Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Guajillo, baby!

(Pronounced "Wah-HEE-oh", more or less.) Not a really well-known pepper here in the U.S., relatively speaking. Certainly not right up there with the jalapeno, or the habanero, although it should be. I just discovered them myself less than a year ago, pretty much by accident, but they're now one of my all-time favorite peppers to cook with. If you've never had something made with them, you're missing out big-time on some awesome flavor.

Read on for a really kick-ass Red Chili-Garlic Salsa...

Years ago, when I lived in Chicago, my friends and I would often go to the many local Mexican burrito joints for lunch. You'd order your food and while you wait for it they bring you out a bowl of tortilla chips with red and green salsas to go with them. Both of those salsas were awesome and I've always wanted to try and make them at home, so when I came across a cookbook called "The Well-Filled Tortilla" awhile back and noticed that they had a few recipes in there for red and green salsas, I knew I had to get it. Finally, a couple weeks ago I got around to checking out the red salsa recipe.

Here's their recipe, in a nutshell:

1 1/2 oz dried red chili peppers, preferably japones or guajillos, stemmed
5 garlic cloves
1/3 C olive oil
1/4 t salt

(Basically, you soak the chilis in warm water for a half hour or so to soften them, then blend everything together in a food processor or whatever and you're good to go. Makes about 1/2 cup. Incidentally, I haven't actually tried the book's recipe, as written, although I'm sure it's very good.)

Now, when I saw that it called for guajillos I was a little skeptical, especially since the name of the salsa was "Red Hot Chili-Garlic Salsa". For one, guajillos are not very hot. They're considered about a 2-4 on a scale of 1-10 (10 being hottest). Also, I'd been using guajillos for a very different kind of recipe (which I'll post about later) and I just couldn't mentally separate the two; looking at it that way, the guajillos just didn't seem like a good fit for a salsa. Then I noticed that they said you could sub, in a pinch, dried red chili flakes for either the guajillos or japones. So I tried that instead. And the results weren't all that great. It needed something. So I figured, "What the heck, I'll try adding some guajillos." Now it was really starting to taste kind of crappy. I was actually getting ready to dump it out when I decided I'd try adding a little lime juice. Yes, in my world lime juice is like a mom's kiss on a kid's boo-boo- it just makes everything better; (well, almost everything). But crap, I didn't have any limes! I live a block or so from a grocery store, but as it was later in the evening, I didn't feel like walking over. What to do? So, I figured apple cider vinegar might be the next best thing. As it turned out, it was even better. A lucky accident that I didn't have any limes- otherwise I might never have tried the cider vinegar and would not have come up with this particular salsa. I've since tried lime juice, as well as red wine vinegar. Neither are as good as the cider vinegar.

Now as you might expect, I don't have an actual recipe, but here's a basic guide for making some of the best salsa I have ever had in my life:

A bunch of guajillos, stemmed. (15-20 is probably a decent amount to use.)
Fresh minced garlic
Crushed red pepper
Olive oil
Apple cider vinegar
red (or green) jalapenos, or other hot red pepper

I like to give the guajillos a rough chop, just to help them settle in the pan a little better. Toss them in a pot and add water to cover by about 1/2 inch to 1 inch. Bring just to a boil, then turn down to a simmer for about 10-15 minutes. When they're done, drain them, but save the liquid. Toss the peppers in a blender or food processor with some crushed red pepper (maybe 1/4 C), olive oil (1/4 C), and garlic (2-3 Tablespoons) and blend away. If you're using a blender, I'd recommend pulsing it on the lowest setting- you don't want to turn it into a puree. (Of course, if you have one of those really great immersion blenders, those are just about perfect for this, but it helps to do it in a tall, narrow container, like a pitcher.) Add a little of the vinegar and salt, tasting constantly and making adjustments as necessary. Add a little of the leftover cooking liquid as well, for some more guajillo flavor. If you can get your hands on some red jalapenos to add, seeds and all, for a little extra flavor, color, and heat- a major plus. If you can't get red jalapenos, green ones work well too, but the color won't be as deep. Two or three is about all you need. Thai bird chilis work nicely as well.

I really never use a recipe when making this, and I make so many minor adjustments to taste that it's hard to come up with an actual recipe to post here (I mean, if I wanted to). Amounts aren't really critical anyway- it's very easy to adjust this one by taste. You want more guajillo than anything else, a fair amount of crushed reds (they really add a good flavor without excessive heat) and just enough olive oil to give it a smooth consistency without being "oily". As for garlic, it kind of depends on your tastes and how much you like the stuff. I love garlic, but for this one I want the flavor just coming through from the background, not right up front. It's easiest to go overboard on the salt and vinegar, so go light to start, maybe just one or two teaspoons of vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon salt. How's it taste? It's ready whenever you think it is. (Remember, though, the vinegar is a key ingredient for really bringing out the best in this salsa, so if the flavor doesn't really grab you, try adding a little more.) Of course, if you do go overboard on anything, it's easily fixable by adding more of the rest.

This really is one of the best salsas I've had in my life. It's fairly quick and easy, and all the ingredients are readily available.* Not quite the same as I remember from Chicago, but I think it's actually better anyway. Also, almost everyone I work with happens to be Mexican, and they all like it a lot too, so I think that's a good sign. The very first time you make it, if you just taste it from the spoon or your finger, you might not be as enthusiastic as I am. I wasn't either. It wasn't until I tried it on an actual burrito that I really fell in love with it. It goes wonderful on all things Mexican. Interestingly enough, the "cheaper" the Mexican food is (i.e. Taco Bell, etc.) the more it improves the flavor of whatever you're eating it on. Not that I recommend that stuff, but I know some people who actually like it.

*Guajillos are actually starting to become more mainstream- I've been seeing them in more and more "regular" grocery stores, but if you happen to live in a small town or someplace where you just can't find them, there's always the internet. One good site to check out is GourmetSleuth. Even with shipping, the prices are competitive to what I'd pay around here in the store.

Happy eating!

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