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Great Home Cooks : Smoke and Fire

<i> Raichlen is a Miami-based food writer and author, and director of Cooking in Paradise, a cooking school in St. Barts</i>

You don’t need a degree in restaurant-hopping to know that America is going up in flames. Gullet-scorching blazes lit by fiery bird peppers from Thailand. Gustatory fires fueled by Scotch bonnet chiles that send you lunging for the nearest beer.

One chile that’s especially inflamed the American palate is the Mexican chipotle. A specialty of Oaxaca, Chihuahua, Veracruz and Mexico’s Central Valley, chipotles are smoked jalapeno chiles. To make them, ripe red jalapenos are smoked over smoldering pecan or mesquite fires in underground pits until the chiles are shriveled and dry, like a mummy.

The result is one of the most flavorful ingredients you’ll ever burn your tongue on. Chipotles are hot--not as hot as the infamous habanero , but hot enough to make me sweat, and I have an asbestos palate. But behind the chipotle’s heat is a distinctive smoke flavor with overtones of chocolate and even tobacco.

This combination of hot and smoky has captivated chefs from Mazatlan to Milwaukee. While dining around the country in the last year, I’ve been served chipotle vinaigrette salad, chipotle- glazed duck, salmon with chipotle hollandaise sauce, even chipotle lollipops. One of the most famous dishes in Mexico is puerco en adobo , pork marinated in a fiery paste of chipotle chiles, vinegar, onions and garlic.

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Chipotles were around long before the arrival of the Spanish. (Our term comes from a Nahuatl word.) Franciscan chronicler Bernardino de Sahagun reported seeing chipotles at a market in Tlateloco in 1569, where they went by the name of pochilli.

Chipotles can be expensive; the highest grade in some gourmet stores costs up to $15 per pound. It takes 10 pounds of fresh jalapenos --and a lot of labor--to produce a single pound of chipotles. Fortunately, a little goes a long way.

Alas, not all chipotles are equal. The best grade is the chipotle grande , made from a giant red jalapeno variety called huachinango. Recognizable by the “corking,” or tan striations running the length of the chile, the huachinango produces a large (2- to 4-inch long, 1/2- to 1-inch wide) chipotle , tan to dark brown in color and wrinkled like a raisin, with a pungent, earthy flavor. Chipotles grandes are smoked at the same time they are dried, which produces a richer taste.

Relatively new to the American market is the chipotle morita , a small (1 to 2 inches long), reddish-brown chile that costs a quarter to a third less than the grande . Some experts say that moritas are small jalapenos , others say they are serrano chiles. Talk to enough chile buffs and you’ll hear rumors that moritas are first dried in a commercial food dryer, then seasoned with liquid smoke.

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I’m inclined to believe this theory, although no one will confirm it on the record. Moritas are softer and sweeter than grandes , with a much less pronounced smoke flavor. They remind me of mass-produced sun-dried tomatoes, which pale in comparison to the artisanal product.

I prefer the robust flavor of the chipotle grande , but I have used moritas in a pinch. As the pepper’s popularity grows, I suspect that air-dried, smoked-treated moritas will become the most readily available form of chipotle.

A recent issue of Chili Pepper magazine offered instructions for making chipotles at home, using a Weber grill. Fires are placed on either side of the grill, and the peppers are placed in the center.

Dried chipotles can be found at Mexican markets, gourmet shops and an increasing number of supermarkets.

Much of Mexico’s chipotles are consumed in adobo (spicy tomato) sauce. Southwestern chef-restaurateur Mark Miller offers the following recipe for the sauce in his “Great Chili Book”:

Place 10 stemmed, halved dried chipotles in heavy pan with 2 cloves sliced garlic, 1/3 cup sliced onion, 1/3 cup cider vinegar, 1/4 cup ketchup, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 3 cups water. Cover pan and cook over low heat 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until chiles are very soft and liquid has reduced to 1 cup. Puree mixture as desired.

Adobo sauce will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator. Use as a marinade for grilled pork tenderloin and other meats.

Dried chipotles should be stored in the refrigerator, where they’ll last almost indefinitely. As with any chile, wash your hands with soap and water after handling chipotles (if you’re particularly sensitive, wear gloves). Contrary to popular opinion, the best way to soothe a burning mouth is not water, but a dairy product, such as milk or yogurt.

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One of my favorite ways to use chipotles is in that great Tex-Mex classic, chili. Increase or decrease the number of chiles to suit your taste.

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Pureed chipotles lend this chili an offbeat smoky flavor--and a good dose of heat. If you want to reduce the fat, use ground turkey instead of beef.

ELECTRIC CHILI

2 to 4 dried chipotle chiles or to taste

1 cup boiling water

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

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1 onion, finely chopped

1 pound very lean ground beef

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 teaspoons dried oregano

2 cups beer

1 cup chicken stock or water

2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced

1 cup cooked beans, such as pinto or kidney, optional

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Chopped green onions

Stem and split chiles. Scrape out and discard seeds. Soak chiles in boiling water until soft, about 30 minutes. Puree chiles and liquid in blender or spice mill. Set aside.

Heat olive oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and onion and cook until lightly browned. Crumble in beef and cook, stirring, until lightly browned. Stir in pureed chipotles (taste mixture for hotness as you add them), cumin, oregano, beer, chicken stock and tomatoes.

Simmer chili, uncovered, 30 minutes. Stir in beans and cook until most of liquid has evaporated and chili is well flavored, about 5 minutes longer. Season to taste with salt, pepper and, if desired, extra chipotle puree. Sprinkle with chopped green onions and serve at once. Makes 4 servings.


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