Dishes derived from Mexican and Southwestern US culinary traditions have a special place in my heart; I grew up on them, and when I’m apart from these foods while traveling, I crave them.
One of the primary keys to these cuisines are the variety of sauces that underpin the traditional dishes. Nail these sauces, and authentic flavors will burst from your kitchen. So let’s talk about a red chile sauce, known as chile colorado.
Making dried red chiles into a delicious sauce is easier than it might have appeared to you previously, if you ever peered dubiously into a bag of withered and dusty chiles.
In California, at least, these chiles are easy to acquire in great quantity and little expense at Mexican markets. Most supermarkets have a section of them as well. They’re available in all sorts of varietals, usually named for the fresh peppers they were. (I’ll note some exceptions.) They range in heat and flavor profiles (some fruity, some smoky.) Here’s a round-up of those you’re likely to encounter:
- California chiles: Large and red; they’re quite mild but give a nice bright red hue to salsas. They can function as your primary chile in chile colorado if you’re looking to avoid making something spicy.
- New Mexico chiles: These are similar in size to California chiles, but are darker and spicier (though not mouth-searingly so.) They’re another good base chile for chile colorado.
- Chiles de Arbol: These chiles are among my favorites, and they’re pictured in the photo at the top of this post (they’re the skinny, bright-red ones.) They are among the spiciest dried chiles you’re likely to find, and have a balanced and intense flavor. If you crave heat, use plenty of chiles de Arbol.
- Chipotles: Dried chipotles are smoked, dried Jalapenos. Heat can vary from medium to quite spicy. Unless you’re looking for an intensely smoky flavor in your chile colorado, go easy with these. Their smokiness can easily overwhelm the dish.
- Pasillas: These are the dried version of the fresh pepper called Poblano, which is one of the largest peppers you’ll typically see at the supermarket. Poblanos are dark green and are popularly used for stuffing, as in the dish chile relleno (in which the poblanos are stuffed with cheese, dipped in an egg batter, and fried). Pasillas are mild.
- Anchos: These are a smoked version of Pasillas.
- Japones: These are small, red, and almost as spicy as Arbol.
Making dried chiles into smooth red salsa can really be drilled down to just three steps: Toast, rehydrate, blend.
There’s a little more to it, of course. See the recipe below for a satisfying red mole*, referred to as chile colorado in these parts, cloaking pork for a thick and delicious stew. (“Mole” is a Mexican word for sauce, derived from the Nahuatl (one of the indigenous Native American groups in Mexico long before Europeans) mōllia.) Many chile-based salsas are referred to as moles. Even the much beloved mixture of avocado with salt and, (depending on the region and your preferences), lime or lemon juice, green chile, cilantro, onion, tomato, and/or garlic, guacamole, is a mole– it’s right in the name!
But I digress. Back to Chile Colorado:
Salsa (or Mole) Colorado
- 18 dried California chiles
- 12 dried New Mexico chiles
- 12 dried chiles de arbol
- 12 dried chiles japones
- 3 dried chipotles
- 6 cloves of fresh garlic
- 3 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar (or to taste)
- Salt to taste (be generous—taste after first whirl and add more as needed; it really brings the rest of the flavors alive.)
- Remove stems and shake off seeds from dried chiles. (If necessary, wash and thoroughly pat dry first.) (Note: other varietals of dried chiles may be substituted as per cook’s preference and spice tolerance.)
- Toast the chiles until color deepens, but stop short of charring them. They will toast quickly in a hot pan.
- Meanwhile, have a couple of quarts of water ready at a boil.
- Carefully pour the water over the chiles, place something on top of them to keep them submerged, and leave them for half an hour.
- Place the softened chiles in a blender with about 3 cups of their soaking liquid, plus the garlic, vinegar, and spices. Blend thoroughly. Taste and adjust salt and other seasonings as necessary.
- Pass the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer to capture any remaining bits of tough skin or seeds. This process can take a while; press the sauce against the strainer with a spatula or other implement to hasten the process.
- Use the sauce as a salsa, to complement grilled meats, or incorporate into a dish such as Chile Colorado, (recipe below.)
- 3-4 pounds trimmed, cubed pork
- 4 cups colorado sauce (see recipe above)
- salt to taste
- black pepper to taste
- Season 3-4 pounds of trimmed, cubed pork, with salt and black pepper.
- If using a tender cut of pork (such as tenderloin), sear briefly on stove top, turn heat to low, add Colorado sauce and simmer until pork is cooked through.
- OR- If using a tough cut (such as pork shoulder- recommended), sear cubes briefly on stove top, and then put in crock pot with an inch of water. Cook at high setting for 3-4 hours, or until fork tender. Add Colorado sauce; cook for 30 minutes more.