Burn the Vegetables


A few months back, I went on a vacation to Oaxaca. While I was there, I took a cooking class, hoping to learn about some new ingredients, maybe have someone experienced walk me through a mole, the ridiculously complex and cherished sauce of Oaxaca. Instead I found out that I don’t know shit about cooking. Like, I didn’t even know how to heat up a pan.

Oaxacan recipes aren’t structured like ones indebted to the legacy of Western European cuisine. Sauces aren’t built the same way. Ingredients and equipment I hadn’t even realized were European — olive oil, enameled cast iron, chef’s knives, fresh rather than dried or preserved ingredients — were suddenly unimportant. Ingredient lists there seemed to include several barely distinguishable varieties of each individual item, like dozens of varieties of chiles, all used in slightly different ways. Precise, Frenchified knife cuts gave way to labored grinding in a molcajete, the Mexican version of a mortar and pestle.

One of the strangest techniques, I thought, was a thickening agent for a mole chichilo, an intensely savory version of the signature sauce: the seeds of a local variety of chile, along with a few corn tortillas, were placed on a dry, very hot griddle, and allowed to blacken — to burn. The burnt, bitter seeds and tortillas were ground and added back into the sauce.

This is unthinkable in most American food; if something is burnt, it means you fucked up. All I could think was, I don’t know anything about cooking. Over and over, as I ate grasshoppers and three or four other varieties of mole and tlayudas and chocolate and mezcal, I tasted smoke, which is a base flavor in Oaxacan food, as important as sweet and sour and umami. The burnt chile seeds and tortillas, blended with beef stock, tomatoes, tomatillos, allspice, toasted avocado leaves, and cumin, didn’t taste burnt. The sauce tasted dark and sinister, bitterness balancing richness and sweetness, all coming from a base level of smokiness.

I can’t teach anyone anything about real Mexican cuisine. But the idea of heating in a dry pan was something that was never really in my regular rotation, and now it is, and I think it’s very cool and maybe there are some other people reading this who also haven’t much messed around with it. For me it was the equivalent of getting, I don’t know, an immersion circulator, except way better, because I love what dry heat does to vegetables and the immersion circulator is sort of a pain and makes me feel like a real doof to use it. It’s a whole new way of heating up food, closer to indoor grilling than frying, sautéing, braising, or poaching.

Dry heating can be done with various traditional implements but one of the best tools for it is one you might have already: a regular cast iron pan. Nonstick won’t work for this. Enameled cast iron isn’t my favorite, either. Your Le Creuset won’t do a great job at most of these tasks, because it’s naturally non-stick, and we actually want some of this stuff to stick. And burn. Stainless steel is okay, but expensive, and I prefer the rough surface of a cast iron for this, which could well just be superstition. You also won’t be stirring things around the way you do when frying in oil, a habit which can be hard to break. Just gotta let it cook.

A warning: Dry heating in cast iron will set off your smoke alarm at least once during each of these recipes. Your house may very well fill with smoke. Make sure a window is open, a vent if you have one, or maybe point a fan out toward the window.

Basic Salsa

Shopping list: Dried chiles (guajillo, ancho, or de arbol), tomatoes (canned fire-roasted if not in season; we are currently not in season), lime, garlic, cilantro

Get out your cast iron pan and set it to medium heat. Take some chiles, break off the stems, and shake out the seeds inside. Discard stem and seeds. How many you use will depend on which variety you got as well as your taste. Ancho and guajillo are both good all-around chiles — not too spicy, a little fruity. Chiles de arbol are pretty spicy. Anyway, throw the chiles on the cast iron and watch very carefully. They’ll begin to soften and get fragrant really quickly; turn them after about a minute or two and cook for the same amount of time. Don’t let them burn; you don’t want these to be black. When pliable and smelling delicious, snag them off the pan with a pair of tongs and throw in a food processor (alternately, in a blender, or mortar and pestle, or molcajete).

