History Tidbit: Today is a national holiday in Mexico, commemorating Mexican president (1861-1872) Benito Juárez. Born on March 21, 1806 of indigenous Zapotec parents in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, he became a lawyer, liberal politician, and president; he was instrumental in the creation of a democratic federal republic in Mexico through constitutional reform (1857-61). He opposed the French-occupation reign of emperor Maximilian (1864-67; yes, Mexico won The Battle of Puebla on Cinco de Mayo in 1862, but lost the war.) He was controversially re-elected twice (1867 and 1871) and died of a heart attack (1872) after surviving a stroke and suffering heart disease (angina pectoris). It is noteworthy that he overcame great prejudice, not only for his liberal ideology, but especially for his indigenous background. For all his accomplishments, he is well-known as “El Benemérito de las Américas”* ; interestingly, this title was not coined in Mexico, but in Colombia and the Dominican Republic .
I needed to buy dry red peppers for my next round of sauces, salsa roja, so I checked my usual supermarket and one international store, and found three varieties: New Mexico at the supermarket, and Ancho and Guajillo at the international store. Ranges of hotness, or pungency, for both green and red peppers, have been assigned to different varieties based on the presence of capsaicin, a chemical compound that stimulates receptor nerve endings, not too far from how pain stimuli work. The Scoville Scale, developed in 1912, relies on human perception of capsaicin concentration, and the American Spice Trade Association (ASTA) pungency units are based on High Performance Liquid Chromatography. There are many references on the topic, but in the end, the safest way to go when buying peppers, is to roughly know the placing of specific varieties on the scales, which will determine which variety to pick. My three varieties are in the middle of the scale, not mild like Bell peppers, but not dangerously spicy like Habaneros or Ghost peppers. Another good find in the middle of the scale would have been Pasilla peppers.
Because the pungency of a pepper also depends on cultivation conditions, place of origin, aging and ripening stages, a taste test at home is needed for each individual batch. Just look at the ranges in Scoville units for the three I found: Ancho (1000-1500), New Mexico (1500-10000!) and Guajillo (2500-5000). After tasting my batches, the Guajillos were in between spiciest New Mexico, and mildest Ancho, so I chose them for this recipe.
The number one step when cooking with dry peppers is toasting them with no oil. It is very tempting to save time and skip it, but it makes a huge difference in terms of taste. I used my iron skillet, over moderate heat, for about 3 minutes total, flipping and turning the peppers frequently to avoid smoking; after just a little while, the aroma of toasted peppers filled the air, so my loyal – yet wise – pet decided to go downstairs until I was done. I added a whole clove of garlic for the last-minute, lightly toasting it as well.
I set the garlic clove aside, and blanched the peppers in boiling water for one minute, then removed from the heat and let them sit in the water for another 2-3 minutes. I drained the water and patted the peppers dry with a paper towel. The peppers should be flexible but not soggy. I pulled the stems off, and seeded the peppers by shaking them upside down, then placed them in the blender with the garlic, some water and salt, blending until I obtained a soft paste.
This beautiful paste is called adobo rojo, and may be used as a wet rub for roasts, whole chicken or fish (usually vinegar and other spices are added for the rub, but that is a story for another post.) I like to make the paste first, taste it, and from there, I have complete control of the final flavour and hotness of my sauce; if it is a fiery sauce for tacos (salsa taquera) what is needed, a little water will suffice to reach a nice consistency to scoop onto food at the table; for milder taste and to use in stews, I would add some onions and tomatoes to tame the pungency.
I prepared a spicy batch of sauce with half of my Guajillo paste, by adding just a little more water and salt. Then, I proceeded to prepare a milder sauce with the other half. For that end, I went back to the dry skillet, and roasted a tomato and a few large pieces of onion; in this case, I wanted the vegetables to develop some charring, what is called “tatemar” in Mexico. The peppers would have become bitter if charred, but the tomato and onions will add some depth to my sauce when “tatemados.”
I removed the stem end from the tomato, cut it in quarters and put it in the blender with the onions, then processed until it became a smooth paste. By gradually adding some charred tomato paste to the reserved Guajillo paste, and tasting, I could reach just the right level of spiciness. In the photo below, the spicy sauce (without tomato) on the left, has a nice contrast next to the milder (with tomato and onion) on the right, both in terms of colour, and flavour. These sauces are great with tacos, or on the side with roasts, such as my Puebla style pork roast.