I love spicy food. I love spicy Thai coconut curries with a nice amount of chili paste to fire it up. I love Mexican food, with its flavor-boosting chili peppers. The perfect spicy food, regardless of ethnic heritage, must present a spiciness that simultaneously has great flavor, not just heat for the sake of ripping your esophagus as the consumed edible plunges into your belly. One of the smoothest spicy additions to any southwestern and Mexican dish is the chipotle.
Chipotle chili peppers are hot. They are actually jalapenos, which have been dried and smoked, and it is that smoky appeal that lends the perfect touch of flavor. Most jalapenos that we see in supermarkets are green. These are unripened jalapenos, harvested during the growing season. Those left on the vine to ripen until the end of the growing season turn deep red; these are the chilies selected for the smoking box to become chipotle chilies. The final product wears a very dark and wrinkled skin, resembling a huge reddish brown raisin. Chihuahua - no, not your little dog - a northern part of Mexico, is where most chipotles are produced.
Chipotle chilies can be purchased dried. They are also widely available either canned or jarred in adobo sauce, and chipotle chili powder can also be purchased. Chipotles tend to have a slightly thick skin, so they are best utilized as an ingredient in stews, salsas and other dishes rather than consumed raw. While you may crave the distinctive smoky flavor that chipotles impart into your dish, respect the heat. These are hot; a little goes a long way, so add them gradually and taste as you add. It is a cross that all of us epicureans must bear, that of tasting the food. There is a reason most chefs never seem to stop growing; just as a cop must face a life of danger in a crime-ridden world, so too a cook must endure the ramifications of tasting their wares. At least the latter has a more enjoyable time; save for the occasional sampling of a dish into which one too many hot peppers were heaped into the skillet.
The smoky allure of the chipotle is the perfect flavor enhancer for chilies, sauces, stews, soups and salsas. In my November 2011 blog titled ‘Savor the Spud’ I shared my recipe for Smokey Chipotle Mashed Potatoes. Combined with citrus flavors such as orange juice, and a couple of other ingredients such as garlic, a little stock and a finely chopped herb, that sweet-smoky-hot essence makes a wonderful glaze for duck or pork. Any Mexican-influenced recipe that typically calls for some other pepper, try substituting the chipotle instead for a unique new twist on a classic. Here I will pass along my variation on Chicken Mole in which I use chipotle chilies instead of the typical poblanos.
CHICKEN MOLE WITH CHIPOTLE
2 tablespoons slivered almonds
1 cup white rice
3 cups water
½ teaspoon saffron
½ teaspoon salt
5-6 chicken thighs, with skin and bone
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 canned chipotles, chopped
1 ½ teaspoons chili powder
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
1 tomato, chopped
2 tomatillos, cut into quarters
½ cup chicken stock
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
¼ cup raisins
2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons slivered almonds
Place the slivered almonds in a small nonstick frying pan over medium-low heat. Toast the almonds, tossing occasionally, until they have turned a light golden brown. Remove from frying pan and set aside.
Bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a medium pot. Stir in the rice, the saffron and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes or until all of the liquid is absorbed.
Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and brown evenly on both sides. Remove the chicken and set aside on a plate. Add the onion, garlic, chipotle, chili powder, cumin, cinnamon and salt to the skillet. Cook and stir for about a minute. Next add the tomato, tomatillo, chicken stock, tomato sauce, raisins and cocoa powder. Stir to combine, bring to a boil. Return the chicken to the skillet, stir ingredients once more, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the cover and simmer uncovered for another 15 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. Arrange the saffron rice on a serving platter. Remove the cooked chicken and arrange on top of the rice. Allow the sauce in the skillet to lightly boil for another five minutes, uncovered. Spoon the sauce over the chicken, and then sprinkle with the toasted almonds.
Next time your dinner cravings lead you toward south of the border flavors, try substituting a chipotle, or two or three, for whatever other chili pepper the recipe calls for. It will make a nice change of pace – and a perfect accompaniment for that margarita too!