Sunday, 14 April 2013

In Search of the Hottest Chili - Destination Mexico

Native to the Americas, chili pepper is a signature flavor in several of Mexico's regional cuisines, some hotter than others.


Mexico is the largest producer of chiles in the United States. But in New Mexico, chiles are more than a crop. They're a culture, a way of life. It is unimaginable to New Mexicans that people eat food untouched by their state's chile.

There's even an official state question: Red or green?
And if you can't decide if you want red chile or green chile, you may answer, "Christmas," and you'll get some of both.

Green and red chiles are actually the same chiles at different life stages: either picked earlier when they're green, or later after they're left to turn red on the vine.

The best place to set out on the chili trail is Mexico City, at the heart of the country, and the best way to taste chilies is in the wide variety of salsas served in the city's taquerias, each with its own distinctive reipe for adding heat to tacos.

From the capital, travel south for increasingly piquant flavors. The pickled chipotles of Puebla can be sampled in the markets, and are an essential ingredient in the cemita, a huge meat, cheese, and avocado sandwich served on a crusty sesame roll, sold in small eateries where it is the only menu item.

Cemitas de Carne Enchilada

Farther south, the seductive, smoky flavor of Oaxaca's pasilla oaxaquena, cured on wooden racks over fire pits, is best tasted in the regional mole negro sauce, featured in the restaurants on the city's central plaza.

From here, the chili aficionanado can travel to the Yucatan, where the habanero, ranking highest on the Scoville scale used to measure capsaicin, or "chili heat factor", is used in fiery salsas. Try habanero salsa with the regional specialty, cochinita pibil (marinated roast pork).

Other fresh hot chilies include the chilaca, jalapeno, and serrano. The dried versions are found most frequently in the states of Puebla, Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Chiapas. And of course, you can find these chilies at our GOU Gourmet Shop, if it's closer to you!

Fresh and dried chilies are stuffed to make Chiles en Nogada, filled with a variety of ingredients.

Chiles en Nogada (Chilies in Walnut Sauce)

Traditionally made in Puebla to celebrate Mexican Independence Day on September 16, these chiles have a minced pork filling enhanced with chopped fruit, and a creamy walnut sauce.
The Picadillo:
  • 2 lbs of boneless pork
  • 1/2 onion, sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 Tbsp salt, or to taste
  • 6 Tbsp of lard or the fat from the broth
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
  • The cooked meat (about 3 cups - note if you use more than 3 cups, you will need to increase the amounts of the other ingredients)
  • A molcajete (mortar and pestle)
  • 8 peppercorns
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 1/2 inch stick cinnamon
  • 3 heaping Tbsp of raisins
  • 2 Tbsp blanched and slivered almonds
  • 2 heaping Tbsp acitron or candied fruit, chopped
  • 2 tsp salt, or to taste
  • 1 1/2 pounds of tomatoes, peeled and seeded
  • 1 pear, cored, peeled and chopped
  • 1 peach, pitted, peeled and chopped


1 Cut the meat into large cubes. Put them into the pan with the onion, garlic, and salt and cover with cold water. Bring the meat to a boil, lower the flame and let it simmer until just tender - about 40-45 minutes. Do not over cook. Leave the meat to cool off in the broth.
2 Strain the meat, reserving the broth, then shred or chop it finely and set it aside. Let the broth get completely cold and skim off the fat. Reserve the fat.
3 Melt the lard and cook the onion and garlic, without browning, until they are soft.
4 Add the meat and let it cook until it begins to brown.
5 Crush the spices roughly in the molcajete and add them, with the rest of the ingredients to the meat mixture. (If you don't have a molcajete, you can use the blunt end of a pestle to crush the spices in a bowl.) Cook the mixture a few moments longer.
6 Add chopped peach and pear to the mixture.

The Chilies:
  • 6 poblano chiles (you MUST use this type of chile)
7 Put the poblano chiles straight into a fairly high flame or under a broiler and let the skin blister and burn. Turn the chiles from time to time so they do not get overcooked or burn right through.
8 Wrap the chiles in a damp cloth or plastic bag and leave them for about 20 minutes. The burned skin will then flake off very easily and the flesh will become a little more cooked in the steam. Make a slit in the side of each chili and carefully remove the seeds and veins. Be careful to leave the top of the chili, the part around the base of the stem, intact. (If the chilies are too hot - picante, let them soak in a mild vinegar and water solution for about 30 minutes.) Rinse the chilies and pat them dry.
9 Stuff the chilies with the picadillo until they are well filled out. Set them aside on paper towels.

The Nogada (walnut sauce)
The day before:

  • 20 to 25 fresh walnuts, shelled
  • cold milk
10 Remove the thin papery skin from the nuts. (Note, these are Diana Kennedy's instructions. I have found it virtually impossible to remove the skins from the fresh walnuts that come from our walnut tree. The above photo shows the sauce which includes the skins. I think it would be creamier without the skins, but what can you do? We found that blanching the walnuts did not help get the skin off. Completely cover the walnuts with cold milk and leave them to soak overnight.
On serving day:
  • The soaked and drained nuts
  • 1 small piece white bread without crust
  • 1/4 lb queso fresco
  • 1 1/2 cups thick sour creme (or creme fraiche)
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp sugar
  • Large pinch of cinnamon
11 Blend all of the ingredients in a blender until they are smooth.
To Serve
To assemble the dish, cover the chilies in the nogada sauce and sprinkle with fresh parsley leaves and pomegranate seeds.