The legendary chef answers the question…What did you eat today, Jeremiah Tower?
Two Mayan grandmas took me into the jungle a few days ago to show me the creation of recado negro, the black chile paste or chilmole of the Yucatan. Jungle, because the paste has to be made far from any dwellings–smoke from burning the chilies is so toxic with volatile chili oil that anyone downwind would end up going blind before choking to death. As the women hauled a sack of new-brick colored arbol chilies from the car, their advice was “You don’t have to worry about snakes after we get the fire started because the chili smoke will stop anything from coming close.” We lit a fire in the designated pit and put a large old paella pan filled with the dried chilies right on top of the fire. We took turns constantly stirring the chilies, staying well out of the way of the smoke. Every few minutes, when the chilies caught fire, we doused them with water. When they were black all the way through, we dumped them into a bucket of water to stop the cooking. Back in the village we left the chilies soaking in salted water overnight. The next morning we washed them “to get rid of any bitter flavors,” and then put them several times through a chocolate mill that looked like an old-fashioned meat grinder. During the grinding we added white onion, garlic, pinches of cinnamon, dried oregano, and something one of the women took out of her apron with a mutter to the gods. I didn’t ask what.
Then, yesterday, when the caretaker at my beach condo held up a squirming octopus as I got out of the car, I knew what I was going to do with the squid-ink colored chilmole paste. The morning market in Chuburna was still going strong so I nipped over and bought some fresh white cannellini-like beans, garlic, and fresh chorizo. I took the beak out of the octopus and poached the whole animal in a broth with bay leaf, parsley, fresh thyme, white onion, celery and garlic. Not much of any of them. After about 90 minutes at a slow simmer the beast was tender enough so that when I lifted it out of the pot it jiggled and squirmed again. Then I simmered the chile paste in a saucepan with a quart of the octopus stock, a few left over cherry tomatoes and a bit more of the parsley for 30 minutes, strained it, and slid the octopus into the black sauce. Nothing like a microwave to quickly half cook the chorizo while the fresh beans were coming to the first boil in unsalted water (drain them and bring them to a boil again with salt until tender). I tossed the cooked beans in hot olive oil, minced fresh garlic, salt and pepper. Then threw in the chopped chorizo. Everyone got a plate of beans. I brought the octopus in its inky sauce to the table, carved it, and put a large chunk of it in the center of each pile of garlicky and chorizo- scented beans. Nothing for it but an ice cold Mexican beer while, for a few sighing moments, contented silence reigned. //Jeremiah Tower, Mexico
—What Did You Eat Today, Jeremiah Tower? is a 2paragraphs Food & Wine feature.
Arbol Chilies (photo: Cliff Hutson)