Where There's Smoke

Pick a peck of Oyamel's peppers

The secret to quality Mexican cooking is, of course, in the chile peppers.

So chef Joe Raffa of Oyamel spends a lot of his time tracking small-scale farmers in far-flung regions of Mexico to procure his spicy stash.

Raffa seeks smoky, hot peppers to use in ceviches, sauces, salads and salsas. The heat from the peppers has an uncanny way of drawing out the best flavors of the other ingredients.

Among recent hauls, Raffa tracked down 50 pounds of rare pasilla de Oaxaca peppers. The dark, shiny skin delivers a slow-building burn that Raffa uses in unexpectedly delicate ways.

For the restaurant's recent squash blossom festival, the kitchen blended the peppers into a spicy salad dressing to coat bright tomatoes, crisp purslane and paper-thin squash blossom petals (click here for the recipe). The smoke and spice accent the tomatoes, making them taste sweeter and more juicy.

The peppers pop up occasionally in specialty food shops, but can be easily substituted with chipotle chiles. Raffa substitutes tan meco and red morita peppers–from Northern Mexico–when he can't track down the Oaxacan peppers.

Rehydrated, the peppers add nice flavor when blended into guacamole, and give an extra kick to a pitcher of margaritas.

Oyamel, 401 7th St. NW (at D St.); 202-628-1005 or oyamel.com