Diana Kennedy Shares 8 Recipes from Her Mexican Kitchen

From the Food & Wine archives, here's the late cookbook author's classic advice on cooking with chiles, a field guide to the most essential varieties in Mexican cooking, and some of her most beloved recipes.

Cookbook author Diana Kennedy at home in Zitacuaro, Mexico in November 1989
Photo: Ann Summa / Getty Images

Editor's note: The food world is mourning the loss of Diana Kennedy, who died this week at the age of 99 at her home in Michoacán, Mexico. Kennedy's influence on Americans' understanding of regional Mexican food cannot be overstated. Though she was English by birth, her books, including the 1972 The Cuisines of Mexico, 1975's The Tortilla Book, and 1998's My Mexico were the result of on-the-ground scholarship that spanned the diversity of the country's ingredients, cooking techniques, and dishes. This feature "Diana Kennedy Shares 7 Recipes from Her Mexican Kitchen" (we've added another that was too good not to share) originally ran as the cover story for the April 1996 issue of Food & Wine.

The chile, it seems to me, is one of the few foods that has its own goddess. In Mexican cuisine and lore, this "Respectable Lady of the Little Red Chile'" is a deity that represents the chile's everlasting significance in the ritual life of the culture. Losio, the Zapotec god who looks after newly sown crops, also takes an interest in the chile. And in Pahuatlan, Puebla, Otomi Indians believe in chile plant spirits that protect the seeds and the harvest.

When Mexicans aren't praising the chile. they are eating it: fresh, dried, smoked, pickled, or skinned and then dried (pasado). Whole chile are stuffed, shredded, ground, chopped and mashed for everything from vegetable side dishes to relishes and thickeners for sauces.

In my many years of wandering in Mexico, I have learned one important thing about chiles: you can never be quite sure what you've got. That's understandable since Mexico has the greatest variety of chiles in the world; a few years ago, a Mexican botanist hazarded a guess of 200. Each small village or larger valley has its own local chile.

Some chiles are quite distinct and immediately recognizable, such as wild one or those grown in remote places. However, the common chiles we see today, descendants of pre-Columbian plants, are more difficult to identify. A variety found in Oaxaca might look just like one with another name in Guerrero, but you'll find it's not the same. Conversely, one chile can go by several different names in different regions.

A word about chile heat: I am skeptical about the rigidity of the Scoville chart, a scale popularly used to measure the pungency of chiles. A type that tastes mildly hot today may be very hot tomorrow. Climate. soil and vegetation all have an influence on potency. Rather than categorize chiles by heat, I select them by taste, color and size. When you realize that a chile contributes not only heat but also an incomparably complex flavor to Mexican cuisine, you can appreciate why chiles are a food of the gods.

What follows is a guide to buying, storing, and using widely available fresh and dried chiles and seven favorite recipes.

Fresh Chiles

How to Buy and Store Fresh Chiles

Make sure that they are firm to the touch and the skin is smooth. Once they are wrinkled, their crisp texture and fresh flavor are gone, and they develop an earthy taste.

Use serranos, jalapeños, poblanos, and verdes while they are still green unless the recipe states otherwise.

Use them as soon after purchasing as possible. Otherwise, store them for up to two weeks wrapped in a dry terry cloth towel inside a paper bag in the refrigerator or a cool dark place. Do not freeze.


Chilaca is a long and narrow (about 7 inches by 1 inch) dark to blackish green chile with a shiny surface formed by undulating vertical ridges. Chilacas have a slightly sweet flavor and vary from mildly hot to hot.

They are commonly used around Mexico City. particularly in the state of Michoacan, where they are also known a cuemillos (big horn), or chiles para deshebrar (chiles to shred). They are charred, shredded and used in tamales. vegetable dishes, and tomato sauces. Dried chilacas are called pasillas.


Habanero is a squat chile with a slightly tapering lantern shape, about 1 3/4. inches long and 1 1/4. inches across. Its pale to medium green color ripens to yellow and then to orange (there are cultivars that ripen to a pale apricot color and other to a chocolate brown). The surface is very shiny, almost translucent, and undulating. It is often rated as the hottest chile in Mexico (although I would say one of the hottest) with a lingering flavor and aroma when charred.

In Yucatan. where it is charred and mashed with lime juice and salt, it is used as a condiment. Iti also left whole. charred and added to beans or tomato sauce or can be finely sliced and added to pickled onions. It is not used dried in Mexico.


Jalapeño chile is named for its birthplace. Jalapa, the capital of the state of Veracruz, although it is now grown in many parts of Mexico. These chile are without a doubt the best known outside of Mexico because they are pickled. canned and widely distributed. There are many cultivars, but they are all unmistakable: a smooth blunt-nosed elongated triangle. about 2 1/2 inches long and 1 inch wide, whose color is aszhiny medium to dark green that ripens to a bright red. Some have dark patches; others have a brown vertical striping, or corking. They are very fiery.

