Image from here.
If someone would have told me 10 years ago that my kitchen would now be stocked with the likes of jalapenos, serranos, Anaheims, Poblanos, and (sometimes) habaneros, I would have thought she was crazy. I also would have asked her why she decided to travel back in time to tell me what my fridge would contain in the year 2009. Shouldn't she, instead, have been inventing Wikipedia? Or warning us to not purchase a 4-million dollar home if we had $26 in the bank? Thanks, hypothetical future-chick.
The truth is, I used to be scared to death of chiles. Having grown up in a Midwestern town where the only option for Mexican food prior to 1996 was Taco Bell, my palette wasn't assimilated to the pop and spice and fizzle that only real chiles can administer. If I wanted spice back then, I would have resorted to a few extra dashes of black pepper in my mashed potatoes. In the '90s, black pepper was as far as I would go in terms of spice.
I only began to learn about the true power and glory of chiles while living in Cordoba, Argentina back in 2001. The cuisine of the Argentine pampas is about as picante-less as the Midwest: It's mostly beef. And potatoes. And more beef. The food of Cordoba is delicious as hell, don't get me wrong--I never had a real steak until I sunk my teeth into the tough-but-flavorful beef of Cordoba. The pampas are, after all, still gaucho territory. (Thank God!) However, if one craves a spicy plate in Cordoba, chances are she'll be disappointed.
As were my Mexican friends to whom I grew very close while living in Argentina: Mayra, Erika, Yazmin, and Mariluz. They taught me many necessary cultural tricks of the trade, and I sometimes felt like I was learning more about Mexico than Argentina! Erika taught me how to flirt with boys in Mexican-Spanish. Mariluz taught me how to hike in high heels. Yazmin taught me how to add -ito and -ita to my nouns to make them sound cuter. And they all taught me, through laughter-turn-tears, why it was dangerous to confuse the verb tomar (to get) with coger (to get with...yep, in the Peaches way).
They also taught me--Mayra, especially--much about their undying & almost-romantic love for chile peppers. (Sidenote: there are many phrases in Mexican Spanish where a certain male body part is referred to as el chile. I was most definitely taught those phrases as well. After all, one's education should be well-rounded, right?)
Despite all of the vegetable stands and markets and grocery stores in the booming Argentine city of Cordoba, my bitchitas mexicanas just could not find a single chile. This pained them, and at the time I could not understand why. Why, after all, would someone want to voluntarily burn their mouths? Why, if given the choice, would someone choose pain? Even the verb picar, from which the adjective picante derives, sounds painful when translated literally: picar means to sting. When a dish provides sufficient spice, one would say me pica ("it stings me"). If stung by a bee, the same phrase--me pica--would apply.
Huh? At the ripe age of 20, I did not equate bee stings with deliciousness, and nor did I understand why my amigas mexicanas were so frustrated with Cordoba's lack of culinary sting.
When talking about what we missed about home, our discussions almost always veered in the direction of food. I missed turkey and mashed potatoes and Chinese food. Gotz, our German friend, missed streudel--and he missed it even more so after failing miserably at baking his first streudel in my apartment. Mayra, my friend from Puebla, Mexico, missed chiles. She missed them with all her corazon. At one point I even remember Mayra, the most saddened of the group, printing off a "Chile Chart" from the Internet so that she could at least share with me in photo-form what seemed now to be extinct in real-form.
After much chile-estranged suffering, however, mis bitchitas finally found their long-lost love. While strolling through a produce market, they found the object of their affection. They found el chile. I don't remember now what type of chile they discovered. What I do remember, though, is that this chile was cause for much celebration. That night would be fajita night. The pictures I have of that feast say much about our love for the foods we grew up with. In one picture, Mayra, Erika and Yazmin are huddled together around their bowl of uncooked chicken marinating in sliced chiles, onions and oil (and probably a little beer). All three of them are holding on tight to the bowl, their sleeves rolled up past the elbows. The smiles on their faces stretch wider than any Anaheim chile.