Take five cloves of garlic, separated from the head but NOT peeled. Make sure the papery husk is still around each clove. Toss them into the pan and roast, turning every few minutes, until they’re all splotchy with black burn-marks. When a little soft, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, take them out, allow to cool, then peel. Throw them in the food processor (or whatever).

If using canned tomatoes, make sure to get decent-quality fire-roasted tomatoes, because there’ll be no real way to burn the sugars in a canned tomato that’s already broken down a bit. Toss the whole can in the food processor along with a squeeze of lime and some salt and blend until smooth.

If using fresh tomatoes, slice in half width-wise and place them cut side down on the cast iron pan. Do not touch them! They will sizzle and begin to burn. Wait maybe five or ten minutes until they’re soft to the touch, then scrape them up with a spatula and throw in the food processor, and complete as before. Top with chopped cilantro.

Charred Fennel Salad With Tangerine Vinaigrette

Shopping list: Fennel, tangerines, hazelnuts, arugula, red onion, olive oil, rice wine vinegar, sugar, parmesan or pecorino cheese

First things first, let’s quick pickle. Take your red onion, cut it in quarters, then shave thinly, preferably with a mandolin so it doesn’t take like four years. Place in a glass tupperware. Set a saucepan over high heat and bring the vinegar and sugar, in a ration of about 2:1, to a boil. Just when it boils, take it off the heat and pour over the onions. Stir quickly and cover. Let it cool down while at room temperature.

Heat a cast iron pan to medium. Toss a handful of hazelnuts on there, tossing to make sure they’re evenly toasted. When fragrant and golden brown, take off the heat.

Then slice a bulb of fennel into slices, maybe a quarter-inch thick. Throw the fennel on the pan so recently vacated by the hazelnuts. Don’t stir. After a minute, flip gently; the bottom should be blotchy with a few black spots, but not totally black. Flip and cook the formerly uncooked side for the same amount of time.

Make the vinaigrette: Squeeze a tangerine into a glass. Drizzle in about half as much olive oil while mixing vigorously with a fork or whisk or immersion blender. Add a splash of rice wine vinegar and season with salt and vinegar.

Lay the charred fennel down on a plate. Toss some hazelnuts on top, then a handful of arugula, then some slices of pickled red onion, then shave some parmesan or pecorino on top. Good shaves, too; not little shreds, you want to be able to pick up the cheese with a fork. Pour vinaigrette over the top and serve.

Charred Corn Salad With Charred Lime

Shopping list: Can of corn, pumpkin seeds, lime, Greek yogurt, cotija (or feta) cheese, olive oil, cumin, cilantro, hot sauce

Take your can of corn and drain it, then spread it out on a few paper towels and lay a more paper towels on top and pat it dry. Get out your cast iron pan and put it on the stove over medium heat.

In a small bowl toss a handful of pumpkin seeds with a teaspoon or so of cumin. Then throw those all in the cast iron pan and toast until fragrant and non-raw-tasting. (You’ll know when they’re done, just keep eating them.) Remove and allow to cool. Throw in the corn, and let it sit for a minute, then toss and let char for another minute. There should be black bits. You want black bits. We are burning food, it should look a little burnt. When charred, remove from pan.

Slice a lime in half and jab it cut side down onto the pan. Let it sit there for a minute or two and then pry it off. It should look kind of caramelized and, well, kind of burnt.

In a big bowl, toss the corn, pumpkin seeds, a dash of hot sauce, a small spoonful of yogurt (mayonnaise is traditional, I just don’t like it much), a bunch of crumbled cheese, and a little bit of olive oil. Salt to taste. Top with cilantro and serve the charred lime on the side for squeezing.

I’m still experimenting with this whole charring on a dry pan thing; when the spring vegetables come, I’m going to smoke out my entire apartment building trying to figure out if I can apply that kind of heat to asparagus, spring onions, that kind of thing. It feels like one of those techniques that will add a totally new dimension to any variety of dishes, even though the neighbors will probably think they live next some kind of pyro.

Photo by Amy Stephenson