In pepper-loving countries like Peru, seasoning pastes made with fresh or dried peppers are essential kitchen resources. The homemade pastes always surpass store-bought equivalents in quality and full, fresh flavor. The idea is to process the peppers minimally to retain their flavor and color. In Peru and Bolivia, with a few regional exceptions, cooks don’t toast the dried peppers before reconstituting them by soaking or boiling them until they are soft. (In Mexico and parts of Central America, however, the peppers are usually toasted before being reconstituted.) The peppers are then ground in a blender with a bit of the pepper-soaking liquid to make a smooth puree that has the consistency of tomato paste. This can become the foundation of a number of cooking sauces and adobos (marinades). If storing it for a few days, it is best to briefly sauté the paste in a little oil to reduce the water content, which will discourage spoilage. You can also double or triple the recipe to make larger amounts of the paste and freeze it in resealable freezer bags; I recommend dividing it into portions of 1/4 cup/60 ml or 1/2 cup/120 ml for this purpose to make it easier to use when cooking. Use this recipe as a master formula for making a variety of pastes with a similar weight of other pepper varieties. The paste can be made ahead and kept refrigerated until ready to use. I like to stir about 3 tablespoons of the paste into the egg batter for calamari for heat, flavor, and color.
1 1/8 oz/32 g (about 6) dried panca peppers
Stem, seed, and reconstitute the peppers:
Seeding: If your recipe calls for seeding, pull out the stems of large peppers and shake out the seeds. With skinny peppers, slice them open with a paring knife (or tear them lengthwise with your fingers) and wipe out the seeds with a paper towel. I like to butterfly large meaty peppers, such as ancho chiles, to ensure even roasting.
Toasting: Heat a cast-iron skillet or comal over medium to medium-high heat until a drop of water sizzles on contact. With seeded and butterflied peppers, press the cut side against the hot surface with a metal spatula for a few seconds. Turn the pepper over with kitchen tongs and press the second side against the skillet, taking care that the flesh toasts lightly but does not burn. A pleasant roasted pepper aroma is a good cue. Watch closely, especially with smooth, thin-skinned peppers such as guajillos and cascabels, and be prepared to snatch them from the heat if they begin to scorch. Meatier, more wrinkled peppers such as anchos and mulatos are less prone to burning and may take longer to roast evenly. Small whole peppers should be toasted for a few seconds and turned once with kitchen tongs.
Reconstituting: Mexican and Central American cooks typically reconstitute toasted dried peppers to facilitate grinding. In Bolivia and Peru where toasting is not considered a prerequisite, dried peppers are also soaked to soften. To do so, cover the peppers with warm water or broth and let them soak for 15 to 30 minutes or until soft. Alternatively, boil them in water or broth to cover for 20 to 30 minutes, until softened.
Drain the peppers, reserving 1/4 cup/60 ml of the soaking or boiling liquid.
Transfer the peppers and the 1/4 cup/60 ml reserved liquid to a blender or small food processor and puree until smooth. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week, or freeze for up to 3 months.
Mirasol variation: For an equally flavorful sauce with a coppery tinge and more sweetness, substitute an equal amount of dried mirasol peppers for the ají panca.
Reprinted with permission from Peppers of the Americas: The Remarkable Capsicums That Forever Changed Flavor by Maricel E. Presilla, copyright © 2017. Published by Lorena Jones Books/Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Photography credit: Romulo Yanes © 2017
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