Roundabout late afternoon, while I’m (doing a million other things and) waiting for inspiration to strike in the kitchen, it’s usually safe to start with a sauce. A pesto, a garlicky yogurt sauce, a lemony harissa number? It’s easy to take it from there: a pesto might lead to pasta, a yogurt sauce will inspire something to dunk in it, and that lemony harissa is a treat with eggs.Today, unable to stare down the mountain of gorgeous produce in my fridge, I retreated instead to a pantry shelf for a jar of dried guajillo chiles from our Tonnemaker’s CSA. A spicy paste of red chiles is the answer to a number of questions at our house, such as: “What should I pour over rice and black beans and vegetables?” and “What would be good on this taco salad?” and “How should I sauce my enchiladas?” And if there’s any of this sauce left over after dinner, the question immediately becomes, “How soon is morning so I can make huevos rancheros?”
I have made this sauce with ancho, pasilla, and New Mexican chiles as well as guajillo; any mild to medium dried red chile will do the trick. The rehydrated chiles are the backbone of the sauce’s flavor, but you can tweak the other elements by pureeing them with their soaking liquid or plain water or canned tomatoes instead. I like to add cumin and oregano, but you can leave those out if they’re not your thing. Chiles, liquid, and salt are the bare essentials, and cooking the sauce down in a bit of oil after pureeing it gives it a a nice bit of body and finished flavor.
Red Chile Sauce: Break off the stems from six guajillo or other dried red chiles* and shake the seeds free. If necessary, use a small knife to scrape out the seeds. Don’t do what I did today and touch your eye without washing your hands first (ouch!). Place chiles in a small pot, cover with 2 c. water and the pot lid, and bring to a boil. When the pot boils, remove it from the heat and leave it covered for about 15 minutes to let the chiles soak and soften.
Use a fork to transfer the chiles to your blender, then taste the soaking liquid. If you like the way it tastes, add 1 1/2 c. soaking liquid to the chiles in the blender. If you’d rather not use the soaking liquid, use water instead, or a cup and a half of canned or cooked tomatoes. Add 1 tsp. each oregano and cumin plus 1/2 tsp. salt to the blender (you can also add a minced garlic clove if you like) and puree. Taste and adjust the flavors (more salt?). If it’s too spicy for you, you can dilute the sauce by adding a can of tomatoes** now. If you want your sauce velvety-smooth, you can strain it now (I never do).
Finally, heat a tablespoon or two of oil over high heat in a heavy-bottomed pot, then dump in your sauce all at once when it’s good and hot. The sauce will sizzle and may spatter, so be careful. Cook the sauce, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes, to allow the flavor to develop and the sauce to thicken.
*For extra credit, first toast the whole chiles (and garlic, if using) in a dry skillet over medium heat, just until they’re nice and fragrant and lightly browned in a spot or two. I usually skip this step, but the purists like to do it.
**I know, it’s beyond absurd to suggest using canned tomatoes at this time of year. But you want the flavor and consistency of cooked/canned tomatoes here. Feel free to cook down a couple of your garden beauties instead.