Cooking with the Ancients

Another happy tuesday spice lovers, get ready for a long one.

I’ve reached the end of my Chilli Pepper Company review box and, for the last tuesday of the month, wanted to bring you another recipe. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to cook though. I had a few ideas but nothing really stood out. Until I went to york.

At their recent food festival, I found a stall called La Picanteria, a purveyor of mexican dried chillies and related ingredients. Seeing my chilli themed t-shirt, the owner asked me “Do I have anything you don’t know?”

He had anchos, pasillas, habaneros, red chipotle, cascabels and several others besides, but only one that really stood out as something new. The chilhuacle negro, or black ancient chilli as its nahualt (that’s aztec) name translates.

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Visually, it looks quite similar to many of your mexican mole chillies and its aroma resembles them somewhat aswell but this chilli is a little more unique.

It is, infact, one of the earliest chillies around. And you can tell it’s special from the taste.

It’s got a bit of heat to it but not enough that I’d recommend any precautions for those of you who like chilli. Go ahead and bite right into one if you’d like, I did. And I was quite surprised.

While that pasilla-esque dried fruit flavour is definitely there as the base, it’s not what comes to the fore at all. Instead you get strong hints of things akin to cocoa powder and fresh, unsmoked, artisan tobacco, making it instantly apparent why those who grew the chilhuacle paired it with chocolate.

And you have to pair this chilli with something because, while tasting a bit of it is great way to learn the flavour, it’s not the most pleasant experience. This chilli is incredibly thin walled and has therefore developed a texture somewhere between paper and leather, with some extra chewiness to really cap of the unpleasantness.

Good taste, poor texture. I can work with that.

But, rather than working out what to do with them myself, I’ll leave that to La Picanteria and the two recipes their stallholder gave me. One for mole negro and one for his “ancient salsa”. Since I don’t have all five of the different chillies needed for the mole, I’ll be reviewing the far simpler salsa. Here goes.

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The recipe uses:

5 chilhuacle negros

400g of tomato (roughly 3 big ones, not beef tomatoes because they’re less flavourful)

4 sun dried tomatoes (I’m out so I’m using puree)

1 large white onion or 2 smaller ones

2 garlic cloves

A handful of fresh coriander

1 tsp sugar (I use light brown)

½ lime

A pinch of salt

First you remove the stems and seeds of the chilhuacles. This is super easy because the seeds rattle around loose inside the chilli anyway so can simply be shaken out. Then soak said chillies in a bowl of warm water for half an hour. The recipe I was given says to toast them beforehand but this hardly seemed necessary given how dry and almost (but not quite) smokey they were already.

While you’re waiting, peel and chop the onions and garlic and roast them in the oven on a greased baking tray. Take them out once they’ve caramelised and begun to blacken a tad.

Next, once the chillies are ready, halve the lime and dice the tomatoes and coriander. Squeeze the lime juice into a blender and throw in all the other ingredients, including those you’ve just chopped and cooked, aswell as either the sun dried tomatoes or a tablespoon of tomato puree. Sun dried are definitely preferable if you have them. Blend until smooth.

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You should now have an incredibly thick, rich looking salsa with a deep brown colour that shines red in the light. Pictures don’t really do it justice.

It has quite a fresh flavour from the coriander and raw tomato, yet retains some of the sweet caramelized onion flavour and all of the depth from the chillies. Heat-wise, the added bulk has done nothing to lower their kick. I’d rate it at a medium



Sadly, I don’t find the rich, earthy flavours of the chilli to be complimented well by the freshness of the coriander. The flavours are just too opposed and clash too readily. Something with a dried fruitiness about it, perhaps red chipotle even, would be a far better addition to this sauce.

Next, the seller recommends cooking the sauce for 20 minutes but I had other plans. Why just cook a salsa when I could use it on enchiladas?

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2 tins red kidney beans

1 large white onion or 2 smaller ones

1 tub of sour cream

A pinch of taco spice mix

8 tortillas (the more corn the better)

And a substantial amount of cheese

I chop the onions, frying them until they started to soften, then drained and washed the beans. These were added alongside a pinch of taco spice and some water to stop them dehydrating but, to get the most flavour out of them, I used the water from the chilli soaking. After frying them for a bit, I ended up with something like this:

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When that’s done, spoon a line of this bean mix and a line of sour cream down the middle of each tortilla, folding and rolling the result into a wrap. There should be just over a tablespoon of each in each if you want to share the contents evenly between all eight.

Put the enchiladas into a dish and top with the salsa and cheese, then bake for half an hour at 180°c. I use monterey jack because its smooth milky flavour goes excellently with most chillies but something simple like cheddar will also work fine.

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In the end, the salsa came out just as jarringly over-coriandered when cooked but, aside from that, it was delicious and made a massive difference to the meal. I definitely appreciated the unique depth that these ancient chillies provided and, while this particular salsa recipe seems to have been a dud, I would not recommend letting that put you off cooking something similar. The Chilhuacles are definitely worth a try.

4 thoughts on “Cooking with the Ancients

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