I moved to Madison, WI from Tucson, AZ over 10 years ago with just a few possessions. A cupboard (that functioned as a dresser), some clothes and two bikes, which I considered moderately important, I shoved in a small trailer and towed behind my car. My most prized possessions I packed carefully, protected from the baking sun and placed in the front seat next to me. I’m not talking about my pet cat, though he was up there, too. I am referring to two other items that I grew to love while living in Arizona - chile powder and beans.
I was leaving the beautiful Sonoran Desert and my job at Native Seeds/SEARCH in pursuit of higher education. I had worked at the small non-profit for a number of years, helping to clean and store seeds from the myriad heirloom crops that they grew and collected. I also worked in the storefront, which sold all sorts of native foods and collectibles. Some of the products I used often were the multi-colored beans, the sweet corn chicos, dried cholla buds and mesquite meal. But my two favorite items were the Aji Amarillo chile powder and the white tepary beans.
Tepary beans are native to the Desert Southwest and grow under extreme drought – the bean matures on one single irrigation or thunderstorm! The indigenous people near Tucson, the Tohono O’odham, have cultivated and eaten tepary beans for centuries. Aji Amarillo peppers are native to Peru, imparting a hot but delicately fruity flavor. The saffron gold color of the powder reflects its robust flavor.
Pairing beans with chiles is like partnering wine with cheese (or beer and cheese in Wisconsin). The combination is always a winner. As a matter of fact, a friend and I won first place at an informal chili cook-off my first year in grad school in Wisconsin. We combined the teparies and the Aji powder, with many other top-secret ingredients (winter squash and cocoa powder were two of them) and the result was unbelievable, but that’s another story.
I forgot about Aji Amarillo powder after I had used most of it up and given the rest away. It became a heart-warming memory of my former life in the Southwest. I settled for regular, red chile powder for a while, moping about that these northerners knew nothing about chiles. Going to the store I could choose from about three different types, varying from medium to hot. It worked fine, but I always longed for the full flavor of the Aji chile.
Recently at the Saturday farmer’s market I came across a pile of fresh Aji chiles. I was so excited that I bought a bunch. They were not Aji Amarillo peppers, but an Aji with a delicate green-yellow color. The medium hot peppers impart the same citrus-y flavor as I remembered the Aji Amarillo having. With no teparies in sight, I wondered what to do. With a tip of my hat to my desert past, I embraced my Upper-Midwestern life and all that it has to offer. I chopped a bunch of the tomatillos that are growing rampant in my garden, and some of the chiles. Adding a smooth bite of avocado to balance the crispness of the tomatillos and peppers, and some herbs and spices, I made a Tomatillo-Aji-Avocado Salsa Fresca. Perfect to conjure sweet memories, and create spicy new ones.
Tomatillo-Aji-Avocado Salsa Fresca
Please use quantities that taste good to you! This is an approximation.
2 cups of fresh tomatillos, de-skinned, rinsed and chopped (1-1.5 cup chopped)
1 avocado, pitted and chopped
½ -1 Aji pepper, seeded, chopped (use gloves!)
1 tsp salt
1.5 tsp sugar
juice of 1 lime
½ cup cilantro chopped
Mix it all and adjust ingredients until it tastes delicious!Eat.