Monday, December 7, 2009

Embracing a trend, a little late

When it comes to food, I'm pretty much immune to trends. What I like to eat, and what I will always like to eat, is simple, straightforward, honestly delicious food, and that won't change, no matter how many types of goopy sugary cupcakes flood the market, or how many ways chefs find to make liquids, foams and gels out of what should be nice, fresh and unadulterated ingredients.

For the past few years, there's been one trendy ingredient on the American food scene, and its name is chipotle. No, I'm not talking about the restaurant, although that chain did indeed rise to prominence during the unstoppable reign of its eponymous ingredient. What I'm talking about are chipotle peppers, or jalapeño peppers that have been allowed to ripen past their usual green color to a deep red, then harvested and smoke-dried. In Mexico, chipotles find their way into many traditional dishes and accompaniments, most notably being incorporated into a variety of salsas, but here in the U.S., we usually see chipotles in one particular form: chipotles en adobo. Adobo, as that helpful Wikipedia link explains, can refer to a range of seasonings and marinades, but in this instance corresponds to a particular preparation of thick, rich and spicy tomato-based sauce. Chipotles en adobo are whole chipotles that are canned in adobo sauce; the chipotles absorb the liquid from the adobo and become soft and pliable, while the adobo, in turn, takes on the smoky quality of the chipotles.

Sounds pretty delicious, doesn't it? Well, lots of American restaurants and cafes would agree. Because over the past few years, many of them have snuck chipotles onto their menu, and you can usually find them in one place: on the sandwiches. Blended into the mayonnaise. Chipotle mayonnaise, or chipotle mayo, as it's more commonly (and lovingly) referred to, is everywhere. Do a Google search for the term and you'll get 559,000 results. To give you a small Brooklyn-based sampling, both the cafe I worked at as a cook for about a year and the restaurant where my roommate Anne waitresses feature the mayonnaise on their menus: at the former, we spread it thickly on a grilled vegetable-and-cheese sandwich, and at the latter, they serve it as a dipping sauce for their (highly addictive) homemade grilled flatbreads. And I have to admit that the stuff is pretty tasty. I'm not really a mayonnaise fan: for me, at least the commercial stuff just seems greasy and not very flavorful. But the heat and smokiness of the chipotles really does cut through that greasiness and adds a nice bite to plain ol' mayo.

Still, I wasn't really sold on the idea. From time to time I'd get a taste of chipotle mayonnaise and I'd think it was ok. But for the most part, I tended to avoid menu items that advertised the peppers: they just seemed gimmicky, overly ubiquitous, so I passed on them. Until, that is, I cooked with them. About a week ago, I went over to my friend Malcolm's house for dinner, and together we followed a recipe for chilaquiles that came from a Martha Stewart cookbook. The recipe was dead simple: basically, you saute garlic and oil in a pan and add crushed canned tomatoes and a little bit of chipotles en adobo. You then mix in shredded cooked chicken and simmer the sauce for about 5 minutes. That's it. When it's done, you serve it over crushed tortilla chips and top it with all the fixins, like cheese, avocado and sour cream. Yum. Am I right? Well, I tasted it and I am right. And I was amazed. The chipotles added so much flavor to the sauce: slight, pleasant heat; intense, smooth smokiness; and a little sweetness, too. I was sold. Several days later, when I set out to make a dish I often eat for dinner, Mexican-style beans, I made sure to buy a little can of chipotles en adobo and add them to my dish. Same effect: they added so much flavor, and made my beans taste that much more authentic.

So is there a moral to this story? I hope not, because if there was one, it would have to be something like this: don't be afraid to be a sheep. Don't resist. If something's trendy, it's damn well trendy for a reason, and you should just go along with it. And that's not my message at all, folks. But I will say this: sometimes, when an ingredient or food preparation really catches on, it truly is because it's tasty. Just think of McDonald's...wait, that wasn't what I meant to say. Listen, just try these Mexican beans. Maybe someday soon they, too, will be over 99 billion served.

Mexican-Style Beans

Serves 4 - 6

1. Heat a wide, heavy-bottomed skillet over a medium flame. Add about 2 tbsp. of olive oil and about 3 minced garlic cloves. Cook, stirring, for about 1 minute.
2. As the garlic cooks, add dried spices to the pan: about 1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin; 1/2 tsp. ground coriander; 1/2 tsp. oregano; 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes and 1/4 tsp. chili powder. Stir to combine.
3. Just as the garlic begins to turn golden brown, add about 1/2 cup canned tomatoes, either crushed or whole in liquid. If using whole tomatoes, crush them as you add them to the pan. Add 2 or 3 minced chipotles (from a small can of chipotles en adobo) and about 2 tbsp. of their liquid to the pan. Stir to combine and season with salt.
4. Drain and rinse 2 small (15.5 oz) cans of beans. You can use any beans you like; I always use black beans and sometimes, as in this instance, mix in pinto beans as well. Add the beans to the pan, along with about 1 cup of water and stir gently. Bring to a simmer and let cook for 12 - 15 minutes, or until the mixture has thickened and its flavors have come together.
5. Taste for seasoning and serve. I eat my beans over rice and top them with things like fresh salsa, lime juice, sliced avocados, a cheese like queso fresco, etc., and I usually heat up some corn tortillas to go with, too.


Gideon said...

well done lauren. the chipotle beans were really good, the entry about them even better.

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