Maybe you do the thing where, on a Sunday morning, you dump a week’s worth of leftover chicken bones into a big pot of cold water with some onions and root vegetables and herbs and whatnot and make stock. Or maybe you do the thing where you dump a couple huge cans of tomatoes in that big pot with some aromatics, wine, tomato paste, anchovies, herbs, and/or so forth and make tomato sauce or Sunday sauce or tomato gravy or whatever your family likes to call it. Maybe you braise some meatballs in there. Or maybe you don’t do any of that, because you are too busy “sleeping off a hangover” and “going out to brunch with friends” and “being cool” and “not living like a hobbit,” in which case, you can go to hell!
What I am saying here, though, is that if you can do that other stuff, like some kind of prudent ahead-thinker, then you can also and just as easily make some fiery red chili sauce that will rock your socks off when you put it on stuff or use it to cook stuff. And then you’ll just have it, all ready to go for the ensuing week, whenever you are thinking to yourself “What the hell will I do with these uncooked and unexciting food items”! It’s stupidly easy. Let’s do this shit.
(Oh, right, before we get started, so as to avert our deaths: Let’s agree, right up front, on what we will not call the foodstuff produced by the ensuing preparation. It is not—not not not—mole poblano, the famous and, on the internet anyway, famously contentious Mexican sauce. Don’t even think of calling it that, or by God you will face me in the octagon. It also is not any other kind of mole. In fact, let us agree not even to call it by the much more generic term “enchilada sauce,” just for the sake of unburdening this poor brick-red goop from anybody’s ideas of what it should be like. It is just hot, thick, red chili sauce. Spicy, red... goo. Oobleck. Frickin’ chili-pepper ketchup! Delicious food-mud for putting on stuff. Stuff like ... enchiladas? That’s none of my business! Put it on your damn socks if you want! Just definitely do not call it mole, because it 1,000,000 percent is not that.)
Okay, so, the first thing is to acquire lots and lots and lots of dried red chili peppers. If it is in your nature to address this step by growing, from scratch, lots and lots and lots of fresh chili peppers, harvesting them, stringing them into attractive ristras for drying, hanging the ristras and waiting however long it takes for them to dry out and become crackly and completely dehydrated, suit yourself. On the other hand it is also fine to take a stroll through your local Hispanic grocery or extremely cool international supermarket or whatever and score some bags of dried chili peppers. I recommend doing this the day before you intend to cook, so that you can start cooking in the morning and give this stuff time to simmer slowly in the background throughout the day.
The thing here is that you need lots and lots of these damn chilis: They’re dehydrated, after all, and were never all that huge or dense to begin with, and if you want more than like a friggin’ cup of thick, lustrous sauce out of this preparation, that’s gonna take a lotta these dang fuckers. What I like to do is just grab five or six whole entire bags of dried chilis, like a maniac. I recommend this. Go crazy. Just hoard a friggin’ lot of dried chilis. If you end up with more than you can use at once (is this even possible?), the extras will keep for a very long time in a dark cabinet, so long as they’re sealed tightly, and you can use ‘em later.
Be mindful of the different varieties, though. Dried Arbol chilis, for example, are delicious and bright red and very, very hot and absolutely belong in your fiery red chili sauce. On the other hand, they are also very tiny—a single bag might contain like a hundred or more of them—and my commitment to stem- and seed-removal simply is not strong enough to allow for including an entire bag of these fuckers in one batch of sauce. Whereas dried red New Mexico, California, and Guajillo chilis, while not quite as brightly colored or furiously piquant as the Arbols, are much, much larger, and no less delicious, so I will use an entire bag of whichever of these varieties I bring home with me. Up to and often including all damn three varieties! Probably this is sacrilege. The sauce tastes good! I am advising reasonable permissiveness here! Get whatever kind of dried red chilis you like, so long as the kind of dried red chilis you like is not “flakes in a bottle.”
