It’s the dead of winter, and most of the fun holidays are behind us—but there’s still months of cold and slush to get through. So we’d like to welcome you to Tropical Staycation, a week of island-inspired recipes and other stories that will transport you to much warmer, sunnier places. Just don’t look out the window while reading.
The unofficial national dish of Belize, chimole (also known as black dinna), gets its distinctive coloring from a generous amount of recado negro, a spice paste of Mayan origin whose main ingredient is burnt chili peppers. I don’t mean dried, or smoked, or charred. I mean burnt: roasted in fire until the skins turn black and the surrounding air becomes a cloud of pepper spray. This is a recipe that demands to be cooked outside, and even then, there is no escaping its infernal wrath. It’s quite possible that whoever invented recado negro may have been attempting to bring harm upon the chefs. Just listen to all the coughing in this video:
When Belizeans make chimole, they use a commercially prepared recado negro paste that can be picked up at the grocery store. In the U.S., one must go to a specialty store to procure such an ingredient, or purchase it on the internet. I, being ever curious, wanted to see if it was possible to make at home, so I turned to the experts on Mestizo cooking for more information. When I flipped through the pages of Diana Kennedy’s seminal tome The Art of Mexican Cooking in search of a recipe, I was greeted with the following:
I have not included a recipe for it here because... I hardly think this is something you will prepare at home. I tried, well away from the house and the cows and the hens, but the wind changed in the middle of it all, and I nearly choked.
Every resource I could find warned me not to make recado negro on my own. So, of course, I had to do it.
What recipes I found said to cook the peppers outside, for two reasons: they need to be set ablaze to blacken, and you need ventilation if you’re going to survive the process. This would require access to a grill, which I don’t have, and even if I did, I’m positive at least one of my neighbors would call the cops. I had no choice but to do this indoors, which meant possibly filling my house with, essentially, pepper spray. It is at this moment I would like to publicly thank my family for being so supportive of my food writing career, as this week, everyone suffered greatly for my art. Thanks to their sacrifices, I was able to discover a way to burn dried chilis indoors without murdering anybody!
To make recado negro, I didn’t need fire—I needed oil. My thought was that by keeping the peppers completely submerged with no contact with air, I’d be better able to contain and control any whiffs of capsaicin released into the wild. That obviously meant a lid needed to be involved, and since the chilis were dried, there would be no water in the pan causing the oil to violently spurt everywhere. Still, a lid would only contain those violent odors, and what I needed to do was trap them completely. The solution? I made a stack of four extra-absorbent paper towels, ran them under the faucet, and squeezed the everliving hell out of them until they almost felt dry.
I covered the saucepan with the paper towels, put the lid on, pressed down tightly, and ta-da, a self-contained recado negro system. I put it on the stove, turned it on, and left it completely alone. You must leave it alone, because if you open it at any point, very bad things will happen. This happened to me too many times, as I had to keep checking on the peppers’ coloring as part of the recipe development process. Do yourself a favor: Turn your exhaust fan on high and keep the window open, just to be safe. When the timer is up, turn the heat off and leave it alone. Do not peek, do not jostle, do not move. Once it cools down completely, the scent will be intense in the best way, and will not sting. (Still keep the exhaust fan on, just in case).
After soaking the burnt chilis in water overnight to reconstitute them, I got to work on the rest of my recado negro. Traditionally, this is made in a mortar and pestle, but I don’t have room in my tiny kitchen for something I use so infrequently, so I grabbed my food processor instead. I cooked some onions and garlic until they were almost black, and then added spices to toast. Most recipes call for grinding up your own spices, but I’ve already got the ground stuff in my spice cabinet. If you want to do it the traditional way, though, go right ahead and buy your allspice whole.
Once everything was blitzed together, I began to develop the chimole as a whole. It’s one of those “non-recipe” recipes, where the steps are always the same, but everyone makes theirs a little bit different. Some people add a bunch of vegetables, some only add onion and garlic. Some people like eating theirs with corn tortillas, some like rice. Belize is a very ethnically diverse country, so even though this dish has Mestizo origins, everyone adds a little something of their own to the pot. One thing that’s constant across the board, though, is Marie Sharp’s hot sauce, which is found on Belizean tables just like Heinz ketchup at American diners.
I had made the recado negro the night before making the chimole, and as I added it to taste, I was taken aback by how much the flavor had improved after a day’s rest. It’s barely spicy, as most of the capsaicin ended up in the oil (which I saved because it is awesome), and it tastes like burning in the best way. I kept the recado negro light in the pot, since I wasn’t sure how my children would feel about it, and served extra at the table to be mixed in as each of us liked. I added a ton to my chimole, along with lots of fresh lime since I love acidity. The extra recado negro can be thrown into rice and beans, chili, roasted vegetables, or whatever. I keep mine in a glass jar, but I’ve read that some people freeze it in ice cube trays for long-term storage and easy portioning.
