Spice it Up!
By Kathleen Furore
“Latino flavors with the spice of life.”
Chicago’s Carnivale applied its tag line to the specials menu Executive Chef David Dworshak crafted to celebrate International Hot & Spicy Food Day Jan. 16.
Armed with habanerno peppers, South American aji amarillos and Spanish guindilla chiles—favorites grown in Carnivale’s rooftop garden—Dworshak created the Hawaiian Kampachi Ceviche (rooftop garden chile puree, jicama kimchi, pickled habanero and mint); Langosta Encendido (“Burning Lobster” made with chile roasted lobster, black rice, aji amarillo puree and mango salad); and Fideos Flameado (bucatini pasta, Spanish chorizo, Serrano ham, spicy sofrito, Parmigiano, brussels sprouts and guindilla chiles).
While the Hot and Spicy menu was a one-day offering, Carnivale displays a penchant for peppers throughout the year.
“We use chiles extensively—they are in about 75 percent of the dishes of our menu,” Dworshak says. “The ceviche and pasta are similar to items we currently have on the menu, and if customers come in and request something like the Hot and Spicy specials, we could definitely recreate the dishes for them.”
Dworshak’s success with building a chile-rich menu shows how far the category has come since jalapeños were the most daring peppers most restaurant patrons would try.
“We get customers from all walks of life coming through our doors, from people with the mildest palates to the extreme chile heads. We have something for everybody,” Dworshak reports.
According to Tracy Ritter, culinary director at the Santa Fe School of Cooking in Santa Fe, N.M., ground chipotle (smoked jalapeño), remains a favorite and one of the most common of the chiles and spices featured in Mexican and Latin food restaurants today. “The guajillo and casabel chile also seem to gaining in popularity, as does the dried ancho. Chefs particularly like the smoky qualities chiles impart to sauces,” Ritter adds.
The season dictates the selection of chiles Dworshak relies on. “We use fresh during the growing months and more dried and preserved in the winter,” he says. Among the most-used dried chiles in Carnivale’s kitchen are the pasilla, ancho, guajillo, chile de arbol, guindilla, and the Peruvian ajis—aji panca (a dark red, mild pepper with a smokey, fruity taste), aji Amarillo (a slightly spicer variety with a fruity flavor and a late kick of heat); and aji limo (the spiciest of the three).
The restaurant’s rooftop garden, Dworshak says, helps keep his culinary team connected to the seasons and deepens employees’ respect for local ingredients. “Last year we grew Thai bird, pasilla, habanero and ghost peppers,” he reports. “For a big, busy restaurant, spicier chiles go a longer way with the small amounts that we grow.”
Ritter also sees other trends in today’s restaurant kitchens. “More and more chefs are resorting to whole chile peppers as opposed to ground spices,” she says. “And I see a lot more roasting and blending of dried chile peppers into sauces and as rubs.”
MORE THAN HEAT
Industry data shows that chiles—which are considered botanic fruits, but culinary vegetables—definitely are making inroads with consumers. As Iliana de la Vega, chef-instructor and Mexican/Latin cuisine specialist at the Culinary Institute of America, San Antonio, noted during a presentation at the CIA’s “Latin Flavors American Kitchens 2012” conference, U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show that an average American consumes 5.9 pounds of chiles per year. “The chile is the condiment most used in the world,” she said.
It is also a food most people think of as hot and spicy, even though chiles actually contribute so much more than heat to the dishes they spice.
“It is not just the heat of chiles that make them significant in Mexican cooking,” Jim Peyton of Lo Mexicano Consulting, explains in his book “New Cooking from Old Mexico. “Many cuisines, including those of India, Thailand and China, use chiles but with a far different effect. It is the various flavors, textures and smells of the chiles used in Mexico, as well as the way they are utilized in Mexican cooking, that make the cuisine unique.”
Chef/Owner Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Café in Phoenix relies on those lesser-know characteristics to tell her culinary story in signature dishes like Chiles en Nogada (poblanos stuffed with chicken, onions, pecans, and fruits and accented with a rich almond sauce dotted with pomegranate seeds) and tortas topped with slow-roasted, Mayan-style achiote-spiced Cochinita Pibil. As she notes on the restaurant’s website, the food is not deliberately chile-hot, because she wants the myriad seasonings and spices she uses to reveal themselves in her cooking.
Dworshak says Carnivale uses chiles “not always for the heat they provide, but for the extra diminsion of flavor.”
And Ritter believes chiles are becoming more popular because diners are starting to understand peppers don’t have to be spicy hot. “They realize that they impart a wonderful, earthy flavor to dishes,” she says
Chefs looking for ways to experiment with chiles and spices that won't intimidate customers can follow some techniques Dworshak employs.
“One classic move is to take the seeds out of the chile, but most of the heat is actually in the membrane that holds the seeds in place. If you do without that membrane, it highlights the flavor as opposed to the heat,” he explains.
Interestingly, Dworshak learned that from one of Carnivale’s servers. “Once a week a staff member does a presentation on something they’re interested in, and this particular server decided to take on chiles,” he says.