The picture of all of us sitting around the table feasting on their labor tells a similar story. The Anaheim smile was contagious, as all of us--even I, a Midwestern chile-phobe--taste our friends' love for home in this spicy dish. I experienced my first Anaheim smile that night. There was surely some sting behind that smile, but strangely the sting has evolved into something I now cherish--no, it's more than that: I now desire and obsess over that sting! Chiles are more than just a dish, they're a worldview: to know the good in life, we must also taste a little of the hurt as well. We're always in between pleasure and sting--of loving and missing--and chiles remind us of that.
My kitchen will be forever-stocked with the shiniest, spiciest of chiles I can find. This just goes to show that you CAN--with a little patience--teach an old Midwesterner new tastes!
Mayra/Maiz/Minimonkey: Te extrano, bitchita! Espero que nos deja con mucho tiempo en el futuro para experimentar juntas con los chiles! (Los chiles de dos tipos, no?! jeje)
Here's a recipe I came up with last weekend when yet another chile craving stung my tongue! This recipe is sure to picar the hell out of you...in the most loving way possible!
(for a 9x9 casserole dish)
3 Poblano chiles
1 Anaheim chile
1 jalapeno chile
3 cups sliced mushrooms (go cheap, y'all!)
1 19 oz. can enchilada sauce
1 can diced tomatoes, drained
1.5-2 cups cooked and drained black beans
1 sweet onion
4 cloves garlic, diced
10-15 corn tortillas
1 cup cooked rice or other grain (I used bulgar wheat)
1/2 cup vegan cheese
1/4 cup oats
salt and pepper to taste
Roast the Poblanos
1. Rinse your chiles and place them whole on the broiling rack of your oven. Broil for 6-10 minutes, or until chiles begin looking charred on all sides. You might have to flip your chiles halfway through the process to get an even roast on all sides.
2. Once chiles are fully roasted (and they smell like Mexican heaven), quickly transfer them to a large baggie or plastice bag. Seal the bag, and allow them to sweat for about 10 minutes. This allows them to loosen their skin, which you will then scrape off before cutting.
3. After 10 minutes, scrape off the loose skin, and cut open the chiles. Some water may have accumulated during the sweat, so make sure to pour it out. Remove the seeds and the white membrane, and cut each chile lengthwise into strips. Set aside.
Create a Spicy Sauce
1. Over medium heat, oil a large skillet and add your chopped onion, Anaheim pepper, jalapeno, mushrooms and garlic. Saute over medium heat until onion begins turning translucent.
2. Add the beans and tomatoes, and stir. Allow to simmer for 1 minute. Add the can of enchilada sauce, and allow sauce to bubble and thicken for about 5 minutes. Add a little salt and pepper to taste.
3. Finally, add the cooked bulgar wheat (or other grain of choice). If mixture appears rather watery after grain is incorporated, you might want to add some oats to thicken it just a bit. It should not look like soup, but should instead have the consistency of a marinara sauce. Finally, add a handful of chopped cilantro, stir, and remove from heat.
Arrange Your Layers
1. Before layering your lasagna, add a tablespoon of olive oil to your 9x9 casserole dish and spread evenly on all sides. Begin adding your roasted Poblano strips as the first layer. I added a dash of salt to this layer to bring out more of the chile's flavor.
2. Next, add some spoonfuls of the sauce. I added about an inch. Finally, create a corn tortilla layer. I used about 4 or 5 of the small taco tortillas for this layer. On top of this layer, add a generous amount of your shredded vegan cheese. My grocery store only had a Parmesan-Mozzarella blend, which tasted fantastic in this lasagna!
3. Repeat the layering of Poblano strips, sauce, tortillas and cheese until you reach the top of the dish. I tried to finish the layering with the corn tortillas and cheese. Drizzle some olive oil and add a bit of your chopped cilantro on top of the last layer.
4. Before transferring your dish to the oven, you might want to add a little water around the sides of your dish to prevent the lasagna from drying out. I was able to add about 1/8-1/4 of a cup of water around the sides.
5. Bake at 350 degrees for about 35-40 minutes.
6. Allow lasagna to cool for about 10-15 minutes before serving.