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19 November 2011

Jeremiah Tower, father of California Cuisine, expounds on his six favorite chiles

Jeremiah Tower expounds on his six favorite chiles
Warning: No matter what I call these chiles, there are legions of you out there who know them by other names. Where you are and where you are from determine the nomenclature.

  • A triangular and tapered body up to six inches long, dark hunter green, and very shiny.
  • Mild chile familiar in chiles rellenos with a rich, nutty flavor that can become a habit.
  • Deeply satisfying when cooked with cream and corn, or when tossed with lime juice and mint to top sliced tomatoes. Also very fine combined with sour cream, cilantro, orange zest, and chipotle for fish, crab, and shrimp.
  • Slightly round, four inches long, usually very wrinkled, maroon to dark red brown, with a sweet, rich smell. The mulato is darker, fruitier, and more full-bodied and earthier than the ancho, and is as mild or a bit hotter.
  • Both have earthy, brilliant flavors mixed with hints of dried fruit such as raisin. There's a reason these are on my list, whether powder or paste or whole: they're the most versatile, especially because they reveal all their haunting flavors with just the right amount of heat.
  • Puree with garlic, lime juice, and onion to magically transform mayonnaise, sour cream, or butter-thickened stock-based sauces for grilled fish, eggs, or chicken salads.
  • Two to three inches long, half wrinkled, and garnet colored. Dried jalapeño, so medium heat to quite hot. Use with guajillo, which is a dried mirasol.
  • Smells and tastes like an ancho or mulato but with a little bit of smoke and more sweetness.
  • Brings heat and fruity sweetness to purees of ancho and mulato. Add to any type of mole—or ground dried chile paste—that's used for stews and soups. Amazing with avocado, and powdered and sprinkled on sliced oranges, mandarins, or raw carrots with fresh lime juice. Or stir into fresh lemonade.
  • Six to nine inches long, maroon, mostly smooth, very fruity, and smoky aromatic chiles from Oaxaca that range from mild to very hot. Some use the word "tobacco" to describe their aroma, but you'd have to be puffing on a luxurious Russian Sobranie. The Oaxacan and the Mexicana are the mildest.
  • This family of pasillas and chihuacles are the key to the whole family of mole dishes and sauces. Traditionally mixed with chocolate or cacao but amazingly complex by themselves.
  • Quite wonderful when added to pork leg braises with sour orange; degrease the stock and thicken with a paste of the pasilla de Oaxaca, garlic, cilantro, and corn oil. Cut into slivers and heat in olive oil with chunks of garlic for shrimp, baby eels, or scrambled eggs. Chop with a vanilla pod and serve over fresh pineapple. Pair ice cream flavored with these chiles with tropical fruits such as mangoes.
  • Four to six inches long with a slender shape and pointed body. Retains its Chinese-brick red color when dried. Medium heat to very hot, with an almost citrus edge.
  • Toast to black in a pan over a fire (traditionally done in the jungle, as the acrid smoke produced is toxic), and then soak and make into the coal-black paste chilmole, used in the outstanding Yucatecan dish relleno negro (black stuffing, usually served with turkey)—truly one of the great ethnic dishes of the world.
  • Use the chilmole to make broth-based and butter- (or olive oil-) thickened sauces for poached red snapper and grouper, or ladle underneath a scooped out and sliced avocado covered with a julienne of fresh hibiscus flowers.
  • A dark chocolate brown and usually very wrinkled smoked/dried jalapeño that's very hot. It's the only chile I know that is acceptable from a can.
  • The combination of its smoky, sweet-sour chocolate flavor and heat is irresistible. In small quantities it lends a very mysterious background and base flavor, on top of which citrus and fresh herb flavors sing.
  • Puree and sieve: add to sour cream with mandarin orange zest and cilantro for grilled fish; add a pinch to a French lobster sauce for scallops; or mix with fresh Key lime juice for poultry broths.
by Gail Monaghan, a New York City-based cookbook author and teacher

Jeremiah Tower, a close friend, is and has always been a huge poetic talent with a larger than life personal presence. In 2001 Wine Spectator, describing Jeremiah's stint as co-owner and first chef of the nascent Chez Panisse, called him "the father of California cuisine," in that he was largely responsible for the restaurant's early rise to fame, for its celebrated menu nights, and for initiating the practice of replacing fancy culinary and menu nomenclature with plain English. When he outgrew Berkeley (which he always referred to as "the Birkenstock Republic") and moved to San Francisco, Jeremiah appeared in one of the first Dewar's ads, opened the legendary Star's in 1984 and then its satellites, started the Peak Café in Hong Kong, won a James Beard Award for his 1986 cookbook, New American Classics, and then in 1996 another James Beard Award for Farberware Millenium Outstanding Chef of the Year. He then took Stars to Manila before moving to New York City to write California Dish—his page-turner of a memoir—and other books and PBS projects. Over the years, Jeremiah has often been featured in Food Arts and in 1994 was the winner of a Silver Spoon award. In 2006 when David Kamp came out with United States of Arugula, the Chez Panisse chapter was almost entirely devoted to Jeremiah, and it was then excerpted in Vanity Fair with a photo spread of Jeremiah sitting by his pool in Mérida, the capital of the Yucatán.

I was surprised when soon after 9/11 and without much warning, Jeremiah upped and moved from New York City to the Yucatán, wanting to rest up a bit from his amazing lives (like a cat, at least nine) and to explore his passion for architecture (he has both undergraduate and architecture degrees from Harvard) while buying, renovating, and then selling beautiful old courtyard-style Mérida houses. The idyllic Mexican setting and lifestyle affords him the time he's always craved (but never had) to cook and experiment with local ingredients—the Mexican ones are many, varied, and fabulous—without the pressures of a restaurant existence.

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