First Person: Taking Comfort in Preparing Chili Pepper Pastes

By Shirley Barker, Special to the Planet
Friday October 27, 2006

When the pall of death hung over the East Bay during the October fire of 1991, I turned to the preparation of the evening meal devoid of feeling. To my astonishment, as I went through the routines of chopping, stirring, blending and serving, I felt as though a corner of this pall were lifting. 

The growing and preparation of food are of course rife with cliché, so fundamental are they to our well-being, but never before had I experienced their spiritual component so strongly. 

At this time of year we remember the deadly fire while we rejoice in the life-giving summer harvest, gathering beans, tomatoes, pumpkins and herbs, some for fresh eating, others for their preservation for the months ahead. 

Even if one has no garden, or lives miles away from a farmer’s market, if one is lucky enough to have access to ethnic groceries, or a mail-order system, some of this harvest is available to us year round. And this season, my attention has been diverted from fresh produce to the dried chili pepper. 

If this introduction seems laborious, it serves as a reflection of the complexity of the chili (or more correctly, in Spanish, chile) pepper. For dried chilis often have names that are different from their fresh origins, denoting a change worth marking in their personality, or character, during the ripening process. The ubiquitous jalapeno, for example, becomes the chipotle pepper. 

Since I live a few blocks away from a taqueria that sells small freshly packaged varieties of these dried exotica, I decided to try a tasting experiment of chili pastes by making a base of simple ingredients and testing four chilis, adding them one at a time to the base, hoping to achieve four variations on a single theme. 

Chilis are rated for heat on a scale of one to ten, originally devised in the early 20th century by a chemist, Wilbur Scoville. Today’s scientific measurement of the heat component, capsaicin, still honors his name. Jalapenos are rated 6 on the scale, too hot for me. I limited my experiment to those chilis in the mid-range, 3 and 4, which I hoped would reveal spicy flavors not masked by heat. After all, some capsaicin levels are so high that mouth and lungs can blister. 

The website www.gourmet sleuth.com has a useful heat scale for dried chilis, worth printing for reference. 

The results of the experiment were rewarding. Since my aim was a taste rather than a meal, quantities were small. The base was one tablespoon of tomato paste, one of tamari, one clove of garlic, a pinch of salt, and half a cup of water. To this were added one or two tablespoons of prepared chili, and no more than six drops of lemon juice. The paste was then refrigerated overnight to ripen before the tasting ceremony the next day. 

The preparation of the actual chilis is a little more elaborate. First, they are soaked in water. When sufficiently rehydrated, they are drained and patted dry, stemmed and de-seeded, torn into pieces, and dry-roasted in a heavy pan on both sides until crisp but not burnt. Finally they are ground, traditionally in a mortar and pestle, more conveniently in a coffee grinder. 

Blend, tip into a small jar, and refrigerate. 

Before describing the results, for readers who enjoy very hot peppers, the usual cautions obtain for their handling. However, rather than wearing gloves, one can readily avoid touching them entirely by impaling the pepper with a fork in one hand, and operating on it with a small sharp knife in the other. Interestingly and confusingly, heat levels even within the same variety can be altered by the environment in which the pepper was grown.  

The first pepper I chose was in fact not quite a dried one, though it was certainly leathery, ripe, bright red, long and skinny, labeled by Monterrey Market a paprika. I include it here because not only did it make a delicious paste, but it also inspired the subsequent experiments. I found myself naming all these pastes. This one is “The Pioneer.” 

The second choice was the ancho pepper, a dried poblano, shaped like a heart, commonly found in local markets fresh and very dark green. Its flavor in the paste was profoundly intense, smoky, almost burnt, and very good. Surely Moctezuma would have relished it, so I named it “The Aztec”. 

The third choice was the cascabel, meaning bell in Spanish. It took 24 hours to soften, and added to the base was so bitter that I briefly simmered the whole lot. After ripening in the refrigerator, it was still bitter. I tried adding it to tahini (thinned with water) and discovered thereby its properties, for it not only gave the tahini a hint of heat but also utterly transformed its very nature. In fact it sang like a bell with one pure note. Cascabel also means rattlesnake, and since it needs careful handling, and is a challenge to appreciate, this is what I named the paste. 

Last but not least, for there are others waiting to be tried, I chose the guajillo pepper. The guajillo is easy to prepare, and the result was so scrumptious that I ate the lot with a spoon. Fruity, floral, mild, with peppery overtones, I call it “The Flower.” 

All these pastes without additions make interesting dips. They enhance scrambled eggs, reinforce soups and braised meats, add sparkle to beans and salads. For me they are a daily necessity, rich in vitamin A. I will try them pulverized straight from the package, and soaked but untoasted in dips. To the base I will add peanut butter, or pineapple, or yogurt. Variations seem endless. Excellent recipes using dried chilis can be found in The Food and Cooking of Mexico, by Jane Milton, available from Cody’s on Fourth Street. 

Let us give thanks for our food that endures and comforts and restores us to whole life in bleak times.