The most dramatic global exchange of foods in history took place five centuries ago, after Columbus reached the Americas. Central and South America gave Europe the chile pepper in all its variations (Capsicum spp.), plus tomatoes, corn, squash, potatoes, turkey, and chocolate. Among the foods the New World got in return were domestic pigs and cattle and citrus fruits. It's hard to say who got the better end of the deal, but it moved Mexican cooking into the top rank with Chinese and French cuisine for making the best use of pork. A dish like puerco en chile verde made on either side of the Rio Grande is one of the greatest arguments for cross-cultural food exchanges.

Beer as we know it today was not part of the Columbian exchange, but during the global expansion of European-style brewing in the nineteenth century, beer found a welcome home in many Latin American countries. And Latin cuisines remain a favorite exploration ground for beer lovers today. Beyond the obvious chile heat, the mix of salty, tart, and sometimes sweet flavors calls for a moderate amount of sweetness and bitterness in the beer for balance (with the usual caveat about very bitter beers). In particular, I find myself reaching for a rich, malty lager in the Viennese and Bavarian styles with many of the dishes in this chapter. It's not just a matter of putting out the fire but of adding layers of flavor to match the complexity of the food.

Pantry Notes: Latin America and the American Southwest

Chiles, fresh and dried: All of the recipes in this book that call for chiles can be made with common varieties, including the small fresh serrano and jalapeño and the larger Anaheim/New Mexico/long green type. I prefer the flavor of serranos when I have the time (they are smaller and have thinner walls, making them harder to seed) but will settle for jalapeños when I am in a hurry. Most Mexican markets and some specialty produce markets also carry the dark green, cone-shaped chile poblano, the classic variety for roasting and stuffing or tearing into strips, and the small, lantern-shaped chile habanero, the hottest chile on the planet.

The basic small dried chile sold in supermarket spice jars is the dried serrano; it is much cheaper and is also likely to be fresher if bought in bulk at an Indian, Asian, or Latin grocery. Larger dried chiles used in the recipes in this chapter include the California or New Mexico red chile (sometimes called chile colorado or chile de la tierra,) 5 to 6 inches long and smooth; the slightly smaller, similarly shaped, but hotter chile guajillo; and the reddish-brown, wrinkled chile ancho, the ripened and dried form of the green pasilla. Ancho chiles are often labeled "pasilla" on the West Coast, although in Mexico that name belongs to a different chile.

Dried chile paste: Most recipes using dried chiles call for toasting the chiles, soaking them in water for a long time, and finally grinding them with other ingredients, and they still come out with big flakes of red skin in the dish. Mike Marshall, virtuoso fiddler, mandolinist, and guitarist and a fine cook to boot, has figured out a better way: After soaking, he simply scrapes the flavorful pulp out of the chiles with a spoon, leaving the tough, waxy skins behind. It takes a little patience and a light touch, but it's still easier and less messy than setting up the blender, and it gives you more control over the moisture content. Brilliant!

Tomatillos: Although the name literally means "little tomatoes," these tart green fruits are a kind of ground cherry, used a lot like tomatoes in Mexican sauces. Once available only in cans, they are now widely available fresh wherever fresh chiles are sold. Look for tomatillos that are deep green, even turning a bit toward purple under their papery outer husks. They keep somewhat longer; than fresh tomatoes, so grab some when you see them and plan to use them within a week or so. Remove the husks and rinse off any sticky coating before roasting or simmering them, as the recipe directs.

Queso añejo (aged cheese): One of the two basic types of cheese used in Mexican and other Latin American cooking,the other being a smoother melting type. Mexico's best-known queso añejo comes from the city of Cotija in Michoacán and is widely sold in Mexican markets here. It's a salty, crumbly white cheese, falling in texture and flavor somewhere between feta and Italian ricotta salata, and is typically crumbled over beans and other dishes. If you can't find it, try rinsed feta or ricotta salata.

For cheese to melt in quesadillas and similar dishes, I haven't tasted any Mexican imports or domestic Mexican-style cheeses that I like any better than Monterey Jack or domestic Muenster, so I use the latter.

Recipes from From the Home of the Chile Pepper:

Stuffed Jalapeno Chiles

Dried Shrimp Balls

Mushroom and Green Chile Quesadillas

Do It Yourself Tacos

Chile Verde

Yucatecan Banana-Leaf Pork or Chicken

Papas a la Huancaina (Peruvian Potatoes with Cheese Sauce)

Grilled King Salmon with Roasted Tomatillo Sauce

Sweet Corn Chowder with Chipotle Butter

Fish with Ancho Chile Paste and Cream

The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook

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From The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook, Copyright © 2002 by Jay Harlow. Used by arrangement with Jay Harlow.

The Microbrew Lover's Cookbook: From the Home of the Chile Pepper
Beer and the Foods of Latin America and the American Southwest