January 14, 2010 6:00 PM
More Chorizo to Love

Right off the bat, you must understand: I heart chorizo.  Especially the kind I grew up eating in Mexico.  It comes in deep-burnt-reddish links of fresh, moist, exotically seasoned ground meat that, once fried, becomes crisp and filling bites with bold flavors and a thousand uses.

My oldest son's quick choice for breakfast is chorizo fried until it browns and crisps, with a side of white toast.  Add some lightly beaten eggs as the chorizo is starting to brown and some ripe and creamy avocado slices on the side, and that's my kind of rich-tasting brunch dish.  Of course chorizo is delicious in sandwiches, in tacos and quesadillas, on top of enchiladas, in mashed potatoes, as a topping for heartier salads, in some of the tastiest bean dishes I have tried, in pastas with a ton of personality and on pizzas with pickled jalapeño peppers on top.

I am really trying to stop myself here...

When I moved to the United States, more than a dozen years ago, I was thrilled to find chorizo in international grocery stores. Lately, I have been intrigued and surprised to see that my Mexican chorizo is now accompanied by many other kinds in the refrigerated sections of bigger, more mainstream stores: Argentine, Colombian, Guatemala, Salvadoran and Honduran chorizos have arrived. Like the MExican kind, some of those varieties are being made with chicken, turkey or beef in addition to pork. There is even kosher chorizo, made with beef, at Koshermart in Rockville and vegan chorizo at Trader Joe's (which I haven't felt the urge to try). Many come in spicy, spicier, spiciest and hotter than hot. 

Through Sunday afternoon asados, or grilling parties, at friends' houses and trips to Argentina, I had become familiar with the garlicky chorizo Argentinians are so proud of. But I was clueless about the other kinds. So I shocked my regular grocer by buying a variety of links, then cooked them at home to sample the differences, filling my kitchen with chorizo-tinged smoke. Later, on a cold and rainy day in November, I set out to explore the chorizo universe, including local manufacturers, in this part of the Americas. 

It was clear from the start that Latin chorizos share a common difference from Spanish ones. Most Latin chorizos are made with heavily spiced, freshly ground meat, and the must be cooked. Spanish chorizos typically are dried and smoked cured links of chopped meat, seasoned mainly with garlic and paprika; they tend to be ready-to-eat and have a salami-like soft and chewy bite.

Although Spaniards introduced the pid and the techniques of making chorizo to most of Latin America, through the centuries chorizos were adapted with local flavors and ingredients. (The Spaniards, for their part, borrowed paprika from those new lads and made it one of their signature chorizo seasonings.) Interestingly, the version that took root in Latin soil was raw and uncured, which is the least-common kind in Spain.

Latin chorizos differ greatly from one another in flavor. Mexican is the spiciest of the lot. It also has the most complex layering of flavors, and I won't deny that it's my favorite. Mexican chorizos can have variations as well, but they generally contain dried chili peppers such as ancho, pasilla, guajillo and/or chipotle; a mix of spices that might include oregano, cumin, thyme, marjoram, bay leaf, cinnamon, coriander seed, allspice, paprika, achiote and cloves; most times garlic and sometimes onion; and always vinegar, which makes the meat flake or crumble as it browns and gives it a welcome hint of acidity.

If you like really spicy sausage, Chorizo Cabal of Fairfax produces a Mexican one called Perrón, which translates from Mexican-Spanish slang as brave or aggressive. It's clear as soon as you see the label: A fierce dog looks ready to give you the bite of your life.

For a chorizo that isn't spicy but has a colorful pungency, the way to go is Salvadoran. That happens to be the favorite of Clifford Logan Jr., vice president of the Logan Sausage Co. in Alexandria. His company sold 50,000 to 60,000 pounds of its Latin-style fresh chorizos in the Washington area last month. Logan is so passionate about chorizos that when asked to describe them, he seemed to be poetically describing bottles of wine: "The Salvadoran," he began, with a deep romantic sigh and a sudden distant gaze, "has a robust flavor and a subtle finish."

It seems that around Washington, Mexican and Salvadoran chorizos have been wrestling for bragging rights for a long time. Chorizo Cabal sells more Salvadoran chorizo than Mexican (except in grilling season, when the Argentine chorizo is most popular); Logan Sausage sells twice as much Mexican chorizo as Salvadoran. But the choice has as much to do with flavor and recipes as with the local immigrant population and the popularity of each cuisine. Companies often start to produce chorizos based on where the owner or employees come from; immigrants nostalgic for the flavors of home find a way to replicate their native recipes.