Speaking of reasonable permissiveness, permit yourself one highly recommended exception to the “red” rule: Pasilla chilis, which in their dried form are dark brown or extremely dark green or black. Yes, adding these will tip your fiery red chili sauce in the direction of being more of a fiery brown chili sauce, but that’s okay because they’re insanely delicious and I insist you use at least a big handful of them. They have a distinct flavor and aroma that I can only describe as “raisiny, but without the sweetness,” which will do wonders for the foodstuff at the end of all these damn sentences, even if it sounds weird.
(This is where it’s nice not to have committed to reproducing any particular established sauce, no? Maybe this or that variety of pepper does not go in this or that sauce. But that’s fine, because you’re not making that sauce! You’re making this sauce, which welcomes pretty much any and all damn peppers.)
Okay, so, you’ve got your lots and lots and lots of dried chilis. How many? Lots! Picture your biggest pot. Now picture that pot with the sliced remains of a couple of good-sized onions down there at the bottom. Now picture basically the entire rest of the pot filled but not tightly packed with stemmed, seeded, dried chilis. That is how the hell many! The measurement for that quantity of dried chilis is “lots.”
Remove from your chilis their stems as well as however many of their seeds you can get rid of without either reducing the peppers to frickin’ sand or wasting an entire day picking seeds out of them with a pair of tweezers like a psycho. I am sorry to report that there may be some small quantity of seeds in this sauce, at least for a little while. That’s fine. I promise it’s fine. Later you will even have the option of removing these.
Your next goal is to accomplish a big pot, on the stove, filled right up close to the very brim with dried chilis slowly rehydrating in some kind of hot but not quite boiling liquid, possibly containing some quantity of other stuff. How exactly you get there, and what exactly will be in that pot, is up to you. Here are some options:
- You can toast your chilis first, by heating up your empty pot and then dropping the chilis into it and moving them around a little bit with a wooden spoon until they’re smoking and fragrant, then removing them and setting them aside. This will impart, well, a toasty flavor to your eventual sauce. You can also not do this.
- You can use chicken stock for the liquid. Or, hell, you can probably use beef stock for the liquid. Frankly, I am not in your kitchen, and I cannot stop you from using beer for the liquid, or pickle juice, or toilet water, if that’s what you want to do. What I am saying here is that I consider chicken stock to be a reasonable alternative to water. Water also is fine. Please notify your guests in advance if you are using toilet water.
- Some things you can add to your pot full of liquid, if you like: A small quantity of coffee grounds; a handful of regular old raisins; a pinch of cinnamon or a small hunk of cinnamon stick; a small quantity of fish sauce or an anchovy fillet or two; a splash or a few glugs of beer (assuming you did not use beer as your liquid); cumin, toasted or not. You can also not add any of this stuff.
- Your eventual sauce definitely should have some garlic in it. Like four or five or even six big cloves of it! But you can decide for yourself whether you want to add these cloves to the hot liquid and let them cook in there along with the chilis, or hold them out until later, when the rehydrated chilis and the rest of the solid matter gets blended into a smooth sauce. The difference is, if you add the garlic sooner, it’ll lose a lot of its sharp intensity as it simmers; if you add it later, it’ll make your sauce even punchier than a sauce made almost entirely of hot red chilis already will be. I’m agnostic on this, which is to say that I have done both approaches and both are good as hell and it’s anybody’s guess which one I’ll do next time. Suit yourself.
What you really must add to your pot of liquid, according to me anyway, is: A sliced-up onion or two (white or yellow); whatever strikes you as a generous quantity of dried oregano, hopefully but not necessarily of the Mexican variety; and a few bay leaves. And all those damn chilis, whether you toasted them first or not. (Of the optional stuff, since I can tell that you are annoyed at the lack of firm guidance on the issue, my favorites are: toasting the chilis, using chicken stock, and adding the coffee and raisins and cumin. But it’s also fine to just dump the chilis into a pot with cold water, onions, oregano, and bay leaves. I promise the sauce will taste good.) Fill this pot right up to like a centimeter or two below the brim with whatever liquid you’re using, and get it hot, and when it starts burbling, reduce the heat and set a lid on it slightly askew so it settles in at a very low simmer.
