When I made my chili, I ate some of the leftovers with toasted de arbol chiles. The great flavor of those chiles made me want more. I wanted to find a way to use the de arbol chiles as a snack, with a lot of the grassy, aromatic chile flavor. As they’re dried chiles, eating them on their own without cooking isn’t very pleasant – not to mention they’re pretty hot.
I’d been following Rick Bayless on Twitter (@Rick_Bayless) ever since his Top Chef Masters win, and though he claims to spend only 20 minutes a day Twittering, he’s very good at responding to questions. So I posed a question: what can I do with chiles de arbol to enjoy the flavor, aside from salsa? He responded with the recommendation to saute peanuts with garlic and chile pieces.
I’m not especially big on peanuts (though I did eventually try his idea), but I thought the idea of frying the chiles was a good one. The first thing I did was to stem and seed some de arbol chiles, and fry them in olive oil until they were darkened, then sprinkle with salt. They turned out crunchy and salty, and the heat was tamed a bit. The high notes of the chile flavor were mostly gone, however. It was more toasty than grassy. (If you want to understand what I mean by grassy, open up a packet of red pepper flakes from your nearest pizzeria and take a big whiff. That’s the flavor I’m going for.)
But whole chiles aren’t much of a snack. They’re so hot you can’t eat a lot, and they don’t have much substance. So I had an idea of my own: throw some de arbol pieces in with the popcorn in a stove-top batch. The de arbols will toast in the hot oil before the popcorn pops, and quickly spread their heat to the popcorn via the oil.
These days, people seem to think that the old-fashioned method is difficult and messy. It really isn’t. It’s just as fast as microwave popcorn, and not difficult at all. Rather than launch into a comparison of modern society to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, I’ll just show you the process.
- Start heating a heavy pan on medium heat. There’s a difference of opinion in whether to start all the ingredients cold, or add them to a preheated pan. I preheat my pan.
- Add oil to the pan. Use an oil with a high smoke point, like peanut, sunflower, or canola. Add enough to cover the bottom of the pan.
- Add the popcorn kernels to the pan. 1/4 cup of popcorn kernels wil make about 5 cups of popped popcorn. Adjust the number of kernels for you pan size. Don’t worry about how much you want to eat – no matter how much I’ve made, I always end up mowing through it all.
- Add large flavor additions. At this point, if you prefer, add any large additions – dried chile pieces, garlic chips, nuts, whole spices. Do not add any ground spices or powders – they’ll burn way before the popcorn starts popping.
- Shake the pan, and partially cover. Shake the pan to coat the kernels with warm oil. Partially cover the pan – you want to prevent the popcorn from popping out all over the kitchen, but you don’t want to hold in the steam.
- Continue heating until the first pop. Keep the flame on medium, shaking every once in a while, until you hear the first pop. Then the real work begins.
- Shake well every 10 seconds. The idea is that the smaller, denser kernels will easily fall down between the popped kernels to rest on the hot pan bottom.
- When half the kernels have popped, drop the heat to just above low. You don’t want to continue to heat the oil, or it could start to smoke and break down, leading to acrid- or oily-tasting popcorn. Continue shaking every ten seconds.
- When the popping slows, remove from heat. With a space of two or three seconds between pops, remove the pan from the heat. Keep it partially covered, as kernels will continue to pop from the heat of the pan. Wait until the popping has completely stopped.
- Pour the popcorn out and season it. Pour the popcorn into a large bowl. While it’s hot, sprinkle on salt and any powdered seasonings you want to use. Toss the popcorn in the bowl and repeat sprinkling until it looks (and tastes!) the way you want it.