- Skill Level: Moderate
- Cost: Inexpensive
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Can be made ahead of time.
If the flavors of this picante red-chile sauce are well blended, the heat will have been rounded out with a little softening tomato flavor and balanced with a burst of roasted garlic. I’ve come across carelessly made versions that varied from riveting to impotent ro heart-burning. But if you follow the directions laid out here, you’ll turn out a traditionally spirited table sauce that is an unsurpassed condiment for mouthfuls of charcoal-broiled steak.
Simple red-chile sauces are in the repertory of cooks all over Mexico (save Yucatàn, I believe) and they are commonly made with the very hot chiles de àrbol and softened with tomatillo or mellowed with vinegar. This is a version I learned from two infectiously friendly antojito makers in Toluca, and I love it.
1. The chiles and garlic: Tear the guajillo chiles into flat pieces, then toast them on a griddle or heavy skillet over medium heat, using a metal spatula to press them flat to the hot surface for a few seconds, then flipping and pressing again. You’ll notice a toasted look to each side and perhaps a whiff of smoke when they’re ready, but don’t burn them or they’ll taste bitter.
Lay the unpeeled garlic on the griddle and turn frequently until soft and blackened in spots, about 15 minutes. Cool, peel off the skin and cut in quarters.
2. Blending the ingredients: Break the chiles into a dry blender jar, cover and blend on high until pulverized. Add the garlic, roasted tomato, optional chile chipotle and ¼ cup water, then blend until very smooth.
3. Finishing the sauce: Strain the sauce through a medium-mesh sieve into a small dish, then stir in a little more water, if necessary, to make a light, pourable consistency. Season with salt and let stand for ½ hour to let the flavors mingle.
Chile de Arbal Sauce, Baja California-Style: Stem 15 or 16 large chiles de arbol (known there as picas de pàjaro), shake out most of the seeds, boil in salted water with the garlic and a slice of onion for 10 minutes. Drain and puree with the tomato and ¼ cup water; strain. Thin with water to a light consistency and season with salt. This is a hot sauce and is frequently made hotter by omitting the tomato and blending with 1/3 cup water.
Chipatle Chile Sauce, Veracruz or Puebla-Style: Prepare the recipe as directed, substituting 2 or 3 canned chiles chipotles (seeded) for the guajillos. Don’t toast or pulverize the chiles prior to blending with the tomato.
Balancing the Flavors: To reach the right equilibrium, choose and prepare each ingredient with care: boiled or canned tomatoes make the sauce watery; raw garlic is overpowering here; untoasted chiles lack depth. Even though the chile chipotle makes the sauce more picante, I like its deep, smoky richness.
Chiles Guajillos: Three large New Mexico or California chile pods could replace the guajillos, though they’re not as sharply flavored; so you may want to add some crushed red pepper flakes or cayenne.
Timing and Advance Preparation
You can put the sauce together in ½ hour, but it needs to stand for a little while before serving. Covered and refrigerated, it keeps for 3 or 4 days; warm to room temperature before serving.
To Roast Tomatoes:
Roasting tomatoes directly on the griddle can make a mess (the skins stick and burn), so I usually place a sheet of foil on the griddle first, then lay on the tomatoes and turn them occasionally for about 15 minutes, depending on size and ripeness, until the flesh is soft and the skin blistered and blackened. Cool, peel away the skin and cut out the core. For a very easy, successful alternative, we owe thanks to Diana Kennedy: Lay the tomatoes on a foil-lined baking sheet, place as close to a preheated broiler as possible, and let them roast, turning once, until soft and blackened, 12 to 15 minutes, depending on size. Peel and core (and always use the tasty juice they exude during roasting). When possible, I always roast fresh tomatoes. This concentrates and enriches their flavor, while boiling just leaches it out.
Nutritional information is based on 16 servings.