The companies' Mexican, Honduran and Salvadoran chorizos are made with vinegar, yet the Honduran kind is much more sedate. The Guatemalan, Logan says, is somewhere in between the Salvadoran and Honduran, flavor-wise. Betty Guerrero, who runs Chorizo Cabal, agrees, and revealed to me that a bit of spearmint is added to Cabal's Guatemalan spice mix. Colombian chorizo is plain and quite salty. The Argentine kind has white wine and a heavy dose of garlic in its mix, as well as oregano, nutmeg and a bit of cayenne or crushed red pepper flakes. It seems to me that Argentine-style chorizo really lets the flavor of the meat shine through. (See "Use this for that," above.)

Of course, different brands and regions have different variations, which some purists question, especially when borders are crossed. Guerrero says, "My mother tells me that this is not the way chorizo is made in Mexico, that I am changing the ingredients, that I am changing its ways." But Guerrero, an experienced chorizo maker, says her company sells about 50,000 pounds of chorizo per month.

One thing I have noticed is that chorizos made in the United States have less fat than those I knew and ate in Latin America. Logan and Guerrero confirmed that, saying their chorizos are made with no more than 20 percent fat. Typically, Mexican chorizo contains at least 30 percent fat. Whole Foods Market makes its own chorizo with no more than 15 percent fat, according to company spokeswoman Katie Hunsberger.

Another thing purists might question is why parts of the chorizo-making process are simplified here. For example, chorizo shops in Mexico soak and puree whole dried chili peppers and add fresh garlic and onion. Chorizo makers here, including Cabal and Logan, generally use custom-made prepared spice mixes that come with already-ground chili peppers and dehydrated garlic.

According to these producers, the mixes not only are convenient but also help ensure quality: "Dried garlic imparts flavor and doesn't turn black as quickly as fresh garlic does," Clifford Logan says. They also promote consistency. Hunsberger says that Whole Foods works with Barron's spices to create a spice mix for its house brand.

No wonder chorizo makers are hesitant to share ingredient information. Their recipes are treated as highly classified state secrets that outsourced spice companies are legally forbidden to share. Dealing with such sacred formulas also may explain why many chorizo companies have longstanding and loyal employees.

Or maybe they just heart chorizo, like me.

Article written for and published by The Washington Post click here. 

Frijoles Charros
4-6 generous side-dish servings

1 pound (about 2 cups) dried pinto beans, rinsed and picked over
1 medium white onion, cut in half, half of it finely chopped (1/2 cup)
14 cups water, or more as needed
1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt, plus more as needed
6 ounces sliced uncooked bacon, chopped
8 ounces fresh, uncooked Mexican chorizo(casings removed), chopped
1 jalapeño pepper(seeded if desired), finely chopped (1 tablespoon or more to taste)
2 medium or 3 (about 8 ounces total) Roma tomatoes, chopped

Place the beans and the onion half in a medium, heavy-bottomed pot and add the water (it should cover the beans by at least 4 inches). Bring to a boil over high heat, then partially cover and reduce the heat to medium; cook for about 2 hours or until the beans are completely soft and cooked through and the broth has thickened to a soupy consistency. (If during cooking the beans seem to be drying out, add a few more cups of water.) Add the salt and stir to dissolve.

Cook the bacon in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat for 3 to 4 minutes, until it is lightly browned and starting to crisp. Add the chopped chorizo; cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until it starts to brown and crisp, using a wooden spoon or spatula to break it into smaller pieces as it cooks.

(At this point, you can drain the fat from the skillet, if desired.)

Add the chopped onion and jalapeno pepper; mix well and cook for 1 minute, letting them soften a bit. Add the tomatoes and mix well; cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring, until the tomatoes soften and appear mushy.

Add the cooked beans and their cooking liquid; mix well and reduce the heat to medium. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until the beans are moist but not soupy. Discard the onion half. Taste, and add salt as needed. Serve hot.

Pasta Seca con Jitomate, Chorizo y Crema

1 1/2 lbs ripe Roma tomatoes(about 6 to 8 tomatoes)
1 medium clove garlic
1/2 cup tomato cooking liquid
1/2 cup medium white onion, coarsely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
3/4 tsp kosher or sea salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
8 oz fresh, uncooked Mexican chorizo, casings removed and coarsely chopped
1 tbsp safflower or corn oil
8 oz dried spaghetti, angel hair or fettuccine, broken into smaller pieces
2 cups chicken broth
2 bay leaves
1 to 2 tbsp sauce from canned chipotles in adobo, plus 1 whole canned chipotle chile for more heat (optional)
6 oz queso fresco, fresh cheese, farmer's cheese, or a milde feta, crumbled
Mexican or Latin cream, as much as needed (!) or substitute for creme fraiche or sour cream
1 ripe Hass avocado, halved, peeled, cut into slices

Place tomatoes and garlic in a medium saucepan. Add water to cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Simmer for about 10 minutes, until the tomatoes are thoroughly cooked, they look mushy and the skins have started to come off.

