Tag Archives: chiles

Sofrito Cornbread Strata

What do you do when you’ve made more cornbread than you can eat? Okay, that’s not quite the situation. I can eat a lot of cornbread, thanks to my heritage. But I did have some that was getting a bit stale, and I needed to reaffirm its importance. Hence, this Sofrito Cornbread Strata.

Seriously full of flavor, it’s like creamy polenta encased in crunchy crusty cornbread. It is absolutely center-of-the-plate material, so build the rest of the meal around it. For my meal, I added some black beans, charred broccoli, and a roasted red pepper cream sauce. Pico de gallo or another Mexican-style salsa would also be great companions.

Here’s the recipe. Some helpful notes follow. Enjoy!

Sofrito Cornbread Strata

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced
1 cup sofrito (see recipe below)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
4 cups cornbread, broken into crouton-sized bits
3 cups sweet potato, roasted, peeled, and diced
2 Poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, and diced

1. Heat oven to 350°.

2. Warm the olive oil in a heavy sauté pan over medium heat. Add the mushrooms. Sauté until they release their liquid.

3. Add sofrito and salt. Mix well. Remove from heat.

4. Place the cornbread into a large mixing bowl. Add the mushroom and sofrito mixture.

5. Add the sweet potato and the poblano. Mix well.

6. Press the mixture into several lightly-oiled cake rings (mine are 3.5 dia x 2.25 deep), and place them on a lined baking sheet. Alternatively, you can put the entire mixture into a single lightly-oiled casserole dish. (If you’re using cake rings, you can place some of the vegetables around the edges so that they are visible when you remove the rings. This adds to the visual appeal of the dish.)

7. Bake uncovered at 350° for 30 minutes. If using rings, remove them at this point and broil for 5 more minutes.

Yield: 6 servings

Helpful Notes By design, strata and their sweeter kin, bread puddings, make use of leftover bread that’s become stale. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to make a fresh batch of cornbread for this dish. There are a few other advance prep items in this recipe in addition to cornbread. They can all be made a day or two ahead of time, so that putting together the strata is a cinch. So, before beginning the recipe itself:

  • Make cornbread (use your favorite recipe)
  • Roast sweet potato
  • Make sofrito (see recipe below)
  • Roast Poblano chile (see process below)
  • Make vegetable stock (follow link for great tips—this is so easy!)

You can easily pop the sweet potato in the oven while your cornbread is baking.

The sofrito recipe yields 2 cups, only 1 of which you’ll need for the strata. Use the other cup to flavor rice (add to ½ cup rice while cooking) or beans (add to 2 cups beans after they have been cooked.)


2 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
4 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground annatto seed
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground chile (cayenne, chipotle, or ancho), optional
1/4 cup cilantro, or parsley, minced

1. Gently warm oil in sauté pan.

2. Add onion, bell pepper, and jalapeno. Sauté over medium heat for 5 minutes.

3. Add garlic, annatto, oregano, cumin, and optional chile powder. Sauté for an additional 5 or 10 minutes.

4. Add cilantro and turn off the heat.

Yield: 2 cups

Roasting Poblano Chiles: Turn your oven’s broiler on high. Place the chile in a pan under the broiler. Turn the chile every few minutes until it is entirely blackened and blistered. Place it in a plastic bag or a bowl with a cover. As the chile sweats, the peel will loosen. After about 20 minutes, you can easily remove all the peel. Resist the urge to rinse it, as doing so will wash away much of the flavorful oils. If you hit a stubborn spot where the peel won’t come off, don’t stress over it. It will be fine. Roasting can also be done on the stovetop if you have a gas stove. (This is actually closer to ‘authentic.’) Simply place the chile directly on the burner and turn on the fire. Rotate frequently as above, until the chile is fully blackened and blistered. Follow the same steps for sweating and peeling.

Speaking Southwestern

Last week, I taught a full-day workshop covering “Southwestern” cuisine. Talk about a big topic. For that term, limited though it sounds, refers to not only foods prominent in the southwestern US states, but also those in the northwestern states of Mexico. They are part of the same gumbo, to mix culinary metaphors. Federal borders aren’t real: imaginary lines on paper do nothing to stop the migration and sharing of foods, flavors, attitudes, and techniques.

When you think of the food plants that are native to the Americas, and which form the foundation of this cuisine, it continues to be dazzling: chiles (hundreds of varieties tucked into that little word!), sweet peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, squashes, beans, tomatillos, nopales, wild herbs like epazote…it’s like I was signing up to talk about every known food in the western world.

