms, and artichoke hearts and leave for another 5 minutes until finished. Salt according to preference.
Meanwhile, boil heavy cream in separate pot, let it reduce and add teaspoon of saffron. Add 2 tablespoons butter. Salt to preference.
Take the acorn squash out of the oven and fill with risotto mix. Add saffron sauce.
Note: To make this dish taste more like paella, add cooked shrimp. I also added two teaspoons of paprika and an extra chile de arbol to the saffron sauce to bring up the heat and spice complexity. The results were fantastic; deep, rich and full of spice.
Adapted from Chef Rick Rivera from Las Palmas restaurant in Chicago
Tilapia Con Chorizo with Chipotle Mashed Potatoes and Asparagus
2 tilapia filets
2 ounces Mexican chorizo
8 asparagus spears
For Guajillo broth:
1.8 ounces fresh tomato, chopped
1.8 ounces fresh tomatillo, chopped
1.8 ounces dried Guajillo peppers
4 garlic cloves
½ tablespoon oregano
½ tablespoon cumin
¼ cup chicken broth
For Chipotle Mashed Potatoes:
3 russet potatoes
2 teaspoons butter
¾ teaspoon cotija cheese
1 tablespoon plus ¾ teaspoon heavy whipping cream
⅓ ounce dried chipotle peppers
4½ teaspoons sour cream
⅛ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon diced garlic
Seed and stem Guajillo peppers. Toast on skillet until color changes slightly. Rehydrate in hot water 15-20 minutes. Discard water. Add all ingredients in medium pot. Boil and reduce to simmer until thickened. Puree until smooth. Should make about one cup.
Peel and boil potatoes until soft. Seed and stem dried chipotle peppers. Toast on skillet until color changes slightly. Rehydrate in hot water 15-20 minutes. Discard water. Purée chiles with sour cream and butter until smooth. Mash potatoes with chile puree and additional ingredients.
Season one tilapia filet with salt and pepper. Sauté with 4 ounces of guajillo broth and 1 ounce of Mexican chorizo. Serve with 4 grilled Asparagus spears and 4 ounces of chipotle mashed potatoes.
Recipe by D’Noche restaurant, Chicago
Ancho Short Ribs with Roasted Cauliflower in Guajillo Vinaigrette
For short ribs:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Heat oil in heavy skillet. Brown ribs in batches. Transfer browned ribs to roasting pan. Heat Ancho purée in skillet until warm, then add to the ribs in the roasting pan. Cover pan with foil and braise ribs until tender. About 2-3 hours.
Toss chopped cauliflower in Guajillo vinaigrette. Place on foil-lined roasting pan in oven at 400°F for about 30 minutes, or until cauliflower looks well roasted and brown.
Note: Brussels sprouts would also make a great substitution for cauliflower in this meal. Can be served with polenta or mashed potatoes.
8 garlic cloves, unpeeled
8 medium dried ancho chile peppers
1½ teaspoons dried oregano
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
¼ teaspoon cloves
1 cup beef broth
1 teaspoon salt
Set garlic, unpeeled, on skillet with medium heat. Heat for 15 minutes, rotating occasionally, until each clove is soft. When cooled, remove the husks and chop. Seed and stem Ancho chiles. Heat chiles in skillet until they smoke slightly and have turned darker in color. Remove from the heat. Transfer chiles to a bowl of hot water and let soak for 15-20 minutes, until rehydrated. Discard water from bowl.
Place chiles and garlic into food processor. Add oregano, pepper, cumin and cloves. Add broth and blend to a smooth puree. Season to taste with salt.
Adapted from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen
⅔ cup olive oil or neutral oil
⅓ cup white or sherry vinegar
2 dried guajillo peppers
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Seed and stem chiles. Heat teaspoon of oil in skillet. Heat chiles and garlic in skillet until chiles smoke slightly and have turned darker in color. Remove from the heat. Transfer chiles to a food processor. Add garlic, vinegar and salt and blend until smooth.
Adapted from Rick Bayless’s Toasted Guajillo Dressing