The smoking and drying of meats and other perishable foods reaches back beyond written history across the Americas, so much so that when French explorers sailed into the pre-colonial Caribbean, they found locals preserving food with smoke on grates called “boucains.”
Thus, in French, these obviously wild, semi-naked practitioners became “boucainiers.” When that got translated into English, the world came to hear about “buccaneers.” Pirates, sure, maybe. But mostly they were guys who liked to cook outside.
Still, of all the smoking the New World gifted to the Old, smoking chiles was arguably the most authentic and definitely the most exotic. Europe and its original wandering tribes had many traditions of cooking meat over fire, but no one grew chile peppers of varying degrees of mouth burn, much less subjected them to a precise regimen of smoking and/or drying to enhance their intriguing flavors.
Often, in fact, among the Aztecs and Mayans who populated what we now know as Mexico, this enhancement was so dramatic that the natives took to calling the peppers by entirely new names. In fact, even those ancient civilizations found the use of chile peppers a program already in progress.
The entire region that scholars like to call Mesoamerica was a kind of Food Eden – serving up almost without (or at least before) cultivation a bounty of sweet potatoes, avocados, pumpkins, cashews, tomatoes, cocoa, vanilla and more than twenty-five varieties of chile peppers ranging from mild to searing. As with most ancient foods, these products also found their way across a broad spectrum of medicine and worship, which most often were one and the same.
Think about it: the multi-colored chile peppers found only in the Americas have been a mainstay of cooking here for 9,000 years, becoming domesticated about 6,000 years ago. Virtually every food served at every meal involved chiles in some way, whether the peppers were used fresh, dried, smoked or roasted, whole, chopped or ground. The thick, complex sauces we’ve come to appreciate as moles are a legacy of all those meals in all those regions of Mexico, throughout Central America and as far south as the Amazon Basin.
Though only popular in the United States beginning in the 1980s (and at least partly thanks to our Original Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce), the smoke-dried jalapeno called chipotle might be one of the best examples of this history. Certainly, there was from the beginning a need to preserve fresh product beyond its life on the plant, vine or tree. Time spent over smoke was found to create something far more lasting the green, red or yellow peppers picked fresh in the wild. The fact that they took on a whole new flavor was simply a plus, compared with being usable in cooking for a much longer time.
The Aztecs were history’s chipotle masters. After figuring out that the jalapeno’s thick green skin kept it from drying properly in the sun – or else we might be munching on “sun-dried jalapenos” – they tried using a preservation technique already developed for meats. It worked. They called the end result “chilpoctli,” meaning smoked chile.
A Spanish conquistador got to taste one such sauce of pulverized chipotle peppers, tomatoes, nuts, pumpkin seeds, spices, chocolate and cornmeal – a virtual who’s who of later Mexican cooking. He innovatively called the sauce, well, sauce – salsa in Spanish, naturally. But the Aztecs themselves called it ”molli.” Eventually, mole became a thing unto itself, not just any mere sauce. In the valley surrounding the Spanish colonial town of Puebla, the local “mole poblano” came to be one of the most famous mole recipes of all.
The milder-than-jalapeno chile pepper that grew in the area came to be known likewise as the “poblano.” And when people started smoking and especially drying it, it too took on a new name, and the ancho chile was born. This pepper figured mightily in mole poblano, of course, but also in a host of other kitchen uses. Importantly, fresh poblanos were the pepper of choice for what became one of Mexican cuisine’s most popular national dishes – chiles rellenos.
In case you’re tempted to think of other “hot and spicy” cuisines as owing nothing to the early civilizations of the Americas, think again. The so-called Columbian Exchange that began with Columbus himself, enriching the Italians with tomatoes, the Swiss with chocolate, and a host of other national cuisines with a host of other improvements, also introduced chile peppers to the now-global spice trade. This carried them, and their mouth-tingling good taste, onward to India, Central Asia and the Far East.
Interestingly, while tastes that are “hot” now belong to the world, the unique smoky-dried flavors of chipotle and ancho remain the culinary possessions of Mexico. We think that should be a reminder for the rest of the earth’s cuisines, a reminder to “tell ‘em where you got ‘em.”
SMOKEY ANCHO CHERRY ROAST DUCK
Roasting a duck takes us back to cuisines and cultures earlier than our own, before most ducks served in our restaurants and homes were carefully farm raised. Somewhere along the way, duck and cherries made a happy marriage, which makes this sauce perfect and easy at the same time.
1 (5-pound) duck
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 shallot, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup Fischer & Wieser’s Smokey Ancho Cherry Sauce
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Rinse the duck inside and out and pat dry. Trim any excess fat from the neck and cavity, snip off wingtips and discard. Mix 1 tablespoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a small bowl, and sprinkle the bird inside and out. Using a paring knife, make dozens of slits through the skin and fat all over both sides and all parts of the bird. Don’t pierce the meat.
Put the duck breast-side up on a rack in a roasting pan and roast for 1 hour. Take the bird out of the oven, transfer to a platter and carefully drain the fat from the pan into a measuring cup (you’ll end up getting 2 to 3 cups). Return the duck to the pan, prick with the knife again, turn it breast-side down and roast another hour. Repeat each hour, roasting the duck for a total of 4 1/2 hours.
While the duck cooks, in a small saucepan, lightly caramelize the shallots in the butter, then add the garlic and stir for only 1 minute, being careful not to burn. Add the sauce, chicken broth, rosemary and lemon juice. Bring to a gentle boil then quickly reduce to a simmer for 15-20 minutes. Keep sauce warm.
After 4 1/2 hours of roasting, turn the oven temperature up to 350 degrees F, prick the duck skin one last time, salt the skin again and return bird to the oven, breast-side up. Roast for 30 minutes until the skin is nicely browned. Remove from the oven, tent with foil and let rest for 20 minutes. Gently reheat the sauce over low heat. Carve and serve duck pieces with generous amounts of sauce. Serves 4.