As for techniques, I was able to keep it simple, yet not less universal. With roasting, smoking, grilling, using open flames, comales, and hot ovens, it reaches across the planet during a simpler times, when we knew that cooking was a very basic matter: apply fire.

All of these things have existed for millennia, long before Mexico, the US, or the coming nations glimmered in a politician’s eye. But geography and ancient heritage were not the only challenging aspects of teaching this class.

The real challenge was in expressing something that I have been immersed in my whole life. Culturally, it seemed like teaching a Martian about Hank Williams. There’s a significant gulf between a Princeton, NJ, kitchen—the site of the class—and the soul food of the Southwest.

Thankfully, I took in a solid posse of chiles and masa. With amigos like these, one can only succeed.

Here’s the first section of my handout. It was a respectable beginning, I believe.


What is Southwestern Cuisine?

Peppers on Open Flames
Signs of good beginnings in the Southwest.

The cuisine of the Southwest is a bold, multi-lingual synthesis of methods, foods, and attitudes from native North America, old Spain, and the westward push of the US. The US-Mexico border is not its boundary; rather, the border is its central, invisible highway. It’s a scenic and aromatic route through indigenous ingenuity, the Spanish adventure, and the wild Texan fantasy of world domination. It might be tied to a region, but it contains many cultures.

Its ancient traditions bring us chiles, frijoles, corn, calabacitas, wild herbs, and fire. Though timeless, these traditions defy canonization, for they are malleable and sensual, demanding that the cook feel what is being done, rather than read what is being done. It encourages us to improvise around the elements, not to obsess over the sacraments. The individual cook must draw from her or his own experience and expertise. This food is about the richness and depth of life; through the cook’s life come new applications.

It is a hearty and earthy cuisine. It is to the southwest what soul food is to the southeast: richly flavored, hearty, earthy, spirited, accessible. It is family-informed, but open to interpretation.

It is equal parts El Paso, Santa Fe, and San Antonio; cowboy, friar, and medicine man; pueblo grandmother and ranch cook.

To me, it is the essence of cooking: knowing your materials, working within a framework of ideas, far from French rigidity. It favors easy mastery of key ingredients and techniques, and the ability to create from scratch.


Here is a small selection of recipes, so that you may have a bit of fun yourself.


Black Beans with Roasted Sofrito

Yields: 4 Servings


1 onion
1 poblano chile
1 red bell pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground annatto
1 tablespoon oregano, dried
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon chile powder, optional
2 cups cooked black beans
1/4 cup cilantro or parsley, minced

Roast onion, poblano, and red bell over open flame, in broiler, or on a comal. Remove each when skin is evenly charred.

Sweat the poblano and red bell, then remove skins.

Remove skin from onion. Dice onion, poblano, and red bell.

Warm the olive oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed sauce pan over medium heat. Add garlic, annatto, oregano, cumin, and optional chile powder. Sauté for 3 minutes.

Add onion, poblano chiles, and red bell. Stir well to incorporate.

Add cooked black beans, with as much of their cooking liquid as desired. Heat to simmer.

Add cilantro and turn off the heat.

Tomato, roasted and diced, is an excellent addition. Likewise epazote or smoked paprika.



Yields: 1 cup

Use as a marinade, or as an additive to cooked rice or beans.


3 guajillo chiles, dried
3 ancho chiles, dried
1 de arbol chile, dried
1 small yellow onion, peeled and quartered
4 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 stick cinnamon (Mexican canella is preferred)
1 1/2 teaspoon oregano, dried
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil

Heat a comal over a medium flame.

Slit each chile down one side, and remove the stems and seeds. Toast chiles on the comal for about 3 or 4 minutes, flipping over at least once.

Place chiles in a shallow bowl and cover with hot water. Add a weight to press them down into the water. Let them soak for 20 minutes or until they are soft. Discard the soaking water.

While the chiles are soaking, place onion and garlic on the comal and toast until charred. Peel garlic.

Place chiles, onion, and garlic in a food processor fitted with the ‘S’ blade.

Toast the cumin seeds and cinnamon stick for only a few seconds. Once their aroma is released, remove from the comal and place in processor.

Add remaining ingredients to the processor. Process until adobo reaches the desired consistency.

At this point, adobo can be used as a marinade or a simmering sauce.

