Hot on the Trail of Red Chile Sauce

Casey Barber

by Casey Barber on March 12, 2012

Two years after we rolled through Jerome, Arizona and sucked down a plate of pulled pork nachos doused in red chile sauce, I’ve finally cracked the code on my taste memory of the trip.

15 quince, jerome arizona
Sure, I could simply email the chef of 15.Quince (where we were so famished after a day of climbing hills and clambering around ghost town junkyards that we sped through the nachos so quickly I didn’t even snap a shot) and ask for his step-by-step recipe. But cooking from memory, while leaky with imperfections and inauthentic inclusions, brings a trial-and-error excitement to the process. Every taste is a click of the dial, feeling for the combination that unlocks the safe.

Plus, the beauty of building this recipe—as it is for so many preparations—is that everyone makes their chile sauce a little differently. Some use whole dried chiles, some use powder as their pepper base. Cafe Pasqual’s in Santa Fe, where I had my first taste of red chile sauce almost 15 years ago, picks ‘em fresh for their green chile sauce. Some roast the peppers before pureeing. Most recipes simmer raw onion, garlic, cumin, and other spices to extract the flavor, and then thicken the reduced liquid with a roux.

Simply boiling the onions, garlic, and spices wasn’t doing it for me, lacking the depth of flavor my mind hazily remembered, but luckily, I know a Texan. Tex-Mex chili gravy as interpreted by my gal Amber Bracegirdle by way of the estimable Robb Walsh calls for making a chili- and spice powder-infused roux with lard. Hell yes, lard. Bathing my onions and garlic in gorgeous pig fat until soft and golden did the trick.

red chile sauce
When handling chili peppers—even dried chiles like the ones this recipe calls for—I strongly urge you to wear disposable gloves. You’ll find boxes of gloves in restaurant supply stores and at hardware stores in the painting supply section. If you do choose to go barehanded with chiles, make a paste with baking soda and water and scrub your hands scrupulously and immediately after handling, then wash thoroughly. As a contact lens wearer, I’ve learned this lesson the hard, tearful, painful, and expensive way.

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