Friday, October 30, 2009

Cajitas: Great Workshop!

On Saturday, October 24th I lead a Day of the Dead workshop at Galeria de la Raza. I provided participants with small postcard sized wooden boxes and a variety of embellishments that included plaster miniatures, specialty papers and other collage elements.

It was really a joy seeing friends and families working together!

Everyone was working so hard...But it seems like they were also having a good time

The themes of the boxes varied from traditional Day of the Dead designs to personal dedications to family members to a fantastic box with an environmental theme, in honor of our dying planet. Thanks everyone for participating!

And thank you Galeria de la Raza! Click the link to visit Galeria's calendar of events

Monday, October 26, 2009

Chile Wreaths and Etymology

I was in Seattle recently for work and I got a chance to eat lunch at the famous Pike Place Market. After walking around I made my way to Post Alley and El Mercado Latino. This is rainy Seattle not New Mexico so I was surprised to see many gorgeous chile ristras and wreaths in so many shapes and colors! I took some photos for your enjoyment. All these chiles inspired me to write on the origins of the word "chile".

Chile or Pepper?
Christopher Columbus was the first European to encounter plants from the genus Capsicum in the Americas. In Spanish these plants came to be known as chiles (from their original Nahuatl name, chil). Columbus tried to pass these plants as the same spice known to Europeans as pepper. At the time pepper was highly priced in Europe, known as a spice, a preservative and a medicine. Black pepper (Piper Nigrum) is however from the family Piperacea, a spice native of South India. Columbus may have thought Capsicum and Piperacea were the same, since confused Europeans believed to be in India when the "new" word was first "discovered". This is the reason Native Americans are erroneously called "Indians", and why in English we are stuck with the same word (pepper) for two different plants.

Chile or Ají?
The South American country of Chile is long and skinny...but it is NOT named after a chile.
The name of the country has different roots than those of the chile pepper, originating from the Quechua chilli, a combination of the words "Chi", meaning trascendental and "Levu" (shortened to "Le"), meaning river. Loosely translated it means "The River of the Ancestors". Curiously, in South America the Spanish word for hot pepper is Ají picante, as opposed to chile, as it is known in Mexico and other North American Spanish speaking countries. However in all Spanish speaking countries black pepper is called pimienta a word similar to the Spanish word for bell pepper: Pimiento.

Chili or Chile?
"Chili" is the anglicisation of the word Chile, and it is used only in the US. It is also the name of the popular Chili stew made with meat, chiles and some times beans. The dish has its roots on food eaten in Mexico for centuries, basically meat seasoned with chiles, or "carne con chile", by its name in Spanish (literally it means "meat with chiles"). In the American Southwest the name of the dish (and the dish itself) went trough a reincarnation and became "Chili con Carne", or the powdered spice blend used to season this dish. The good folks of ChileTraditions mention that in 1983 New Mexico Senator Pete Dominici made an official congressional record on the correct way of spelling Chili: With an "E" at the end.

More fastidious chile grammar and slang
English speaking folks usually say "chile rellenos" or simply "rellenos" when referring to the dish consisting of battered stuffed peppers. The plural of the Spanish word would be "ChileS rellenos", if there is more than one.

So, rellenos or not, how HOT are chiles really? The chemical called capsaicin in the chile stimulates the papillary glands and dermis and produces a "burning" sensation, and make you release endorphins, creating a reaction similar to heat exposure. The chile itself doesn't produce heat. Eating chiles while in the middle of a snowstorm won't save you from hypothermia.

The spiciest chile is probably the Habanero. It is spelled HabaNero, not Habañero, since it is named after the city of La Habana, where the chile was traded. The origin of this chile, however, was the Yucatan peninsula and it is featured in many delicious Yucatecan recipes.

In Spanish when something is spicy it is called "picante", from the word "picar", meaning something that pierces like a needle or stings like a mosquito. In Mexico the word chile also has sexual connotations, it alludes to the penis.

So my friends...Al Chile (A slang saying, meaning: To the point!)

If you go to Mexico don't ask for chile "caliente", if you are expecting something spicy - you'll just get something warm. If you are a guy, don't ask for someone to heat your chile, unless you are expecting...Oh, never mind. If you go to Seattle, make sure you visit Pike Place Market.

Happy eating!

Monday, October 12, 2009

New Day of the Dead Figurines

Pink Skeleton Merman
Originally uploaded by kool_raul
Just on time for Dia de los Muertos! Some of my Day of the Dead figurines are now for sale at Martin's 16th Street Emporium.

Visit the emporium at:

3248 16th Street. Just a block away from historic Mission Dolores in San Francisco. Open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 12:00 to 5:00 pm

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Toasted Pasilla Chile Soup Base

In the past few years smokey chipotle peppers have gained a lot of popularity in the US. It is not hard to find South West, Mexican and "fusion" recipes that call for chipotle peppers. I think it is a matter of time before pasilla chiles gain the same popularity north of the border. Like many other Mexican chiles, pasillas are sold dry. Some times pasillas are mistaken for ancho dry chiles. You can easily recognize pasillas because they won't be as long and skinny as other dry varieties, and they will be very dark, almost black. They are also very wrinkly.

Dry pasillas may require a little bit more preparation before they can be added to your recipes, but don't let that intimidate you. The extra steps are well worth it. "Pasilla" is a derivative of the Spanish word "pasa" or raisin. When properly prepared, pasillas add a robust flavor to your dishes and a hint of fruitiness reminiscent of raisins or sun dried tomatoes. I like frying pasillas in a pan first, since it produces an earthy hint of dark chocolate and a toasty flavor that is very different from the smokey chipotle. Depending on the pasilla variety, they also pack a lot of heat, so a little goes a long way. You'll need the following ingredients:

  • One dry pasilla chile (or two, if they are small)
  • One clove of garlic, peeled and mashed
  • A quarter of a small onion, chopped
  • One tablespoon of olive oil
  • One large tomato, or two smaller Roma tomatoes
  • Salt, to taste
  • A pinch of sugar
  • One bay leaf

Tear the dry pasilla chiles in half, discard the seeds. Use a small paring knife to remove the stem and the veins. Tear the chiles in smaller pieces. Wash your hands carefully before proceeding to the next step.

You need to toast your chiles in order to "wake up" the flavor. This takes a bit of skill and could mean the difference between a toasty flavorful soup base and bitterness and indigestion. First, heat the olive oil in a non-stick pan. Make sure the oil is very hot but don't let it smoke. Fry the dry chiles for a couple seconds. Using thongs turn the chiles and fry them on the other side, making sure they don't burn. Work in a well ventilated kitchen. Depending on how spicy the chiles are they'll produce a sweet mellow scent or smoke that can feel quite toxic! Don't breath the fumes directly, they can irritate your eyes and throat.

Put the toasted chiles in a bowl and set aside. Saute the onion and the garlic in the same pan where you toasted the chiles but don't let them brown. Turn the heat down and add a cup of warm water to deglaze the pan. Pour the warm water, the onion and the garlic in the same bowl with the toasted chiles and the bay leaf and let them soften for a whole hour. Once the chiles are soaked they will be very soft and the water will be a nice amber color.

Remove the bay leaf and discard. Blend the chile mixture with the peeled, seeded tomatoes until smooth. Add salt to taste and a pinch of sugar to cut the acidity. Strain in a fine mesh sieve. You can store your soup base in an air tight container for several days. Use this base as a spicy vegan "bullion" in soups like pozole, rice, sopa seca or any other pasta dish, as well as chili. You can even add a few drops over tostadas, potato salad, or home made salad dressing.