I’m told that in some parts of the world parents feed their kids chiles at a young age to get them used to the heat. Once you develop a tolerance, apparently you can really enjoy very spicy foods. Both my folks are Italian, and so when I was growing up, their main concern was getting me used to garlic. I can tell you now that it’s not at all the same. These days, when I find a recipe with a lot of chile flavor, I usually have to tone it down somewhat so that I can still taste the other ingredients.
When I traded my friend tomatos for his tomatillos, I knew that I wanted to make salsa, but I didn’t know how. Fortunately, my friend J came to the rescue with a fabulous recipe from Gourmet (RIP), plus a comal for me to borrow, plus a bag of dried chiles de arbol for me to use.
BTW, a comal is a cast iron pan that you can pick up at my local ACE Hardware for about $4. Once you use it for chiles, however, you have dedicated it for use only as a salsa maker, forever and ever, amen.
The recipe is deceptive. It seems simple, but it requires a few tricks. First, you have to be able to toast the chiles, which go from “nothing seems to be happening” to “GET THEM OFF THE STOVE NOW NOW NOW” is the blink of an eye. If you get this critical step wrong and overcook the chiles, they will release fumes so noxious that you won’t be able to take a deep breath in your house for a week. Then you have to toast the tomatillos, which will sputter at you angrily from about minute 5 on. As J pointed out, it helps to remind yourself that millions and millions of women have toasted tomatillos for centuries – no matter how alarming it may seem to the novice, it really is no big deal. Really.
Of course, I had to modify the chile content. The recipe calls for one ounce (about 60) dried chiles for a pound of tomatillos, which is just effing insane. You can get away with this amount if you and everyone else who will be eating it has been raised on very spicy foods, and you don’t mind it so much if your mouth goes numb. J usually cuts the chile content in half when she makes it for a crowd, and even then some people find it too hot. She recommended that I cut it back to a quarter. She was totally right. It is still quite hot for me, but can taste all the smoky and toasty flavors in addition to the heat, which is just about perfect as far as I am concerned.
1/4 oz dried chiles de arbol (about 15), wiped clean and stemmed
1 lb fresh tomatillos, husked, rinsed well, and patted dry
2 garlic cloves
Heat a comal over medium heat until hot. Add chiles and cook, tossing with tongs until blackened in spots, 30 seconde to one minute). Transfer to a blender. Add tomatillos to comal and cook, turning occasionally, until blackened and soft, 18 – 20 minutes. Add to blender with 1tbs salt and garlic. Puree until smooth.
This is not even in the same world as store-bought salsa. I can’t get enough of it. It tastes so rich and wonderful. I may have to invest in my own comal…