Editor’s Note: May is National Salsa Month and the perfect time to introduce our newest Mamiverse Food Contributor, Lesley Tellez, who shares with us her thoughts and a recipe on what she considers “the most perfect dried chile in the world.” Welcome Lesley!
This is Part One of Lesley’s look at Chiles & Salsa.
Around every two weeks when I lived in México City, I’d visit my favorite chile lady at the Mercado San Juan and ask: Did she have it?
Her stand, tucked next to the gourmet coffee counter, carried all sorts of exotic dried chiles you didn’t see anywhere else, including the black, bell-shaped chilhuacle and the costeño amarillo. But she didn’t always have what I sought—the wrinkled, smoky Oaxacan chile pasilla, a flavor bomb trucked in directly from the small farms of Oaxaca’s Mixe region.
Read Related: Sweet Mango Salsa
This chile did not resemble the other pasillas. Those were longish, dark and smooth, and smelled like chocolate and tobacco. The Oaxacan chile pasilla could’ve been dunked in a bucket of port set over a campfire. It was small, wrinkled and berry-like, smelling of wood chips and dried fruit.
At eight pesos per chile (a little less than $1 USD), the Oaxacan pasilla was among the most expensive dried chiles around. It was meant to be savored, stored in your best airtight container where you could occasionally dip your nose in just to inhale its aromas (which is what I did.)
The chile continues to fly mostly under the radar in the United States, because it’s difficult to source. You can find it at a handful of shops online such as Pendery’s and The Chile Guy, and Rosa Mexicano makes a jarred pasilla salsa that my sister-in-law swears by.
I like the pasilla best in salsa, where its spicy-smoky properties shine, or stuffed with a sweet-and-savory picadillo if I’m having guests over for dinner. I’ve also added one to a pot of beans, which adds an extra smoky, sort of meaty flavor that’s similar to smoked bacon.
TOMATILLO SALSA WITH OAXACAN CHILE PASILLA
2 Oaxacan chile pasillas
½ lb. or 230 grams tomatillos, husked, rinsed and dried*
1 clove garlic, unpeeled
¼ TSP kosher salt
Note: If you can’t find the Oaxacan chile pasilla, don’t substitute a regular pasilla, as the result won’t be the same. Try using chile de árbol instead. Use the smallest tomatillos you can find—sometimes labeled in Latino grocery stores as miltomates—because they tend to be sweeter and less acidic.
- Using kitchen shears, snip off the chiles’ stems, cut them open and scoop out the seeds.
- Fill a medium sized bowl with hot water. Heat a comal or dry nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Briefly toast the chiles, turning them constantly so they don’t burn, until they’ve released a spicy aroma and have softened a bit, about 30 seconds. Place chiles in hot water and let soak until their skin has softened, about 10 minutes.
- While the chiles soak, wipe out the same comal or skillet with a few paper towels. Turn the heat to medium and add the tomatillos in one layer. (Resist the urge to add oil! You don’t need it.) Place the unpeeled garlic clove toward the edge of the comal, away from direct heat. Turn tomatillos occasionally, using tongs or your callused fingers, until they’re soft and charred in spots. Remove tomatillos to a bowl. Cook the garlic on both sides until the clove has softened, perhaps five minutes. Peel and roughly chop the garlic clove, and place in a blender jar.
- Remove chiles from soaking water, reserving a few spoonfuls of it. Add chiles to blender jar with 1 teaspoon of the soaking water. Pulse chiles and garlic a few times, stopping once to scrape the inside of the blender jar. Add tomatillos in two batches and pulse a few times more, until salsa is still rather thick and chunky.
- Pour into a serving bowl and add salt. (It may taste a little salty if the tomatillos are still warm; the salt will even out as the salsa cools.) Stir and serve at room temperature.