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.
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.
Red Chile Enchilada Sauce
Prep time: 15 minutes plus soaking time
Cook time: 40 minutes
Makes 1 quart
- about 20 dried New Mexico chiles, stemmed and de-seeded
- 1/4 cup rendered lard or vegetable oil
- 1/2 large red onion, coarsely chopped (about 2 cups chopped onion)
- 2 large garlic cloves
- 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon chipotle powder
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano or 1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves
- 1/2 cup tomato sauce
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon unbleached all purpose flour (optional)
Bring 1 quart (4 cups) water to a boil in a non-reactive saucepan. Remove from the heat, add the chiles, and cover. Soak for at least a half hour until the chiles have rehydrated and softened. (This step can also be done the night before you make your sauce.)
Heat the lard or oil in a 4-quart stockpot over medium heat and add the onion and garlic. Cook until softened but not browned, about 8 minutes.
Stir in the coriander, chipotle, cumin, and oregano and cook for an additional minute. Add the chiles, their soaking liquid, tomato sauce, and salt and bring to a simmer. Simmer for a half hour.
Carefully transfer the contents of the stockpot to a blender or food processor and puree thoroughly. Be warned that the liquid will not only release hot steam as it purees, but that it will be redolent with the spicy oils of the chiles. Puree the sauce in batches and strain through a mesh sieve if necessary. (This likely won’t be the case if you have a Vitamix.)
Taste for seasoning and add more salt, if desired. If you prefer a thicker sauce, return the pureed sauce to the stockpot and bring to a simmer. Whisk in the flour and cook for 5 minutes more to thicken the sauce.