Wednesday, 21 April 2010

a chili with depth

I have never made Mexican food in my life.

First, I overdosed. A summer in Mexico when I was six left me with a taste for green mango salad and dulce de leche, but for some reason also turned me off of everything resembling a taco or torta until I was in my teens. Then, things began to progress. In high school, friends and I would get "California Burritos": roasted vegetables and pinto beans mixed with cilantro rice in a spinach or whole wheat tortila. Authentic? Hardly.

Those burritos (eaten in the Sebastopol square next to a soap bubble-polluted fountain) were the gateway though. First to a phase of chicken burritos, and finally to crispy carnitas and juicy carne asada tacos. There is now no shying away from tacquerias of any kind, especially if they have a spicy tomatillo salsa on hand and freshly fried chips. (Though recently, I went overboard. Who really needs shrimp, chicken, and steak wrapped into one burrito?)

But the actual cooking of Mexican food has always seemed unnecessary to me. Cheap and ubiquitous, the process of even making spiced boiled chicken for tacos seems overkill when I know there are plenty of other people who can do it better.

That is, this is what I thought until last week.

My father's friend John came over, bags of dried chilis, tortillas, and cilantro in hand. Four hours later, enchiladas came out of the oven that blew us away. Crispy yet tender torillas wrapped around juicy carnitas and plenty of cilantro, doused in a chili sauce that didn't disappear on the tongue like the ghost of something flavorful, but lingered in heat and flavor long after each bite was finished.

I remember in college, living with European exchange students, they all said the same thing: they didn't like Mexican food because it had no flavor, it just tasted like chilis.

Well, perhaps those were supremely one dimensional chilis being served to those students. With a preparation involving no less than five types of chilis, varying in size, subtlety, skin type, heat, fruitiness, depth and general deliciousness, it's hard to think of anyone saying "just chilis" with these puppies involved.

John had prepared the enchilada sauce ahead of time. The color of rich, vibrant tomatoes, it bubbled thickly on the stove while we mimicked the enchilada sauce preparation in a small batch of salsa.

The sauce being already prepared, the rest of the meal was a process of assembling. John fried the tortillas (not too crispy or they would shatter), stacking them as he went to maintain moisture. I assembled bowls of chopped cilantro, diced white onion and grated cheese. Finally, I shredded the pork that John had bought in one of his favorite Mexican markets.

Then, we rolled. A few shreds of meat. Cilantro. Onion. Cheese. Done. Tucked tightly into a glass dish, the enchiladas were covered with John's sauce and tossed into the oven for 10 minutes. A final sprinkling of cheese, onion and cilantro, and we were ready to eat.

Alongside rice and Rancho Gordo beans, we tucked into our chairs and savored. Not in silence, however. There were most certainly mumblings going on through mouthfuls, along the lines of "best-sauce-ever-best-enchiladas-ever!"

Though that particular meal may never be repeated (69th birthdays and enchiladas paired with lemon pound cake can only happen once), it was the salsa that I will be making again. Similar to the enchilada sauce itself, we dipped into it with broken tostada shells throughout the evening. Subtle at first on the tongue - fruity even - the salsa developed quickly in the mouth. In fact, much like a good wine, you could say the salsa had length on the palate. One bite would last several minutes as the flavors developed, and as the initial gentle heat evolved into a pleasant burn at the back of the throat.

This was no pico de gallo, folks.

John's Mexican Salsa

Pick through two bags of dried chiles, (puya and guajillo, preferably), looking for flat specimens free of bruising or odd markings. Depending on how much salsa you want, choose 5-10 each. Spread on a cookie sheet and roast in the oven for 2-3 minutes until the chilies begin to puff. Any longer and they will burn.

Let them cool slightly (but not too long). As soon as you are able to handle them, pull or cut out the stem and shake out the dried seeds. You may need to slice the pods lengthwise and scrape the seeds out. A few are fine, but too many turn the salsa bitter.

Bring several inches of water, or enough to cover the chilis, to boil in a small saucepan. Submerge the chilis, turn off the heat, and let a small plate sink into the saucepan, on top of the chilis, to keep them under the water. Let sit 45 minutes.

Remove the plate. Drain the chilis. Carefully, scrape the now soft flesh from the thick, leathery skins. This will take some time. Patience rewards. Discard the skins, put the flesh in a blender or food processor.

Add about a cup of water, a little chopped onion, and a hint of cilantro. Blend. Taste for seasoning, and add more water if needed. The salsa should be thin enough to pour, but thick enough to coat a chip.

Enjoy with crispy fresh tortilla chips.

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