A single batch is enough to marinate 1/2 pound of seitan or tempeh.


Tempeh and Two-Bean Chili
Tempeh and Two-Bean Chili

Tempeh and Two-Bean Chili

Yields: 8 Servings


2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
8 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon chile powder
1 tablespoon oregano
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 pound tempeh, crumbled
1/2 cup tomato paste
2 cups cooked pinto beans
2 cups cooked kidney beans
1 cup corn kernels
2 teaspoons sea salt
4 cups vegetable stock or liquid from cooking beans
1/2 cup parsley, minced

Warm the oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium heat. Add onion and sauté till translucent.

Add carrot, garlic, cumin, chile powder, oregano, paprika, and black pepper. Sauté for 5 minutes.

Add tempeh and cook for 5 minutes.

Add tomato paste and mix thoroughly.

Add beans, corn, salt and stock. Bring to a boil then lower to simmer. Simmer till heated throughout.

Mix in parsley just before serving.


Red Chile Sauce

Yields: 1 quart


2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 tablespoons chile powder
4 cups stock or water
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup masa harina
3/4 cup cold water

Warm the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan over medium heat.

Add onion, garlic, and chile powder.

When onions are soft but not caramelized, add stock and sea salt.

Bring to boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes.

Whisk masa harina into cold water. When all lumps are gone, whisk this mixture into the simmering chile.

Continue to simmer until sauce thickens, about 10 to 20 minutes.

If you want a completely smooth sauce, pass the onions and garlic through a food processor with the ‘S’ blade prior to cooking. Alternatively, blend the final sauce in a blender.

Great additions include Mexican oregano and cumin. Experiment with adding cacao.

As an alternative to chile powder, use 2 or 3 dried whole chiles. Toast them briefly on a comal then remove the stems and seeds.

Soul’s Harvest

The final harvest is underway, and among the fruits are my memories. Among those nourished is my soul.

I have such a deep history with food, thanks to family, tradition, and good fortune.

I remember summers spent in my great-uncle Pete’s cornfields. From those endless seas of grass we picked truckloads of corn. I’m not exaggerating: The F-150 would be full to the brim with aromatic ears of grain. The plants, taller than I was, were bounteous in a way that dazzles me still. So much food from such a little seed. A story as old as the planet, but still fascinating.

That truckload of corn didn’t shuck itself. We spent days, it seemed, removing husks. I’m still pretty efficient, remembering the best method for removing leaves and silks in just a few motions, revealing the clean and gleaming kernels.

Mom would stay up all night processing the corn for freezing. She did the same with the acres of peas we harvested. Likewise for the tomatoes, with the canning rig all revved up and running into the morning. The popping of canning lids, signaling a job perfectly done, is still music to me.

My last major garden in Denver was a crazy one. Tomatillos, doing what they do best, multiplying by the millions; volunteer tomatoes plants, with the momentum of 7 years of compost behind them; epazote springing up like the wonderful weed that it is; chiles, and a milpa of squash, beans, corn—all of which beautified the table during summer. Once summer ended, there were more lids popping into the morning, as salsa was preserved for the winter months.

And now, here at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary, in this glorious Hudson Valley, I have a new garden. It is far more productive than any I’ve had before, courtesy of the copious amounts of aged, natural fertilizer. The tomatoes, chiles, and cilantro, in a late-season frenzy, have provided me with yet another reason to make salsa.

I am fortunate to be able to continue—and modify—a very core family tradition. Renewal of traditions always brings modifications, for they are concepts, not code-bound engineering drawings. Traditions are not about technical matters; they are about soul. The soul of personal gardening, though malleable, also remains constant: Nurture the garden, use its bounty to nurture others, through either the food itself or the fellowship surrounding it. Score another one for the Tao.

This week, I took salsa to my neighbors Frank and Kathy, and we swapped tales of gardens past. I dropped some off to another neighbor, Susan, as she was picking lettuce for her evening salad. “I have plenty of kale and salad greens left,” I told her. “Come get some. There are chiles, too.”

She responded with an even exchange: some sweet peppers and Anaheim chiles, full of the colors of fading summer. I’m now working on getting those put away, eager to savor them in February.

Yes, without a doubt there is technique involved in preserving food. There are things that must be done just right. If that lid doesn’t pop, it’s all for nothing.

That popping of the lid signals a technical job well done. But more than that, it confirms that all is well with my soul.