One of our local restaurants serves a tongue-tingling salsa with their totopos, or tortillia chips. It is red and spicy but not too picante. I can practically eat the whole little bowl with a spoon, if I could get away with it.
Since we are pretty regular customers there, we know the family that owns the restaurant. So, I just asked what chiles were in the salsa. Much to my surprise it is chiles de arbol. I have had a long time fear of these chiles because I thought they might be extremely hot. I often go to the local markets and examine the various dried chiles. I usually use a sniff test to guess how hot they might be. Each dried chile is very different from the others; some smell smoky, some smell eye-wateringly hot, and some even have a floral fragrance. Try it sometime. You will probably find some chiles that are really drool-worthy. Chiles de arbol have always whispered to me “watch out I’m blazingly HOT!”.
I screwed up my courage and bought a bunch of different dried chiles to experiment with, including a bunch of chiles de arbol. Our friend in the restaurant explained to me that the sauce was chiles de arbol and tomatoes, “cooked real slowly”. How’s that for a recipe? I was determined to figure out how to make this treasured salsa for my own!
If you have ever cooked with chiles, you already know of their idiosyncrasy: you never know just how hot each batch of salsa will be. Chiles are unpredictable and sneaky. The most innocent appearing chile may hide a fiery secret and blast your salsa into a sinus-clearing, eye-watering concoction, or it may be bland, like many of the modern day jalapenos.
My first try was a rousing success! Here is my recipe:
Salsa de Arbol
1 ounce dried chiles de arbol, prepared*
10-12 cups organic tomatoes, peeled and diced, with juice (or about 6-7, 14 ounce cans)
1 cup cider vinegar
1 cup fresh lime juice
1 medium to large diced onion
10 cloves of garlic
1 large bay leaf
1 Tablespoon dried oregano
1 Tablespoon dried marjoram
½ teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
Salt to taste
*To prepare chiles: remove from container. Break off and discard stems (do you know that the name chiles de arbol means tree chile and refers to the stem that is woody “like a tree”- ahh, trivia!). Break each chile in half and shake out most of the loose seeds. One ounce is about two cups.
Place prepared chiles in a heatproof container. Pour boiling water over chiles to cover well. Hydrate for at least one hour or up to overnight.
Pour off about half of the soaking water. Put chiles and the rest of the soaking water into a blender and puree well. Pour into a large pot.
Place part of the tomatoes into the blender jar. While pureeing, add garlic cloves and onion and blend thoroughly. Add to pot with chiles.
Blend the rest of the tomatoes in batches, adding the herbs and black peppercorns. Be sure the bay leaf is thoroughly ground. Combine all in the pot.
Taste the contents of the pot and if it is blazingly hot, add some more blended tomatoes.
Bring the contents of the pot to a simmer and add the vinegar and lime juice. Simmer to desired thickness.
Ladle into half pint jars and cap with two piece lids. Seal in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Made 7 half pints for me but your mileage may vary.
We tried it on our fish tacos. It was out of this world! It is so good, Mr. M actually asked me to open another jar tonight. I don’t think this one is going to last too long in the pantry. Good thing I bought extra chiles!