Transfer the tomatoes, 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid and garlic to a blender along with the onion, salt and pepper. Let cool slightly and puree until smooth.

Cook the chorizo in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat for 5 to 6 minutes, until it has browned and crisped; use a wooden spoon or spatula to break it into smaller pieces as it cooks. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the cooked chorizo to a bowl.

Add oil to the same skillet used to cook the chorizo, over medium-high heat. Add the spaghetti or fettuccine pieces and cook for a few minutes, stirring often, until the pasta changes color and starts to brown. Do not let it burn!!

Pour the tomato puree on the pasta. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until the sauce thickens and the color darkens to a deeper red. Add the chicken broth, bay leaves and adobo sauce, plus a whole chipotle chile in adobo, if desired.

Mix well, cook uncovered for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring often to keep the pasta from sticking, until the pasta is cooked through and the tomato sauce has thickened considerably. Discard the bay leaves.

Add the chorizo and stir to incorporate. Divide among individual plates; serve hot, topped with crumbled cheese, fresh cream and avocado slices.

Tacos Crujientes de Papa, Cebollita y Chorizo

1 lb red bliss potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
8 oz fresh, uncooked Mexican chorizo sausage, casings removed, coarsely chopped
8 scallions, white and light green parts, thinly sliced (1/2 cup)
1 tsp kosher or sea salt, or more to taste
10-12 corn tortillas
Safflower oil, for frying
Salsa verde or any salsa of your choice

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the potato pieces, once the water returns to a boil, cook for 10 to 12 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Drain.

Place the chorizo in a large skillet over medium-high heat. As it cooks, use a wooden spoon or spatula to crumble it into smaller pieces. Once it browns and crisps, 5 to 6 minutes, add the scallions and stir to combine; cook for about 1 minute or until the scallions begin to soften.

Add the cooked potatoes and salt, mashing them into the chorizo mixture with a potato masher or a wooden spoon, for about 1 minute until well combined. Remove from the heat. Taste, add salt as needed.

Heat a dry, medium skillet over medium heat. Warm the tortillas in the skillet one at a time for 15 to 30 seconds on each side, to soften them for rolling.

Place a few tablespoons of the filling on each tortilla, and roll into a taco. Insert a wooden toothpick through taco pairs through thee seams to help them retain their shape as they cook. Place the completed tacos on a platter or tray with the seam sides facing down as you work. When they have all been rolled, finish the tacos by either frying or toasting them.

To fry the tacos:
Pour enough oil into a large skillet to a depth of about 1 inch, place over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, 4 to 6 minutes, fry the tacos in batches, placing them in the skillet, without crowding them. They oil should be bubbling as they cook. Cook for about 2 to 3 minutes on the first side, until the bottom and sides have crisped and turned golden. Use tongs to turn over the tacos, cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer them to a plate lined with paper towels. Continue until all the tacos have been fried.

To toast the tacos:
Heat a large, dry skillet or comal over medium heat. Working in batches, place the tacos in the skillet. Let them toast and heat for about 3 to 4 minutes or until the tacos are browned and crisped, then flip to the other side and toast until evenly browned and crisp.

Remove all toothpicks; serve warm.

Ensalada Calientita de Camote y Chorizo
Makes 4 to 6 servings

3 lbs sweet potatoes(about 3 large sweet potatoes), peeled and cut into bite-size chunks
3 tbsp olive oil
1 cup orange juice, preferably freshly squeezed
1/2 tsp brown sugar
3/4 tsp kosher or sea salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
8 oz fresh, uncooked Mexican chorizo, casings removed and coarsely chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, stemmed and seeded if less heat is desired
1/3 cup red onion, chopped
1/3 cup cilantro, chopped

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the sweet potato pieces, once it comes back to a boil, reduce the heat to medium; simmer for about 10 minutes, until almost tender and a knife can go through without breaking a piece. Drain, and transfer to a baking dish large enough to hold the pieces almost in a single layer.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Whisk together orange juice, oil, sugar, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Pour the mixture over the sweet potatoes and toss to coat evenly. Roast for about 20 minutes, turning them after about 10 minutes, until the potato pieces have started to brown and the sauce has thickened. Remove from the oven.

Meanwhile, cook the chorizo in a medium skillet over medium-high heat; use a wooden spoon of spatula to break it into smaller pieces as it cooks. After 5 to 6 minutes, when it has nicely browned and crisped, use a slotted spoon to top the hot sweet potatoes.

Sprinkle the jalapeño, red onion and cilantro on top, and toss gently to combine. Serve warm.