A chipotle <chee-POHT-leh> chile is a smoked red jalapeno. Jalapenos are thick-walled chiles, and don't take well to drying. The smoking process adds a marvelous flavor to the heat.

Most people who get chipotles get them canned, in a thick tomato-based sauce called adobo. That's the way I had always had them, until a trip to Ensenada, Mexico in 1992 with my good friend and former roommate Matt Brown.

One of my favorite places to go in a foreign country is to the supermarket, and in particular I love to go to Gigante in Ensenada. There's such a wealth of neat stuff there! In the back is a large deli section, where there were huge bowls of prepared foods, and a huge vat of dark red chiles floating in a thin, dark liquid, that was marked "chipotles". We were offered a sample, and they were like none I had ever tasted before. They were pickled in a sweet brine, with brown sugar, slices of onion and whole garlic cloves. The flavor was fantastic. And the heat level nearly blew my head off (well, I did just pop it right into my mouth, didn't I?)

We bought two quarts of them, and parceled them out over the next couple of months. They're great in burritos, minced and mixed with scrambled eggs and chorizo, and a wide variety of other uses. Matt mentioned that his elderly Mexican aunt knew how to make these, and said he'd ask her how. I kept noodging him over the next several months, but apparently she had been sick and he didn't want to bug her. Finally, the last time I asked him if he had gotten the recipe from her, he said, "Um ... well, she died."


So I decided to try to make them myself. I found a standard chile-pickling recipe and just figured it out. The first batch was pretty impressive, if I do say so myself! There was only one problem ...

I forgot to write down what I did. Duh.

So, here are some recollections of what I did, bolstered by my having made another batch from memory. Came out pretty well, if I do say so myself. :-)

Take about 4 ounces of dry chipotles, NOT the canned kind. Rinse the chiles, then cover them with about 3-4 cups of boiling water and soak them until they are completely soft, about an hour. Strain the chiles and reserve the soaking liquid. Strain the liquid through several layers of cheesecloth or a coffee filter to remove any grit that may have been on the chiles. Save about 1-1/2 cups of the soaking water.

Slice one onion into 1/4" slices, and separate the rings. Peel several cloves of garlic. Add 1-1/2 cups of cider vinegar to the soaking liquid, along with about 1/2 cup of dark brown sugar (use Mexican piloncillo if you can get it), the onion and garlic slices, 1 teaspoon each of thyme and oregano (use 1 tablespoon of each fresh herb if you can get it), and about 2 teaspoons of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer until the sugar or piloncillo is dissolved.

Pack into sterilized canning jars, and make sure the liquid reaches up to the top. Seal the jars and refrigerate for at least a week before eating. Heaven. And Hell too ... these chiles are incredibly delicious but incredibly hot.

Try them in soups, in scrambled eggs (my favorite! with the onions and garlic from the pickling broth), or just plain. Matt and I once had a sweet pickled chipotle eating contest when we were roommates, each taking turns eating one chile. I won. But there were two casualties ...

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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)