Never look a gift horse in the mouth. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. These sayings cross my mind as soon as I realize what a treasure I have been given.
My husband hands me a plastic bag containing another plastic bag. It’s a gift from our foodie friend, Michael Roberts. They look like dried chiles, just like a handful of other dried chiles currently withering in my overstocked pantry.
Inside the first bag is a folded-up piece of paper with a recipe, plus another plastic bag. As soon as I open the first bag, I catch a pleasant whiff of smoke. Intrigued, I open the second bag, and a powerful wave of smoke hits my nose.
I love the smell of wood smoked chiles. If you’ve ever smelled a freshly smoked jalapeño, aka, a dried chipotle, you know what I’m talking about.
I can see immediately that these chiles are not chipotles. They’re longer, thinner, slightly red with very wrinkly, shiny skin.
These are pasilla chiles, but not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill pasilla chiles.
These are Pasilla de Oaxaca chiles.
My knees go weak.
Up until now, I’ve only read about them in cookbooks by Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy, two recogonized authorities on Mexican cuisine.
Pasilla chiles from Oaxaca are always smoked — and are rarely seen on this side of the border. They’re costly, too, generally upwards of $50 per pound.
The recipe Michael included was for Pasilla de Oaxaca salsa. In Oaxaca, according to Ms. Kennedy, the short ones are used for salsa and the longer ones (long being relative at 3-1/4 to 4-inches) are used as a stuffing chile (chile relleno).
After I made the salsa — simple recipe, complex flavor — I knew I wanted to share it, so I asked Michael where he got the recipe — and the chiles.
He said, “Rick Bayless is the author of the recipe, but some Mixtec [indigenous people of Oaxaca] grandmother or grandfather is probably the real author.”
Michael says he has tried buying the chiles from a couple different sources, but only one was reliable (and even that supplier is at the mercy of her importer). I’ll share the contact at the end of the post, but here is how you make this incredibly simple (to do), incredibly complex (flavored) salsa.
Start by lightly toasting the chiles in a dry, hot skillet. Do this one at a time, pushing the chile into the pan with a spatula, even though I’ve shot it with all peppers in the pan.
The reason why you do them one at a time is because you don’t want to burn the peppers, which is shockingly easy to do.
Watch and listen for telltale signs of “just” toasted. You might see a puff of smoke or more likely, you’ll hear a slight “snap-crackle-pop,” just like the cereal.
It only takes 10 to 15 seconds on each side. If in doubt, under-toast rather than over-toast. An over-toasted chile will taste bitter.
Kennedy says don’t bother trying to de-seed the chiles, but these babies are extremely hot. I remove as many as I can, and then add some of them back in later.
Wear plastic gloves. These chiles are more powerful than you think. Cut the stems off and then slice the chiles in half (it doesn’t matter if you cut them lengthwise or crosswise) — the goal is to remove most of the seeds.
Michael suggested starting out with half the seeds. That’s still hot, hot, hot to me. I suggest starting out with just whatever seeds don’t come off easily. You can always add seeds back into the salsa for more heat — but you can’t take them out.
Once the chiles have been mostly de-seeded, put them in a bowl and cover with boiling water to soften them. Let them steep for about 15 minutes, while you blister the tomatillos.
I like to blister the tomatillos on a stovetop pepper grate (I wrote about it here).
You could char them on an outdoor grill, or place them a few inches beneath a hot broiler for a few minutes.
You can even boil them for about 10 minutes, but they aren’t quite as flavorful as when the skin is slightly blackened.
It is not important to cook them all the way through — tomatillos can be eaten raw or cooked.
After the chiles are soft, use tongs to pull the chiles out of the water and place them in a blender.
Add some liquid (either the soaking water for hotter salsa; plain tap water for less hot salsa) and puree until the chiles are chopped but not smooth.
Now add the blistered tomatillos, peeled cloves of garlic and a good dose of salt.
Puree again until the salsa is mostly smooth, adding more liquid if needed. The consistency should be like thick ketchup.
Taste for salt (it can handle a fair amount of salt, in my opinion).
Now you have an extremely flavorful, intensely smoky, fruity, hot salsa just begging for some grilled fish or chicken or just tortilla chips.
And now you’re probably wondering where you can get some of these glorious chiles. Michael said I could share the source with you, and I contacted her to ask if I could write the post. She said yes… but…. you should know she doesn’t have any on hand at the moment.
She is expecting some any day, or maybe any month now. She doesn’t always know when her importer will have them. Very few ever leave Oaxaca. She is Suzy Quintana of Sweet Freedom Farm, located south of Albuquerque New Mexico.
I’ve listed her contact information below. Ignore the price of the Pasilla de Oaxaca chiles on the website… that was from more than two years ago. (Suzy knows her chiles but she doesn’t know how to update her website.) The last price she had was $49.95 per pound, and she’s not sure what the next batch will cost, but it likely will be more. If you are interested in buying some of these chiles, send her an email and she’ll let you know when she gets some and how much they’ll cost.
And yes, I’ve already put my name on her list.
Pasilla de Oaxaca Salsa
Michael says the recipe he gave me came from Rick Bayless. I have double the garlic and added more salt, and I’ve rewritten the instructions to match how I actually made the salsa. Even if you don’t get your hands on these very special chiles, you can still make this salsa… just substitute an equal amount (by weight) of dried chipotle chiles for the Pasilla de Oaxaca chiles.
Makes 2 cups
1-1/2 to 2 ounces Pasilla de Oaxaca chiles (about 4 or 5)
12 ounces tomatillos, husked and washed, (about 10)
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 to 1 teaspoon (or more to taste) kosher salt
1. Heat a heavy skillet (cast iron preferably) over medium-high heat.
2. Press each chile, one at a time, with a spatula into the pan for 10 to 15 seconds, until you see a puff of smoke or hear a snap/crackle/pop. Repeat on other side of chile.
3. Put plastic gloves on before handling chiles. Cut the stems off and slice the chiles in half (doesn’t matter if it’s lengthwise or crosswise). The goal is to break the chiles open and remove most of the seeds. Set the seeds aside and place the chiles in a bowl. Cover with boiling water and steep for 15 to 20 minutes, until very pliable. Meanwhile…
4. Blister the tomatillos on a pepper grate (or grill or broil the tomatillos) just until the skin is charred here and there. (Alternately, boil them in a large pot of boiling water for 10 minutes, just until soft.)
5. Place the softened chiles in a blender and add a few tablespoons of liquid (use the soaking water for a hotter salsa and plain water for a medium hot salsa). Puree until just chopped, stopping to scrape the sides of the blender or to add a bit more liquid if necessary. The chiles will still be chunky.
6. Add the garlic cloves, the blistered tomatillos and 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt to the blender and pulse a few times until the mixture is chunky, then puree for several seconds until the salsa is mostly smooth. Taste and add more salt if desired. If you want more heat, add some of the reserved seeds from step 3 — 1/4 teaspoon at a time — and blend. Remember, the salsa will get slightly hotter after sitting for a few hours.
7. If it’s too thick, thin with a bit of water. Will keep in the refrigerator for a week, or freezer for 3 months.