Jalapeños are most commonly eaten pickled; they're also eaten charred and blended into sauces. Narrow strips can be cooked with shredded meat for tamales or empanadas, and in Veracruz the whole chile is charred. peeled and stuffed with cheese. meat, or fish. Ripened and smoke-dried, the jalapeño is called chilpotle.


Poblano is a chile named for the valley of Puebla, where it is grown extensively. is large, fleshy and triangle-shaped with a shiny. green to blackish green color that ripens to a deep red. An average poblano is 4 inches long and 2 inches across the top; it is distinguished by a deep ridge around the base of the stalk. It has a delicious mild to hot flavor.

With rare exceptions, the poblano is charred and peeled before using. It is cut into strips and fried with potatoes or corn, stuffed for chiles rellenos or cut into strips and added to tomato sauces. It is also pureed in the blender and added to sauces and soups. Dried, it is called ancho.

This chile is erroneously referred to as pasilia in many California markets (or even fresh pasilla, a contradictory term since pasilla refers to something dried and wrinkled).


Serrano is the chile most commonly used throughout Mexico for making sauces. Generally speaking, serranos are small (2 inches long and 1/2 inch wide) and lightly pointed at the tip. They are medium to dark green with occasional dark patches; they ripen to a bright red. Their heat varies from hot to very hot.

These chiles are never skinned, nor are the seeds removed. They are chopped or crushed for fresh sauces and guacamole: sirnrnered or charred for tomato or tomatillo sauce; cut into strips and cooked with vegetables: and very often prepared whole en escabeche, meaning lightly pickled. When left whole and lightly charred, they are known as toreados and are served with meat or soups.

Verde Del Norte

Verde Del Norte is a long, skinny. bright green chile grown principally in Chihuahua, where it is called chilaca (even though it's not a true chilaca as described above). or chile verde, and in Sonora. where it is known a chile Magdalena. named for the town that is the center of the growing area. It is similar to the Anaheim chile, which is available in California . Its smooth, slightly undulating surface ripens to bright orange and then red. Compared with other chiles, it does not have a very distinct flavor: it varies from mild to fairly hot.

The chile verde is always charred and peeled before using since it has a tough skin. It can be stuffed for chiles rellenos, cut into strips for chile con queso, and chopped for sauces.

Dried Chiles

How to Buy and Store Dried Chiles

Whenever possible, buy loose, rather than packaged, chiles so that you can examine them closely. Besides, they are much cheaper. Accustom yourself to the shape of the chiles so that you can be sure you are getting the correct one. Packaged chiles in particular are often mislabeled.

Select chiles that are still a little flexible and not dried to a crisp. If only crisp ones are available, place them on a warm pan before using; as they heat through they will become pliable. On the other hand, do not buy damp dried chiles, for it means that either they have been incorrectly stored or the vendor has dampened them so that they will weigh more. Chances are the moisture will cause mold to form.

Store in a cool, dry place, or freeze in a freezer bag.

Check your dried chiles to make sure the fruit moth has not damaged them. If it has, the chiles' skin will be translucent, and there will be dark eggs just visible that will hatch greedy caterpillars.

How to Char and Skin Fresh Chiles

Skinning fresh chiles by charring and sweating them not only loosens the skins effectively but also enhances the flavor of the flesh. Follow these four tips.

Place the chile directly over an open flame or under a broiler and turn until blistered and charred. Do this quickly so that the flesh does not cook. Do not attempt to char a chile on a fork over heat; you'll be at it all day.

If your chiles are wrinkled and not too fresh or if you are using a broiler, rub the skins lightly with vegetable oil before charring.

Immediately put the charred chiles into a plastic or paper bag or under a damp cloth and set aside to sweat for about 10 minutes. Do not rinse them in cold water as some cookbooks suggest; they will lose flavor.

If you have sensitive skin, wear thin rubber or surgical gloves before you start this step. Slide your hands over the chlles and slip off the blackened skin. Don't worry about picking off each bit of skin; it will take forever.


Ancho is the most commonly used dried chile throughout Mexico. It is in fact the poblano ripened to a deep red and then dried. A good ancho (which means wide), about 4 1/2 inches long and 3 inches wide, has flexible, reddish brown wrinkled skin that still has some shine. Its heat ranges from almost mild to hot.

As it dries out, the color becomes increasingly dark and more difficult to distinguish from that of the mulato. To accurately identify the ancho, slit it open and hold it up to the light: it should be a reddish color; the mulato, a brownish color . The ancho is decidedly fruitier and sharper than the mulato.

