It's 80° F in my kitchen right now and it's almost midnight, but just two weeks ago the temperature was still in the 40's and 50's. I warmed up with an interesting soup from Rick Bayless' cookbook Authentic Mexican. I've always had a singular fascination with Mexican cuisine because I feel that it's one of the truest examples of a truly American cuisine. So learning how to cook real Mexican cuisine has long been on my to do list... and it's remained there for a while. The way I see it, there are too many French techniques that I need to learn or improve upon first before embarking on "le voyage culinaire" as Daniel Boulud might put it.
But with cold weather, I thought that I'd take my baby steps into a cuisine about which I know bupkis. Paging through the book, I found one recipe that I had to try because it took something which is familiar to me (chili) and turns it into something both unfamiliar and authentic.
Regardless of what Bayless says, I like Texas-style chili. But still, I was left to wonder about the origins of this all American dish. Bayless' carne con chile colorado seems to be a good guess. It's a simple stew of new mexico chiles, onion, garlic, and pork. And yet it works out to be a sublime combination. Earthy, fruity, and absolutely delicious.
To make it, you'll need to find either new mexico/california chiles or chiles de la tierra. These are dried chiles. I didn't conduct an extensive search, but I was only able to find new mexico chiles at my local grocery store. When you cut open the bag, you'll immediately feel the room fill up with capsaicins. You know, the chemicals that make foods spicy. You'll feel it in your eyes and on your hands as you seed and vein eight chiles. Just make sure to wash your hands thoroughly after working with chiles (capsaicins are hydrophobic -- they dissolve readily in fat, but not in water).
Heat up a heavy pan to medium heat and toast the peppers, holding down on them so they have as much contact as possible with the heat. This will help develop complexity of flavor. As soon as their color changes a bit, plunge them into a pot of boiling water. After all the chiles have been toasted, prevent the chiles from floating by weighing them down with a heavy bowl. Half an hour later, much of the spiciness of the peppers is gone leaving only good honest chile flavor. Remove the chiles from the water and reserve one cup of the liquid.
Put a bit of olive oil in the bottom of a sauce pan and get the pan to medium heat. Place a good amount of freshly ground cumin and a pinch of dried oregano into the pan. Toast just until the room fills up with the aroma of the spices. Then immediately place the chiles, the reserved liquid, 3 cloves of garlic, and half an onion into a sauce pan. Puree with an immersion blender.
Rick Bayless calls for the sauce to be strained at this point, but I opted to leave it as it is. I attended a cooking class with Aarón Sanchez once and he said that Mexicans don't strain sauces as religiously as the French (a Mexican will look at it and say, "that looks good"). Although Bayless surely outranks Sanchez in his expertise, I at least had credible grounds for not doing so. Upon examining the final product, however, I found that straining might have eliminated the chile sediment that unattractively adorns the bottom of the bowl after you've eaten the rest of it.
Continue cooking the sauce, scraping the bottom of the pan frequently, until it becomes thicker and darker.
Meanwhile, cut some pork into a large dice. Heat some oil in your heaviest sauté pan and cook until there's good browning on all sides of the meat. You'll understand when you eat the dish, but believe me when I say that the development of browning is critical to the success of the stew. When sufficiently browned, add the pork into the sauce. Deglaze the pan you cooked the pork in with some water (or if you thought ahead some additional reserved liquid from earlier). Cook this stew until the meat is very tender. On a cold winter day, I'd suggest finishing the stew in the oven to simplify the process.
Correct seasoning and serve hot. By itself, I didn't find the dish to be entirely sufficient. As a result, I ate a sourdough baguette and a farmers' market salad with it -- both of which were remarkable partners. I'd serve the soup in warmed wide and shallow bowls as the pork feels lost in a taller container.
I'd drink brown ale or pilsner with this dish. You don't want anything to stand in the way of the honest chile flavor. Really, you'd just want something to clear the palate a little and provide a bit of contrast.