Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Chipotle shrimp

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 Chipotle shrimp Chipotles are hot, and I'm not talking about capsaicin, the active ingredient in spicy chile peppers.
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Chipotle shrimp

Chipotles are hot, and I'm not talking about capsaicin, the active ingredient in spicy chile peppers.

Who knew that this obscure Mexican pepper - actually a ripe jalapeño pepper dried over woodsmoke - would have skyrocketed into popular glory?

Chipotles are as easy to like as they are hard for Anglos to pronounce. (Say "Chee-poht-lee," taking care not to reverse the letters in that Aztec "tl": It's not "Chee-pol-tee," nor is it "Chip-pottle.")

Once a rare treat little known outside Spanish-speaking taquerias, chipotles are now popping up just about everywhere. A popular fast-food restaurant chain (briefly but no longer controlled by McDonald's) bears the name. The good folks at Tabasco are pumping out chipotle-flavored hot sauce by the barrel.

Across the nation and around the world, creative chefs are introducing this smoky flavor into all manner of "fusion" dishes. In recent months I've been confronted with a chipotle-scented Caesar salad, a smoky chipotle-fired chicken wing never dreamt of in Buffalo, and a chipotle mayo on a burger at an Irish-American pub, just to name a few.

Food-industry watchers have declared chipotles a certifiable trend; it's part of a rush toward Latin-American flavors in general, DSN Retailing Today wrote in 2004. "Spicy ethnic flavors continue to gain ground in mainstream food categories, with chipotle ranking as one of the most popular seasonings. Products with chipotle flavors now include salsa, hot sauce, pasta sauce, mayonnaise, mustard, soup and chips. Growth of the Hispanic population, interest by mainstream consumers in ethnic food and restaurant trends are driving interest in ethnic flavors."

I needed no persuasion to join this movement, having discovered the joys of smoky jalapeños when I lived in Los Angeles a generation ago, a taste further refined when I worked with some inspiring farm-labor organizers in West Texas and New Mexico on my day job back in the early '90s.

The other day, trying to come up with an offbeat accompaniment to a boldly aromatic Gewurztraminer, I dreamed up this dish, a quick and simple saute of shrimp with browned onions, green peppers and tomatoes in a lightly spicy, chipotle-accented sauce over rice. The Gewurz proved so bold that it was too much even for this brightly flavored dish, proving that you can't win them all; next time I'll go with a lighter-style Gewurz. But the dish itself was fine. I made it with sweet, delicate Kentucky freshwater shrimp, but it would work just as well with the more familiar saltwater shellfish.

Finally, a curious question for readers outside the U.S. and Canada: I'm wondering whether chipotles have made any inroads outside North America as yet. Can you find them, either easily or with some searching, in Europe, Asia or Down Under? Unfortunately, there's no real substitute for chipotles en adobo, but you could certainly make a similar-only-different dish substituting any hot pepper, a bit of tomato sauce, and a dash of smoked Spanish paprika.


INGREDIENTS:

(Serves two)

1/2 small onion
1/2 green bell pepper (ditto)
1-2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup diced tomatoes, fresh in season or good quality canned, with their juices
1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce with 1 teaspoon (5ml) of the sauce from the can
2 tablespoons (30ml) olive oil
1 dried chipotle pepper
Water
3/4 pound (360g) medium-size shrimp, peeled
Salt
Black pepper
Dried red-pepper flakes


PROCEDURE:

1. Peel the onion and cut it in half along its equator, then cut one of the halves vertically into thin slices; you want to end up with about 1/2 cup (120g) chopped onion. Cut the green pepper into about 1/2 cup of similar "julienne" slices. Peel and mince the garlic, and cut the tomatoes into small dice. Mince the canned chipotle pepper and measure out the sauce. Taste carefully and adjust the amount to suit your taste; I find this product extremely variable in its heat.

2. Put the olive oil in a saute pan or skillet over medium-high heat, and saute the sliced onions and bell pepper until the vegetables are partially cooked and the onions aromatic and starting to brown. Add the minced garlic and cook briefly.

3. Reduce heat to low, put in the diced tomatoes and their juice, the minced chipotle and adobo sauce, and the dried chipotle pepper. Stir to blend, and add a little water to achieve the consistency of a thick soup. Simmer uncovered for about five minutes, then add the peeled shrimp and cook just until they turn pink, only a minute or so on each side depending on their size. Don't overcook.

4. Check seasoning, and if necessary, add salt, freshly ground black pepper and dried red-pepper flakes to taste. Serve over steaming white rice.

MATCHING WINE: I came up with this dish with the recently reviewed The Furst 2006 Alsace Gewurztraminer in mind, reasoning that the combination of caramelized onions, shellfish and spicy flavors might sing with the aromatic Gewurz, but the wine was simply too over-the-top aromatic to work with any food match I can imagine. I would try it again, though, with a more restrained Gewurz like the Handley 2006 Anderson Valley Gew├╝rztraminer reported in yesterday's 30 Second Wine Advisor.


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Last Week's FoodLetter and Archives

Last week's Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Herb-infused lamb shanks (Nov. 29, 2007)
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