That’s it, for a little while anyway! Just let this stuff hang out for a bit. The chilis are rehydrating and softening; they and other stuff—whatever combination of it you went with—are flavoring the liquid. You can let this stuff hang out on the stove for, let’s say, up to 90 minutes before I’ll feel weird about not having warned you that the peppers eventually could turn to mush.
Now! The next step is to separate the solid stuff from the liquid, and keep both. You can position a big colander over a big bowl or a second big pot, and pour all this stuff through it at once. You can position a not-so-big colander over a not-so-big vessel, and pour this stuff through it in batches so that your colander doesn’t overflow. You can use one of those fancy wire colanders with a long handle to scoop all the solid stuff out of the liquid, if you have that sort of thing in your kitchen. You can hire a sorcerer to separate them with dark magic. It’s none of my damn business! Just get the solid stuff and the liquid stuff separated from each other, in two vessels. Also, extract the bay leaves from the solid stuff, because the solid stuff will be going in the blender and you don’t want a bunch of chips of bay leaf and stem in your eventual sauce. (This might be dumb, but I like to set the bay leaves aside instead of chucking them at this point, because they may have another application later on in the life of our fiery red chili sauce. It’s possible that I’m an insane person.)
So, the next part is to send all of the solid stuff through your trusty blender, along with however much of the liquid is required to produce something smooth and saucelike. Start with, depending on the size of your blender, some or all of the solid stuff, and just a splash of the liquid (and the garlic if you held that out of the simmering part); add solid stuff and liquid until all the solid stuff is incorporated and what’s in there seems more-or-less like a sauce and is as smooth as your blender can get it.
Taste it. Does it need salt? It probably could use a little salt. Does it need just a touch of sweetness, for balance? If you left the raisins out, it might. You can drizzle a small amount of honey in there, whir it around a bit more in the blender, and taste it with the tip of your finger. Or, if it could also benefit from a bit of acidic brightness, you could splash some orange juice in there, though this might dilute it some.
Once you’ve made whatever minute adjustments to the taste you want to make, you can stop. I promise you can stop right here! You can take this sauce in exactly this form, hot and fragrant and richly flavorful, lustily red and vibrant and punchy, and move onto using it for stuff: Braise some chicken thighs or some hunks of pork or beef in it; scoop it between a crispy corn tortilla and a fried egg; ladle it over some corn tortillas wrapped around cheese or chicken or cheese and chicken in a baking dish and sock that fucker into the oven even though we agreed in advance not to call it enchilada sauce; use it as a base for a pot of chili; scoop it into a jar or several and set it aside until you’ve made a plan. The point is, you have a perfectly serviceable and delicious red chili sauce, now, to use as a springboard for cooking stuff or topping stuff.
It’s fine! I promise it’s fine. You can stop here. Or you can take the Path of Insanity.
The Path of Insanity
The Path of Insanity involves pressing, laboriously, this blended but likely still quite ragged sauce through a layer of cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer, until what’s left is a pathetic, insultingly tiny quantity of perfectly smooth and uniform sauce. Then it involves mixing this sauce with a whole lot of the likely very large leftover quantity of the liquid in which you simmered the chilis and whatnot lo these many years ago, plus those bay leaves you set aside earlier. Then it involves returning this substance to a pot on the stove and simmering it uncovered until it reduces to its final form, perfectly smooth and blood red and with the thickness of a hearty bisque. Then it involves braising some meat of some sort in there, so that the sauce takes on the flavor of the meat and the meat takes on the flavor of the sauce. Then it involves pulling the meat part with a fork or your fingers and eating it, oh man, eating the absolute damn hell out of it, gory with that impossibly smooth and rich sauce, hands and face red with it, hunching over the food like a feverish prospector over a pan filled with bright gold, until the police come.
That part is optional! But I recommend it.