On our first trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, Ted and I fell in love.
Not with each other — that had happened years before — but with the daily markets in every city, town and village.
With Oaxaca as the hub of the wheel, Ted and I and my cousin Martin, our traveling companion, would set out every morning in our crusty-dusty rented VW Beetle, along one of the "spokes" to another market in another town: the shoe market, the livestock market, the markets known for produce, the ones famous for textiles and ceramics.
Everywhere, in every market, we found dried chile peppers. Sometimes they were piled several feet high, pyramids in shades of red, brown and black, on sun-bleached blankets spread on the ground. The air smelled spicy, if you can believe it, and I couldn't help but buy bags full to smuggle home (don't tell!) in my backpack full of laundry.
Fresh chile peppers are more and more common in our local grocery store; I used to have to go to the Latino markets to find poblanos and serranos. Harder to find are good-quality dried chiles, which have a completely different taste profile — so different that, when a fresh chile is dried, it often gets a new name (ancho is a dried poblano, chipotle is a smoke-dried jalapeño, pasilla is a dried chilaca, and so on).
Native to Central and South America and the Caribbean, chiles (or chilies or chillies) are today the world's largest spice crop, with Mexico, China, Turkey, India, Spain and Nigeria among the largest commercial producers. Thanks to Columbus and Magellan, chiles traveled to every corner of the world. Though the Mexican dried chiles are most common in the supermarket (the peppers pictured above are guajillo), don't overlook fiery Thai and bird chiles, moderately hot mirasol from Peru, and the mild Spanish ñora.
High in vitamins A and C, and high in dietary fiber, chiles contain capsaicin, which has been recognized as an anti-inflammatory (in spite of the heat they generate in your mouth), a treatment for osteoarthritis, an aid in weight loss, and an immune system booster.
Choose dried chile peppers by color: the more vivid the color, the fresher the pepper. Though they will keep forever, they will lose potency over time. Store dried peppers in a tightly-capped jar, away from direct sunlight, or they will fade just like living room curtains.
Mushrooms and peppers in puff pastry
Adapted from Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain (2007), by Penelope Casas, this elegant dish would make a perfect party appetizer. Thank goodness for frozen puff pastry. Serves 6-8 (makes 18).
1 package purchased puff pastry dough, defrosted
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp minced onion
1 clove garlic, minced
2 Tbsp minced piquillo pepper
1/4 lb cremini or button mushrooms, brushed clean, finely chopped
1/2 medium-hot dried red chile pepper, such as guajillo (in the photo above), seeded and crumbled
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp grated cheese, such as manchego or Parmigiano-Reggiano
Heat the oil in a skillet and sauté the onion and garlic until the onion is wilted. Add the piquillo pepper and cook for a minute, then add the mushrooms, chile pepper, salt and pepper, and sauté until the mushrooms are softened. Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese.
Roll the puff pastry to 1/8 inch thick. Cut into 1-3/4- inch circles (you should get approximately 36 circles out of the dough), and place 1 tsp of filling on half of the circles. Moisten the edges with water (use your fingertip or a small pastry brush), cover with the remaining pastry circles, and press the edges with the tines of a fork to seal. [May be prepared ahead up to this point, and refrigerated. If you do this, let the pastries warm up at room temperature for 15 minutes before baking.]
Preheat oven to 425°F. Place the pastries on a rimmed baking sheet lined with a silicone mat (Silpat) or parchment paper. Bake on the upper rack of the oven for 7-10 minutes, or until golden.
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