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Cooking with Fire

Red Drum chef Ben Berryhill incorporates dried chili peppers into his tortilla soup for “depth and flavor” and then adds fresh versions for “balanced body and heat,” he says. Photographs by Amie Olson

January 12, 2011

Cooking with Fire
Icy-cold temperatures call for hot and spicy fare, so chef Ben Berryhill offers a primer on working with chilis, plus a recipe perfect for experimenting

written by Anna Evans

Want to warm up your winter menus in more ways than one? Turn to chili peppers. Ben Berryhill, chef-owner of Mount Pleasant’s Red Drum, is the first to admit these fiery fruits can seem intimidating. During the 11 years he worked with Robert Del Grande at Houston’s Café Annie, the Texas native learned a lot about combining Southwestern fare with other foodways—such as the Lowcountry cuisine he now melds into his “South by Southwest” menus.

“People are often afraid of chilis, because they don’t know much about them,” says the Culinary Institute of America grad. “But once you understand what each variety can contribute to a dish, they become fairly easy to cook with.”

The best way to learn, of course, is by doing. “My tortilla soup is a good recipe to start with, since it incorporates two fresh chili varieties, lending balanced body and heat, and three dried, which give depth and flavor,” Berryhill explains. Among the dried versions, “anchos are sweet and pasillas offer a great smoky taste. The guajillos bring subtle heat and also vibrant color that helps make the soup a beautiful red.”

The chef found all at a local food market, “but if one you want isn’t available, just throw in extra of a variety you’re already using or sub in a different chili altogether,” he says. “Once you’ve made the soup a time or two, you can start experimenting with various chilis to suit your palate. For example, add more anchos for a sweeter taste, or pump up the spiciness by swapping the Anaheim for two or three jalapeños with the seeds still in.”

As for the seeds, “they carry the majority of the heat and can be spicier at different times of the year,” warns Berryhill. “In dried chilis, the seeds usually aren’t palatable, but you can leave them in fresh ones for hotter flavor.” When in doubt, leave them out. “You can always spice up a dish like tortilla soup by chopping in more fresh chilis at the end.”

Tortilla Soup
(Serves 6)
• 2 Tbs. whole coriander seeds
• 1 Tbs. whole cumin seeds
• 3 Tbs. peanut or vegetable oil
• Chili mixture (recipe follows)
• Tomato mixture (recipe follows)
• 1 bunch cilantro, stems removed and discarded, leaves lightly chopped
• 1 cup crushed (to small pieces) unsalted fried tortilla chips
• 1 ½ qts. homemade or store-bought chicken broth (To make your own, poach chicken thighs in water. Reserve broth, as well as meat, if desired.)
• 1/8 cup fresh lime juice
• Salt, to taste
• Grilled or poached chicken (reserved from homemade broth), shredded or sliced into small- to medium-sized pieces, optional
• Sour cream, tortilla chips, and/or grated queso quesadilla, for garnish

Toast coriander and cumin seeds in sauté pan over medium-high heat until fragrant, about two to three minutes. Grind in a spice grinder and set aside.

In a heavy-bottomed soup pot, heat oil over high heat.

Add chili mixture to hot oil. Mixture will boil vigorously. Whisk for two to three minutes to ensure that pot does not scorch and mixture does not stick to bottom.

Add ground coriander and cumin, tomato mixture, cilantro, chips, chicken broth, lime juice, and salt. Simmer over low heat for 45 minutes to one hour.

If you are using poached or grilled chicken, add meat to soup and simmer for five more minutes to reheat.

Garnish each serving with sour cream, tortilla chips, and/or grated queso quesadilla.

For chili mixture:
• 2 dried ancho chilis
• 2 dried pasilla chilis
• 2 dried guajillo chilis
• 1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
• 6 cloves garlic, peeled
• 2 poblano chilis, seeds and stems removed, roughly chopped
• 2 Anaheim chilis, lightly toasted, seeds and stems removed, roughly chopped
• 2 Tbs. chicken stock

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Place dried chilis on a sheet tray in oven and toast for two to three minutes or until aromatic. Remove from oven and, when cool enough to touch, use a knife to remove stems and seeds from each. In a pot, boil enough water to cover dried chilis, pour into a bowl, and add dried chilis, allowing them to steep for five minutes. Drain and place chilis in food processor or blender. Add last five ingredients and purée to a paste. Scrape into a bowl and set aside.

For tomato mixture:
• 1 (14.5-oz.) can diced tomatoes
• 10 fresh roma tomatoes, halved and seeded

Purée canned and fresh tomatoes together in food processor or blender. Pour into a bowl and set aside.

To search our archives for more winter recipes, click here.

For more of chef Ben Berryhill’s South by Southwest dishes, click here.


Wed, 01/12/2011