Tamed Salsa Macha!

8th June, 2010: Posted by G.L. Pease in Chiliheads, Salsas, easy

Last week, Steve Sando, heirloom bean king and mastermind of Rancho Gordo, peppered his Facebook page with pictures of amazing looking food from his recent visit to Veracruz. One photo in particular had me, a confirmed chilephile, almost ready to eat my screen. It showed a beautiful bowl of glistening salsa macha, made from local dried chiles, peanuts and garlic. Steve didn’t have a recipe, so I took it on as a personal mission to develop one. After a little research and a few experimental batches, here’s what I’ve come up with. It may not be 100% authentic, but it sure tastes good.

The traditional Salsa Macha of Veracruz is made with the dried chile comapeño, a small orange chile that is unavailable outside of the region. I’ve substituted a combination of ancho and de àrbol chiles to bring up the flavors, and tame the flame a bit. Use more ancho if you want it milder, more de àrbol if you want the heat. Dried chiltepins and pequins, widely available, can also be used to add even more fire, and the true die-hard can add dried habanero, which will also add wonderful layers of fruitiness to the salsa.

Ingredients

  • 24-30 dried chiles de àrbol, stemmed, toasted and chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 2 ancho chiles (dried pasillas), stemmed, toasted and chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 3/4 cup roasted peanuts
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced fine but not crushed
  • 1 generous tsp of Mexican oregano, crumbled fine
  • 1 tsp kosher salt (adjust to taste)
  • Juice of 1 lemon (optional)
  • 1/2 cup Spanish extra-virgin olive oil [see notes]

Method

Remove the stems from the dried chiles and toast them gently in a heavy pan or camal, pre-heated over low heat, about 15-25 minutes, depending on the heat. Pay close attention, turning them regularly, and observing the color; they will darken slightly and be beautifully toasted and fragrant, with a slight sparkle, but definitely not burned. Burned is bitter. Burned is bad.
The anchos, with their thicker skins and moister flesh, will take a little longer.

(Warning: Don’t forget to turn on the exhaust fan, unless you enjoy the feeling of being tear-gassed.)

As the chiles are ready, transfer them to a bowl to cool. Then carefully break them in two, shaking out and discarding most of the seeds, which add nothing to the flavor of the salsa [see notes].

Put the chiles into the bowl of a blender or food processor, and chop, pulsing at low speed, into fairly uniform small flakes, about 1/16″ or so. Transfer to a mixing bowl.

The peanuts can be prepared in the blender as well, but I prefer a slightly more rustic, uneven texture, so I crush them by spreading them out on a cutting board, covering with a clean tea towel, and rolling over them with a wine bottle. Add these to the chiles.

(If you long for a more traditional, hands-on, “one with the past” approach, a molcajete would be another great way to prepare both the chiles and the peanuts. Blenders are so much easier, though.)

Add the garlic, Mexican oregano, lemon juice and salt to the bowl, and begin drizzling in olive oil, mixing, until the desired consistency is obtained. As the salsa sits, the chiles will absorb some of the oil, so it may be necessary to add more later. A fairly thick paste is most versatile.

Let the salsa stand for at least an hour, and adjust oil and seasoning to taste. It will keep, covered in the fridge, for about a month.

While researching this delightful stuff, I’ve become almost addicted to it. Every version has been good, but the one presented here is my favorite, with great balance of flavors, and a delightful heat that isn’t punishing. The addition of a little lemon juice, while not traditional, brightens it up and improves the keeping qualities.

Spread on tortillas before making quesadillas with some queso manchego. Serve with grilled pork, or with scrambled eggs. Hell, put it on your ice cream! I take no responsibility if you become an addict, too.

Viva la salsa macha!

Notes:

You’ll want to have close to a cup of chopped, dried chiles. Vary the proportion of ancho and de àrbol to control the heat, but don’t skimp on the overall amount. Shoot for about a 1:1 ratio of chiles to peanuts.

A fruity Spanish olive oil is a great choice for this, and works better than a spicier Italian or grassy California oil, but, by all means, experiment!

Mexican oregano is not a true oregano, but a member of the Verbenaceae family, the same family as the familiar lemon verbena. Though its taste is somewhat similar to the mediterranean oreganos, it’s not interchangeable. Any local Mexican market should have the real thing, and it’s well worth seeking out. Use mediterranean oregano as a last resort.

All over the web we read that the seeds in a chile pod are responsible for the heat, but this isn’t right. The thin membrane that holds the seed, the placenta, is actually the source of the capsaicin that creates the chiles fire; the seeds gain a little spice through being attached to the membrane, but are not actually hot themselves. If you want to tame the heat of a chile, you meed to remove the membrane. Quite impractical with small dried chiles!

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