If there is one chile you need to try in your life, it’s the chile pasilla oaxaqueña.
The dried, wrinkly, pointy chile is almost cartoonishly smoky. It smells like a campfire, or like a match right after you’ve blown it out. And the taste! It’s woodsy and kind of fruity, and perfumed with smoke. Make a salsa with this baby and you’ve got everything you’ve ever wanted: acid. Heat. Fire. And just a little nudging of raisins and berries.
This chile is hard to find outside of Oaxaca. I didn’t realize that until I came back from Oaxaca thinking, “I’ll go to Mercado Medellín and pick up some pasilla oaxaqueñas!” and my guy didn’t have any. Ending up finding them at Mercado San Juan, for eight pesos each. I paid — that’s almost $1 per chile — because the pasilla is worth it.
This chile is also known as the mixe (pronounced MEE-hay) because it’s grown in the Sierra Mixe, which is a region east of Oaxaca City. In From My Mexican Kitchen: Techniques and Ingredients, Diana Kennedy says the chiles are grown in such small batches that they’ll probably never be imported on a large scale. Interestingly, my sister- and brother-in-law in New York recently found a “pasilla de Oaxaca” salsa at their local grocery store, made by Rosa Mexicano.
If you haven’t tasted this chile before, I’d highly recommend making a table salsa. You can really do it any way you want, but the basic ingredients are the chiles and garlic. I don’t toast my chiles or add any onion, but you can. Really at the end you want to taste the pasilla as much as possible.
If you can’t find the pasilla oaxaqueña, this salsa also works with chile de árbol. Just make sure you use a good, hefty handful. Don’t be afraid about making the salsa too hot — the point of this dish is that the chile is the star.
Tomatillo salsa with chile pasilla oaxaqueña
Recipe first learned in Reyna Mendoza’s cooking class
Makes about 1 1/2 to 2 cups
Note: This tastes best at room temperature, so make sure you give it time to cool down before serving. Also, store your dried chiles in an air tight container, in a cool, dark place. Humidity enables mold growth.
1 pound tomatillos, husked and washed
1 or 2 unpeeled cloves garlic, depending on your preference
2 chile pasilla oaxaqueñas or 8 chile de árbol
Place the chiles in a shallow dish and cover with very hot water. In the meantime, dry-roast the tomatillos on a comal until they’re soft and blackened in spots, and have turned a dull green color. Toast the garlic as well, ideally on the outer edges of the comal so it doesn’t burn. You want it softened too.
Once the chiles have softened — perhaps 10 to 15 minutes; if you need more time or to replenish the hot water, that’s fine — carefully cut open the chiles and remove the seeds. Place the chiles in a blender jar with the garlic and just a little water, perhaps two or three tablespoons. Blend until smooth. Then add tomatillos and blend until you reach your desired consistency. (For me it’s about 5 to 10 seconds.) Add salt to taste. Serve the salsa at room temperature.