Mexico Life
To complement chipotle's smoky flavor, roast the tomatoes in these beef fajitas on a Mexican comal griddle. To complement chipotle's smoky flavor, roast the tomatoes in these beef fajitas on a comal.

A newbie to cooking with chiles? Give mild, flavorful chipotle a try

The smoked, ripened, dried jalapeños are an integral part of Mexican cuisine

In Mexico, it’s easy to feel intimidated by the big stacks of dried chiles at your local mercado — I know I do and have for years.

But chipotles — those deep, dark smoky red ones, about 3–4 inches long, often with a whitish stem — are the most basic and, actually, familiar: they’re just smoked, dried jalapeños.

Ripe jalapeños, that is, that have matured, turned red, slightly dried out naturally on the vine and deepened in flavor. Those green jalapeños we use all the time? Turns out they’re not ripe yet.

While chipotle mayonnaise is what brought this pepper into the limelight outside of Mexico, chipotle is such an integral part of Mexican cuisine that we’ve been eating it all the time and never knew.

Mole, adobo, fajitas, the best salsas and cream sauces all contain chipotle in one way or another. Google recetas chipotle and prepare to be overwhelmed.

Chipotle comes dried, in cans with tomato sauce, as flakes or in a powder that livens up even the simplest dish.
Chipotle comes dried, in cans with tomato sauce, as flakes or in a powder that livens up even the simplest dish.

The easiest way to use chipotle is with a can of chipotles adobados — pickled and spiced, dried chipotle peppers. Just a spoonful of the rich tomato-based sauce in any kind of soup or chili, pasta sauce or meat marinade will jazz up the flavor and add a complex, earthy smokiness that’s irresistible.

Like their younger, immature selves, the heat of chipotles is mild but delicious. I’ve learned to keep a couple of cans in my pantry to brighten up even the simplest dish.

While foodies everywhere love to smoke foods for the flavor, in generations past, smoking was used to preserve foods. Some historians believe the Aztecs were the first to make chipotles, as they also smoked meats; the name comes from a Náhuatl word that means, simply, “smoked chile.”

It takes about 10 pounds of jalapeños to make one pound of chipotles.

Chipotle can be found as powder, flakes, whole chiles or canned as adobados. You can buy the whole chiles and play with them: grind them yourself, mash them in a molcajete (a Mexican mortar and pestle). Add them chopped, whole, dried or rehydrated to your favorite recipes.

Some folks like to add a bit of chipotle to brownies or other baked goods, to balance the sweet with savory. Like any chile, the heat varies individually, so start with a little!

While chipotle mayonnaise brought this pepper into the limelight outside Mexico, the chile plays a much bigger role in Mexican cuisine.
While chipotle mayonnaise brought this pepper into the limelight outside Mexico, the chile plays a much bigger role in Mexican cuisine.

Chipotle Seasoning

Use on salmon, chicken or roast veggies; sprinkle over bacon, popcorn or soft cheeses or use as a rub for meats.

  • ½ Tbsp. crushed, dried chipotle pepper
  • 1 Tbsp. chile powder (chipotle or any other chile)
  • 1 Tbsp. plain or smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. oregano
  • 1 tsp. ground coriander
  • ½ tsp. salt

Mix all ingredients together. Store in an airtight container for up to 4 months.

Chipotle Mayo

  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • 1 large or 2 small chipotle peppers in adobo, seeded
  • 1 tsp. sauce from canned adobo chiles
  • ¼ cup mayonnaise
  • ½ cup plain yogurt, crema or a combination

Using a mortar and pestle, mash garlic with salt to a smooth paste. Add chipotle peppers; mash again. Stir in chipotle sauce, mayonnaise and yogurt and mix well. —nytimes.com

30-Minute Chipotle Chicken Chili

  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, diced
  • Salt
  • 2 jalapeños, seeded and minced
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • ½ tsp. oregano
  • ¼ tsp. cayenne
  • 1 lb. ground chicken
  • 2 chipotles adobados, finely chopped
  • 3 (15-ounce) cans white beans, drained and rinsed
  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • 1½ cups corn
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
  • Garnish: avocado, tortilla chips, limes

In large saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and 1 tsp. salt. Cook, stirring, until softened, 6–8 minutes. Add jalapeños, garlic, cumin, oregano and cayenne. Cook about 1 minute.

Add chicken; cook until just cooked through, about 4 minutes. Add chipotles, beans and broth.

Bring to simmer; cook 10–15 minutes to blend flavors. Add corn, season to taste. Stir in cilantro, garnish and serve. — seriouseats.com

This chili uses chicken instead of beef.
This chili uses chicken instead of beef.

Mashed Chipotle Sweet Potatoes

  • 2 lbs. sweet potatoes, about 4 medium
  • 1-2 chipotles adobados
  • 1 cup milk
  • ¼ cup maple syrup
  • ¼ cup butter
  • ½ tsp. each salt and pepper

Boil or bake sweet potatoes until tender. In food processor or blender, puree chipotle with milk. Transfer to saucepan, add maple syrup, butter, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, stirring to melt butter. Add sweet potatoes to pan and mash; then beat with a hand mixer till smooth.

Spicy Beef Fajitas

  • 1 kilo beef for fajitas
  • ½ kilo tomatoes
  • Olive or vegetable oil
  • 2 chipotles adobados
  • 1 white onion, cut into thin strips
  • 1-4 cloves garlic, minced
  • Salt

Roast tomatoes on a comal until skin is browned. Mash, mix or grind tomatoes with garlic and chipotles. Grill beef and onions in a pan with oil as needed, then add sauce to meat and cook for about 10 minutes to blend flavors.

Chipotle can add a nice kick to dishes you wouldn't expect, like this shrimp pasta.
Chipotle can add a nice kick to dishes you wouldn’t expect, like this shrimp pasta.

Shrimp-Chipotle Pasta

  • 500 grams (1 box) spaghetti
  • ½ kilo shrimp, shelled and cleaned
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2-4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 tomatoes
  • 1 small can of marinated chipotles
  • Salt and pepper
  • ½ package cream cheese
  • 4 Tbsp. olive oil
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • ½ bunch parsley or cilantro, finely chopped

Cook pasta al dente. Drain, reserving 1 cup of cooking water. Stir 1 Tbsp. olive oil into pasta to prevent sticking; set aside. Roast tomatoes on comal or directly over flame for about 10 minutes till softened and blackened. Place tomatoes, chipotle, cream cheese and ½ cup of pasta cooking water in a blender; process till mixed.

Sauté onion and garlic, add shrimp; cook, stirring for 3–4 minutes over medium heat. Add chipotle mixture, stir well, then add pasta. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring, till heated through. Serve with Parmesan and fresh herbs.

Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, featured on CNBC and MarketWatch. A retired journalist, she has lived in Mexico since 2006.

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