The ancho is most commonly used lightly toasted and soaked, or just soaked, and then ground smooth with other ingredients for cooked sauces. It can be lightly pickled or rehydrated and stuffed.


Cascabel is a small, round chile, about 1 inch long and 1 1/4 inches in diameter. It has reddish brown skin. Its name derives from cascabel, or rattlesnake, because its seeds rattle inside if you shake it. It is quite hot.

It has a rich earthy flavor when toasted and used with its seeds in a rustic table sauce or in a cooked sauce made with tomatoes or tomatillos.


Chilpotle (sometimes written chilpocle or chipotle) is the jalapeño ripened and smoke-dried. Its name is derived from the Nàhuatl Indian words chil (chile) and poctli (smoke). Relatively small (about 2 1/4 inches long and 3/4 inch wide), it has tough, leathery, wrinkled, light-brown skin whose surface appears to be covered with a golden webbing. It's extremely hot and has a fruity-smoky flavor.

The chilpotle is used most frequently in escabeche. It is also used whole or in pieces to season broth and is sometimes stuffed. A greater part of the crop is destined for canning as chilpotles en adobo. For years a favorite in Mexico, this condiment has taken the North American gastronomic world by storm. The mixture pops up in anything and everything: sauces, seasoning pastes, soups, salads, breads, but not yet, I sincerely hope, in ice cream. Of the many brands exported from Mexico, my preference is for those packed in a dark-colored sauce, a real adobo, rather than those in a more acidic, tomato-based sauce. Of course, you always get great results if you make your own.

Because it is cheaper and more easily available, another type of dried and smoked jalapeño has supplanted the chilpotle in many recipes: the chilpotle mora. About 2 inches by 3/4 inch, it is mulberry colored with a matte, very wrinkled skin. It is close to the chilpotle in flavor and piquancy.

Finally, the smallest smoked chile is the morita, which is triangular, smooth, mulberry-colored and about 1 inch long and 1/2 inch wide. It is probably a late-harvested ripe jalapeño and therefore considered a chilpotle, but there is some debate on the subject. It's used with anchos to give extra heat to a sauce, and it seasons potato and nopal (cactus) dishes.

De Arbol

De Arbol is not from a tree as the word árbol suggests but from a tall, rangy plant. The fresh chile is a bright green that ripens to bright red, a color that it retains when it is dried with care. It is long and skinny (about 3 inches by 1 inch) with a smooth skin. It is exceedingly hot.

This chile can be toasted and ground with other ingredients for a piquant table sauce or added to fried beans. But perhaps most commonly it is lightly toasted and ground to a powder for sprinkling on peanuts, fruits, cucumbers and jicama.


Guajillo, along with the ancho, is one of the most frequently used dried chiles in Mexico. It is widely available and cheaper than most others. It has a smooth, tough, dark-red skin with purplish tones. It is long and narrow, tapering to a point (about 5 inches long and 1 1/2 inches across its widest point). It can range from fairly hot to hot with a pleasant, sharp flavor. A narrower guajillo, called puya, is considerably more piquant.

Guajillos are occasionally used toasted and ground for a table sauce, but more often they are ground with other ingredients to make a seasoning paste or cooked sauce for meats. Strain the sauce through a fine strainer to remove any tough bits of skin.


Mulato, rarely used in its fresh state and one of the most expensive dried chiles, is essentially the same as the poblano (ancho), but it has slightly different genes that give it its darker, shinier and smoother skin and sweeter, almost chocolatey, taste (see ancho, previous page, for tips on distinguishing the two types). A top-quality mulato is 5 inches long and 3 inches wide on the average and can range from quite mild to rather hot.

The mulato is most commonly used toasted and soaked, or just soaked, and then ground smooth in cooked sauces, such as a mole. It can also be rehydrated and stuffed.


Pasilla is the chilaca ripened and dried. About 6 inches long and 1 inch wide, it has a shiny, black, wrinkled surface with vertical ridges. Its flavor is rich but sharp.

This chile is used toasted or soaked and then blended smooth with other ingredients in cooked sauces or rustic table sauces, which are particularly good with seafood. It can also be rehydrated, stuffed and fried.

Seco Del Norta

Seco Del Norte, also called chile de la tierra, California chile pod or dried Anaheim, is the verde del norte ripened and dried. An average one is about 5 inches long and almost 2 inches wide. It is very full at the top and either tapers to a point or is blunt nosed. It is burgundy colored with a smooth, matte finish. The flavor is sharp and slightly acidic and can range from mild to hot.

The scarlet sauce made from this chile is used for asados (northern meat stews), carne con chile, enchiladas and chilaquiles. Strain the sauce to remove any tough bits of skin.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles