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Hot on the Trail of Red Chile Sauce

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.

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.

15 Quince restauran in Jerome Arizona
Photo: Casey Barber

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.

Photo: Casey Barber

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.

red chile sauce for enchiladas
Photo: Casey Barber

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. The velvety texture of lard adds a richer, deeper feel to the sauce that regular oil alone just can’t provide.

red chile sauce for enchiladas
Photo: Casey Barber

When there’s no lard in the house, good bacon drippings come in handy and give a smokier flavor to the sauce that, frankly, I kind of prefer! Is that heresy?

And while I’ve done this sauce with whole chiles, pure New Mexico red chile powder takes a lot less toil and sweat with just about the same results.

Feel free to do the work of rehydrating and de-seeding whole chiles if you want, but this makes it a much easier task for weeknight enchiladas, burritos, quesadillas, and yes, of course nachos.

red chile sauce for enchiladas

Red Chile Sauce

Yield: about 2 cups
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes

Red chile sauce made with pure New Mexico chile powder is spicy, fragrant, easy, and perfect for enchiladas or pulled pork.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons rendered lard or bacon drippings
  • 1 small red onion, very finely chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • 2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon New Mexico red chile powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 cup tomato sauce
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Instructions

  1. Heat the lard or bacon drippings in a medium (2-3 quart) saucepan over medium-low heat until melted.
  2. Add the onion and garlic. Cook until softened but not browned, about 8 minutes.
  3. Stir in the New Mexico chile powder, ground coriander, oregano, and ground cumin, and cook for an additional minute to allow their flavors to bloom. 
  4. Add the tomato sauce and stir to incorporate.
  5. Add the water, vinegar, and salt and bring to a simmer. Cook for 5 minutes.
  6. Carefully transfer the contents of the stockpot to a blender or food processor.
  7. Puree until smooth, but 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.
  8. Add more water as needed to reach your desired consistency.
  9. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, if desired.

Notes

For an even smokier flavor, substitute 1 teaspoon chipotle powder for 1 teaspoon of the New Mexico chile powder.

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