AKUMAL, Mexico — The cooking on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán is chili-dependent but rarely hot. Historically, this may be because chilies are not a locally important source of nourishment; there is always the holy trinity of beans, corn and squash.
Mild rather than mind-blowing, chilies are appreciated mostly for subtle flavor.
This doesn’t mean you don’t see habaneros; you do. But the Mayan cooks use them include about a tenth of one at a time. That adds a tiny bit of heat and a distinctive fruitiness.
No doubt much of the Latino part of our population, especially people who’ve immigrated, understand all of this, but those of us who grew up gringo don’t. We think of chilies as jalapeños, serranos, Thai and then the dried, red-hot specimens like chili de árbol and cayenne. These are all fine if used sparingly (or intentionally not), but they can turn a dish one-dimensional if allowed to dominate.
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The milder chilies add complexity as well as (and sometimes instead of) heat, and may be thought of more as a subtle spice that results in mysterious flavors you can’t duplicate otherwise. They’re fun rather than fearful.
And for the most part, we simply don’t use them enough. We don’t understand them, and that lack of understanding results in a limited pantry. Learn to love them — and tame them — and you can use them daily.
The first thing I do upon arrival here, then, is to lay in a supply of chilies, most of which are dried, 95 percent of which are mild and some of whose names I couldn’t tell you.
For example, there are always chipotles that are clearly not made from jalapeños. By definition, a chipotle is a smoked dried jalapeño, so it is misnamed; but no matter where you go in Mexico, you will find these mild chilies that were held over or next to a smoldering fire for hours, or maybe days. Used judiciously, they add warmth, flavor and smokiness — but not much heat — to just about anything.
To me, there is no prettier sight than a counter loaded with chilies: long, mild, fresh red or green ones.
And then a few of the never-ending supply of fresh and incredibly inexpensive poblanos, those gorgeous dark green babies that so perfectly straddle hot and not, as well as anchos, which are the same models, only dried.
And finally, a variety of dried chilies, California or New Mexico, guajillo, mulato and pasilla in all colors: red, black, beige or the characteristic burnt black chilies, a result of a process I’d not recommend trying at home; it can bring on a form of instant bronchitis. Buy them already blackened.
There are a couple of steps before you plunge in; one is optional, one essential.
The optional one is roasting, or toasting. This makes a difference even with dried chilies, and even if you’re going to be cooking them anyway. Just a few moments over a gentle fire, or in a skillet, or even in a hot oven, will release complex aromas that may otherwise remain hidden. Fresh chilies, of course, benefit mightily from roasting because although it isn’t essential, it’s nice to discard the skins, just as it is with roasted bell peppers.
Which brings us to heat. Any chili, even a mild bell pepper, can contain some heat. And that heat is stored variously in the seeds, stems, veins and skin, all of which can be removed. With dried chilies, the process is easy: Just break the thing open, get rid of the seeds and stem and, if the chili is moist enough, tear out the veins. By doing this, you’ve really disarmed the thing and rendered most chilies safe to eat in the quantity that will allow you to enjoy their flavor without blowing the top of your head off.
Then you’re ready to expand your cooking repertoire. I have yet to find a stewlike dish that doesn’t benefit from adding the shells — that is, what’s left after removing stems, seeds and veins — of several kinds of dried, mild chilies, especially if one has some smoke. They don’t add substance in the form of bulk or texture, but for that you use fresh mild chilies. Then, if you want heat, it’s optional, and easy. But it isn’t imperative.
SCRAMBLED PEPPERS AND EGGS
Makes 2 to 4 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 red bell peppers, chopped
2 poblano or Anaheim chilies, chopped
1 fresh hot green chili (like jalapeño), chopped, optional
1 tablespoon minced garlic
Salt and ground black pepper
4 eggs, beaten
1. Put oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it’s translucent, one to two minutes.
2. Add peppers, chilies and garlic, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until peppers are brightly colored but not too soft, four to six minutes.
3. Reduce heat to medium-low and pour in eggs. Cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, until eggs are cooked, three to eight minutes. Serve on toast or over rice, or wrapped in a flour tortilla.
Makes 8 servings
2 tablespoons neutral oil
2 pounds pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 large onion, chopped
Salt and ground black pepper
4 dried chipotle, ancho or guajillo chilies
2 cups dried hominy, soaked in a couple of changes of water for eight to 12 hours
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, or 2 teaspoons dried
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons minced garlic
Chopped fresh cilantro for garnish
Lime wedges for garnish
1. Put oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. When hot, add pork and onions and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until pork and onions are deeply browned, 15 to 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, pull off whatever stems you can from chilies; break them in half and pour or scrape out some or all of the seeds. (The more you leave in, the hotter the stew will be.) When pork and onions are browned, add chilies, hominy, oregano and cumin. Add water to cover everything by about an inch. Bring to a boil, then adjust heat so the mixture simmers steadily. Cook, stirring occasionally and adding more liquid if necessary, until pork and hominy are tender, at least 1½ hours.
3. If you like, fish out and discard chili pieces, or chop them up and stir them back into the pot. Stir in garlic and cook a few minutes more; taste and adjust the seasoning. The mixture should be a little soupy. Serve in bowls, garnished with cilantro and lime wedges.
CHILI-TOMATO NOT TOO HOT SAUCE
Makes about 2 cups
6 guajillo or ancho chilies
¼ cup neutral oil
2 large onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, smashed
2 cups canned tomatoes
1 tablespoon honey
Salt and ground black pepper
¼ cup distilled white or apple cider vinegar
1. Boil 3 cups of water. Put chilies in a large skillet over medium heat and toast, turning once, until fragrant, two to three 3 minutes on each side. Transfer chilies to a bowl, pour boiling water over them and soak until soft and pliable, 15 to 30 minutes. Remove stems and as many seeds as you like (the fewer you remove, the hotter the sauce will be). Roughly chop them, and reserve soaking liquid.
2. Put oil in the skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add chilies, onions and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions soften, about five minutes. Add tomatoes, honey, salt and pepper.
3. Adjust heat so the mixture bubbles gently. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is very thick, 10 to 20 minutes. Let it cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a blender with the vinegar. Purée until completely smooth, adding more vinegar or a splash of water if you want it thinner. Pour into a glass bottle or jar, cool completely and refrigerate up to a week.