Making your own recado negro might seem scary, but that’s exactly why it’s fun. How often do you find a recipe that begins in sheer terror and ends in surprising delight and the feeling of accomplishment? You can do this! I believe in you all. Just be safe out there, kids. Your family might not be as forgiving as mine.
Makes about 1 pint
- 4 oz. dried ancho chiles (about 10)
- 2 1/2 cups vegetable oil
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 6 large garlic cloves, lightly smashed
- 1 1/2 tsp. ground allspice
- 1 tsp. ground cloves
- 3/4 tsp. ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp. ground annato
- 1/2 tsp. oregano
- 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
- 3 Tbsp. white or apple cider vinegar
Heads up: You’ll need to make this at least 24 hours before you make your chimole. The longer it sits, the better it gets, and it lasts damn near forever in the fridge. Feel free to do this well in advance if you so desire.
Use scissors to cut the ancho chiles open; remove the seeds and stems. Cut as needed to make the peppers as flat as possible, then put in a 2-quart saucepan with a tight fitting lid. Cover them with the oil and tap the saucepan on the counter a few times to make sure there’s no trapped air bubbles surrounding the chiles.
Run four layers of paper towels under water and wring them out as well as you possibly can until they’re just barely damp. Lay across the top of the saucepan, then clamp on the lid tightly. Put the pot on the stove, turn on the exhaust fan, and open any nearby windows—the peppers shouldn’t release too much in the way of odor if everything goes right, but it’s always good to have some insurance.
Turn the heat onto high, set a timer for 10 minutes, then don’t touch anything! Stay in the room, though, because it’s never a good idea to walk away from a hot pot of oil on the stove. Do not open the lid, do not jostle it, fight every urge you have to peek. Organize your cabinets or something. When the 10 minutes are up, turn off the heat, and then you can leave the room. But you’re still not going to touch that pan. Not a single peek. All that heat (and noxious pepper gas) needs to stay in the pot until it’s completely cool, which will take about an hour.
Finally, open the pot. You might get a slight whiff of odor, but nothing that will knock you unconscious. Use tongs to move the anchos to a bowl, then cover them with water and let sit overnight to hydrate. Pour the chili oil into a glass container and keep for other uses. (Roast vegetables with it! Toss with pasta! Make vinaigrette! The possibilities are endless!)
The following day, drain the anchos and put them in the bowl of a food processor. Preheat a skillet on the stove—preferably cast iron—over high heat until it’s lightning hot, then add a tiny bit of oil and the onions. Cook until they begin to brown, then add the garlic and continue cooking until they’re both almost blackened. Toss in all the spices (allspice, cloves, cumin, annatto, and oregano) and cook for a minute or so until they become intensely fragrant, then scrape the entire mixture into the food processor. Add the salt and vinegar and process until smooth. Store in a glass container until ready to use, as it can discolor plastic.
- 1 split, bone-in chicken breast (about 2 lbs.)
- 4-6 bone-in chicken thighs (about 2 lbs.)
- 2 medium onions, Frenched
- 2 bell peppers, any color you like, chopped into large pieces
- 1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1" cubes
- 8 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 3 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 6 cups water
- 2 tsp. roughly crushed epazote leaves
- 3 medium tomatoes, cored, seeded, and cut into large pieces
- 1/4 cup recado negro, or more, to taste
- Kosher salt, to taste
Place the chicken pieces skin side down in a Dutch oven and brown well, about 7-10 minutes. Remove from pan and discard skin. Add the onions and peppers to the skillet with a hefty pinch of salt, and cook in the chicken fat until just browned, then add the garlic and cook for another minute until fragrant. Add the tomato paste, cook for another minute to caramelize it a bit, then add the water. Put the chicken back in the pot with the sweet potatoes and cover, leaving the lid slightly ajar, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer the chicken for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Once the chicken is tender, stir in the epazote leaves and 1/4 cup of the recado negro. Taste, then add salt and more recado negro as you see fit. When the chimole tastes as you like it, stir in the tomatoes and prepare to serve.
- 8 hard boiled eggs, peeled
- Corn tortillas
- Slices of fresh lime
- Hot sauce (preferably Marie Sharp’s from Belize)
Add the hard boiled eggs, pushing them down so they’re submerged in the liquid. Pop on the lid and let the chimole hang out a bit while you cut up your limes and warm up your corn tortillas. Serve with hot sauce on the side, and additional recado negro if you so desire.