The chef also notes he uses a combination of peppers—sweet yellow peppers with the spicy aji amarillos, for example, to “streatch out the heat.”
For appetizers, his heat threshold is a bit higher, since he believes diners can handle more spice in smaller bites. “With entrees you have to be extra careful,” he cautions.
And he uses chiles extensively in ceviches, since the heat is not expressed in cold dishes as much as it is in hot offerings. “Cold dishes typically need more flavor, and with cold dishes the chiles are more subdued,” he says.
Finally, Ritter advises chefs to forego the word ‘spicy’ and even ‘chile’ on the menu. “Rather, just list one or two of the names of the chiles—ancho or poblano, for example,” she says. “Also educating the staff and doing staff tastings is necessary if you use a wide variety of chiles because chiles are like wine—very complex,” she adds.
Dworshak does just that. “We get very extensive with our server training. We discuss aroma, mouth feel and heat level of our chiles, usually on a 1-10 scale to make it easy to understand. And we do offer customers a sample if they are afraid something will be too spicy.”
A Chile Primer
Aji Amarillo. Fruity flavor with berry tones. Heat 7-8
Ancho/Dried Poblano. Mild fruit flavor with tones of coffee, liquorice, tobacco, dried plum and raisin. Indispensable in moles and sauces. Heat 3-5
Cascabel. Medium hot; slightly acidic; rich smoky, woodsy, nutty flavor. Great in soups, salsas, sauces, stews. Heat 4
Chipotle. Large, dried, smoked jalapeño. Smoky sweet flavor with tobacco and chocolate tones. Deep rounded heat. Can be bought in red adobo sauce (chipotle en adobo). Heat 5-8
Costeno. Dusty green, soapy flavor; apricot tones with fiery, intense, lingering heat. Good in salsas, sauces and soups. Heat 6-7
De Arbol. Tannic, smoky, grassy flavor; searing acidic heat. Primarily used in powdered form for sauces, soups and stews. Heat 7.5
Guajillo. Green tea and stemmy flavor with berry tones. Used in salsas, chile sauces, soups, stews. Heat 2-4
Habanero. Coconut and papaya flavors with a hint of berry; intense, fiery acidic heat. Used mainly in sauces. Heat 10
Morita. Type of dried jalapeño. Light, sweet, smoky flavor with tones of plum, fig, tea and some tannin. Used in salsas and sauces. Heat 6.5
New Mexico (green). Peeled, dried, roasted form of fresh green New Mexico chile. Sweet, light, smoky flavor. Hints of citrus and dried apple with herb and celery tones. Used in powdered form to season beef jerky, and in soups, stews and sauces. Heat 3-5
New Mexico (red). Wild, sagey aroma; flavors are brickiness, some acidity and weediness with dried cherry tones. Crisp, clear heat. Indispensible in some red chile sauces. Also sold as crushed flakes (chile caribe) and ground chile powders. Heat 2-4
Pasilla. Dried chilaca chile. Berry, grape and herbaceous tones with a hint of liquorice. Excellent in sauces, especially seafood. Heat 3-5
Pequin. Light, sweet, smoky flavor with citrus corn and nutty tones. Deep, fiery heat. Used to make salsas, soups, sauces and vinegars. Heat 8.5
—Source: Santa Fe School of Cooking (www.santafeschoolofcooking.com)
A Spice Sampler
A melding of Native American and Spanish cultures is responsible for some of the most frequently used spices that flavor Mexican dishes today. According to Jim Peyton of Lo Mexican Consulting, Native Americans used salt, chiles, allspice, achiote and myriad “lesser” spices, then added the cinnamon, black pepper, thyme, marjoram, bay laurel, saffron, garlic, onion and parsley the Spanish brought, significantly expanding their options for culinary creativity.
Some of the most-used spices in Mexican restaurant kitchens today include Achiote (a paste used in the Yucatán that is made by grinding the seeds of the annatto tree with spices and lime juice or vinegar); Adobo (chile-based marinade or sauce that is similar to the Yucatán recado); ajo (garlic); anis (aniseed); canela (cinnamon) cilantro (coriander); comino (cumin) and Mexican oregano.
*Best Mexican Foods. Dry chiles including arbol, pequin, cascabel, guajillo and ancho; canned chipotle and diced green chiles. 800-867-8236; www.bestmexicanfoods.com
*La Perla/Del Mayab. The Annatto seed paste called Achiote (Recado Rojo); the allspice, garlic and pepper spice blend Bistek; annatoto seeds, chile powders, ground chiles, Mexican oregano and more. 800-335-6292; www.delmayab.com
*La Preferida. Canned peppers including whole jalapeños, nacho slices, chipotles, green chiles plus adobo and sazon seasoning. 800-621-5422; www.lapreferida.com
*The Chile Guy. Whole dry aji ancho, cascabel, chipotle, guajillo, mulato chiles; chiles flakes and powders; canela, cilantro, cumin, Mexican oregano and more.800-869-9218; www.thechileguy.com