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Pay no attention to the many shelves of faux salsas (Blueberry-pineapple? Really?) and shove aside all those cans of low-fat, low-sodium, no-flavor refried beans.
For this week’s underappreciated ingredient, you will need to dig a bit deeper into your grocer’s Hispanic section. Your goal? Mexico’s gift to high-flavor cooking: chipotle peppers in adobo sauce.
Typically sold in 7-ounce cans, these not entirely attractive (truth is, they look a bit prune-like) peppers pack gobs of smoky, chocolatey, slightly sweet piquancy.
First, the basics. Chipotles are really just jalapeno peppers that have been dried and smoked. In the U.S., they most often are sold canned in adobo sauce, a smooth tomato-vinegar blend spiked with garlic, onion and various spices.
The result is that you essentially get two ingredients in each can: peppers and sauce. The peppers marinate in the adobo, taking on its sweet tang. Meanwhile, the sauce absorbs some of the peppers’ heat.
But you don’t need to be a heat fiend to appreciate these flavor bombs. Jalapenos are hardly the most intense chile around. Still, most people will find that one to two is plenty for most dishes.
Some people suggest you can moderate the heat by slicing the chipotles open and scraping out the seeds, much as you would with fresh jalapenos. That’s way too much trouble for me. I’d rather just use less. Or use just the sauce.
One can is likely to last you a while. Though leftovers can be refrigerated for a couple weeks, your best bet is to divide the peppers and sauce into an ice cube tray, then freeze for easy use whenever.
Not surprisingly, chipotles in adobo sauce are wonderful in Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes. Chop them and mix them into shredded cheese for topping nachos. Dice or puree a few to crank up the heat of your favorite chili. Marinate beef strips in the sauce for tacos. Dice them and add to salsa (no cranberries, please).
Or try these less traditional ideas:
- For simply the most awesome chip dip ever, in a food processor combine 1 or 2 chipotle peppers, an 8-ounce package of softened cream cheese and enough sour cream to give it a scoop-friendly consistency.
- For a sandwich spread, puree 1 chipotle pepper with 1 cup of mayonnaise. For a burger topping, substitute ketchup for the mayo.
- Puree 1 chipotle in 1 cup of chicken broth, then mix into chicken soup. Then continue the theme by serving the soup topped with crumbled tortilla chips, chopped fresh cilantro and a dollop of sour cream.
- Mix chopped chipotle peppers into the filling for twice-baked potatoes.
- Puree tomato sauce and as many chipotles as you can handle. Use this as a marinade for chicken.
Chipotle Barbecue Porky Pappardelle
Start to finish: 30 minutes
1 pound pappardelle pasta
½ tablespoon olive oil
1 cup prepared barbecue sauce
1 chipotle in adobo sauce
1 teaspoon adobo sauce
1 teaspoon lime juice
1 pound pork loin cutlets (or other lean cut of pork)
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, cored and diced
Sour cream, to serve
Chopped fresh chives, to garnish
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain, return to the pot, drizzle with the olive oil, then toss and set aside.
Meanwhile, in a food processor combine the barbecue sauce, chipotle, adobo sauce and lime juice. Process until smooth. Add the pork, then pulse until well chopped, but not ground. Set aside.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, the canola oil. Add the onion and pepper and sauté for 6 minutes. Add the pork mixture and simmer until the pork is cooked through and the sauce thickens, about 6 minutes.
Serve the pork over the pasta. Top each serving with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of chives.
J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook, “High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking.” He also blogs at jmhirsch.