I learned how to cook with chile peppers long before I moved to California. My parents were living in Scottsdale, Arizona, and each time I visited, we spent hours in Lee-Lee’s, an international food store in Phoenix.
I bought up bags of strange-looking dried chiles, packaged by the La Fiesta Spice Company, and took them back to my home in Upstate New York to experiment.
My parents had also visited Mark Miller’s Coyote Cafe in New Mexico and brought back the “Coyote Cafe” cookbook (Ten Speed Press), which I added to my cookbook collection.
Miller’s first cookbook is still available and much of his second book, “The Great Salsa Book,” is available online. It is said of Miller’s cooking that he has introduced a new style to Southwestern cooking.
As the Chicago Tribune wrote in 1990, “Even if you are intimidated by fiery food, you’ll be tempted to sample by sheer virtue the intriguing variety, complexity and mingling of flavors.”
My column this week is more about eating our vegetables than about growing them.
Many of us who live in Southern California are transplants from other places, and I would like to pass on some of what I have learned from our neighbors from Mexico, Central and South America.
In San Diego we live close to some of the best vegetable farmers on the West Coast and Mexico. Over the past 10 years, over 50 varieties of chiles have appeared in our markets.
But what to do with this plethora of fiery delights? While doing my culinary research, I came across a small cookbook, “Peppers Hot & Chile,” by Georgeanne Brennan and Charlotte Glenn (Addison-Wesley).
I have included their “Pepper Glossary,” so when you go to the market you, too, can navigate the chile aisle!
TYPES OF CHILES
Anaheim – Pale to medium green and mildly piquant. Used for stuffing in chile rellenos.
Cayenne – Slender, short red and green variety with a hot flavor.
Chipotle – Often seen in cans, the hot chipotle is actually a smoked jalapeno that has been dried. Use in soup and chili.
Habanero – Small yellow/orange variety, quite hot.
Jalapeno – This long, slender green pepper can be quite hot. In its dried state it is called chipotle.
Poblano – Puffy and large, used for sauces and stuffing. Also sold as a dried chile.
Dried chiles – All ethnic markets sell whole, dried chiles including my favorites pasilla ancho and chile negro entero.
Many of the large, dark chiles impart a smoky flavor to dishes, and can be rehydrated. The tiny cayenne and tepin should be used sparingly and broken into small pieces. My advice is to buy a few bags and try as many as you can until you find your favorite.
As I mentioned, I have been in the Southwest for less than 10 years, so I am constantly in search of new places to buy ethnic foods. Two of the markets in my neighborhood in Vista, Primo Market on West Vista Way and El Torito Foods on Emerald Drive, both have great ethnic selections and staff that are happy to answer questions.
Two lovely young cashiers at Primo Market helped me navigate the La Fiesta Spice Company selection and remarked, “The big, dark pasilla chile is smoky, and they use it for mole sauce. The little cayenne chile is hot, and it makes your soup bright red.”
The following recipe is an adaptation of Mark Miller’s recipe from his Southwestern cookbook, “Coyote Cafe.” I have made it numerous times for friends, and it fits into the perfect dinner party buffet.
BLACK BEAN SOUP WITH CHILES
2 15 oz. cans black beans (including liquid)
1 teaspoon each: ground cumin, cayenne pepper, oregano and paprika
2 large dried pasilla ancho peppers, rehydrated (see note)
1/2 large yellow onion, chopped
4 large cloves garlic, slightly smashed
2 jalapeno chiles (peppers), cut lengthwise
4-6 cups water
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Roast all dry spices together in large cast iron pan very briefly so as not to burn. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and cook until onions are golden brown and spices are well distributed.
Add garlic and chopped jalapeno and cook until soft. In a separate pot, rehydrate chiles and remove from pot. Add 2 cups chicken or vegetable broth, and then add rehydrated whole chiles.
Pasilla peppers can remain whole or in pieces. Transfer the entire mixture to a soup pot and add the beans, tomatoes and salt to the water, and simmer very low for 3 hours or until the beans are completely soft.
Serve with garnishes of grated cheese, sour cream, tacos, and more chile peppers!
Note: I have found that roasting the spices in a dry pan, then adding them to the olive oil, onion, garlic and jalapeno deepens the spice mix.
Many recipes from traditional cookbooks call for adding herbs to the soup liquid, which simply dissipates the herbs.
If you have any questions about the recipes or cookbooks in this article contact me at [email protected]
Jano Nightingale is a Master Gardener and horticulturist and works on community gardens in North County.