Last year Julie and I spent a couple of weeks in California. We drove up Highway One through Big Sur, then headed across the San Joaquin valley to camp up in the Sierra Nevada before schlepping back West to San Francisco. We saw Giant Redwoods and Sequoias and stunning mountains, we went swimming at Lake Tahoe, and we ate our way around the state.
San Francisco has a very robust food culture and that’s where we were most inspired. We stayed in the Mission, where we headed out for dinner at St Vincent on Valencia. It’s a neighbourhood bistro that does everything right, and it’s doing some really interesting things with traditional American dishes and ingredients. The buttermilk fried chicken was a dark and crispy sin. Corn smuts tasted almost trufflish. Strange and wonderful.
Not far from there on 18th Street we discovered the Bi-Rite Market, the deli of my dreams. It’s stuffed with beautiful things – organically grown local veg, beautiful cuts of local meat, artisan cheeses and dry goods with labels so beautiful you could weep. I wasn’t sure if I’d get them through customs, but what I chose to take home were some proper dried chiles. The anchos are glossy blackened, wizened things that look almost more like an animal than a plant, like something you might find in a jar on the top shelf at the House of Voodoo. The chipotles are smaller with a dull matt finish, the soft colour of dust on a pair of old cowboy boots. Both beautiful to look at, cheap as chips, and they seemed like such genuinely American* ingredients. Just the thing to take home to recreate something of that liberating holiday feeling. It was all good with the customs officer and the chiles have been happily installed in my Blackheath pantry ever since.
Just this week I’ve dug them out because all this cold and rain meant I wanted to make a chile. I decided to make something more cowboy than Mexican. More campfire, though it was too wet here for one of those, so I made it on the stove. I made this up a bit, and basically it was really good. The Ancho and Chipotle chiles give it a real roundness and smokiness. You use coffee in it too, which sounds weird, but honestly, it works.
In a spirit of cowboy make-do it’s less a recipe than a notion. You don’t need to be careful, and quantities here are really just suggestions. This is rough and ready. Whatever comes out of the pot in the end will taste white-hat heroic, so relax. Here’s how it’s done.
Soak one Ancho chile and one Chipotle chile in hot water for maybe an hour. When they are soft, blitz them with a couple of cloves of garlic in the food processor. Make a pot of coffee around now. Then, chop up a couple of onions and a few rashers of bacon. Chuck these in your pan with the chile and garlic paste – you probably don’t need olive oil because of the bacon fat. Shake in a teaspoon of cinnamon, a bit of dried chilli – the bog ordinary sort, a tablespoon of brown sugar and maybe 2 teaspoons of paprika. This will smell utterly amazing. Now bung in a cup or so of the coffee, followed by around a kilo of beef brisket or chuck steak – some cheap cut that likes a long slow cook – and a tin of crushed tomatoes. Season with black pepper. Pop the lid on and turn down the gas a bit, because you don’t want this to catch.
A cowboy out on the trail would be making this in a cast iron Dutch oven that you get from camping supply shop. He’d put it in the fire and heap some hot coals on top of it. On the stove you’ll need to check it every once in while, turn your meat, scrape the bottom of the pot and pour in more coffee or water to stop it sticking.
It’s ready when the meat is all falling apart, like pulled pork. It has a deep, rich, smokey flavour, and I promise it’s a crowd pleaser. I like that it’s the sort of dish that you can make ahead so you’re not trapped in the kitchen when your friends arrive, and that means you can concentrate on getting everyone a Corona with a piece of lime jammed down the neck, oh yes.
*By which I mean ‘genuinely Mexican,’ of course.