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Food Adventures 101: Reap the Spices of Your Labor

El Maguey in Lake Saint Louis gave me the insider's scoop on truly spicy salsa.

Having recently moved from New Mexico (ok, it's been seven months to be fair), I've found myself feverishly searching for some semblence of spicy food.

To define the term "spicy," I would say, if it doesn't make you choke up or tear up it's not hot enough.

Spicy food should not only consist of heat, however. It should also knock you out with flavor, whether roasted, fruity, citrus or otherwise. In an ideal world there is a beautiful balance to be obtained.

In Missouri you can find spicy elements in many different ethnic cuisines, though of course the most comparable here is Mexican.

One thing many people don't realize is that Mexican and New Mexican food are not the same.

New Mexican food is a medley of Mexican, Native American and Spanish culture. It is heavily, I repeat heavily, defined by New Mexico's largest agricultural crop, the green chile. 

Red chile is also a heavy hitter, as is the sopapilla with honey ( a fried, pillowy dessert bread) and enchiladas.

When considering the difference in Mexican cuisine, think corn, rice and beans, a more mild version of red chile sauce, and flavoring spices and herbs like bitter chocolate, cinnamon and cilantro.

This week, to be fair, I decided not to compare and contrast a New Mexican to a Mexican recipe. In an effort to succumb to and embrace my new-found mid-western lifestyle, I chose to find the best of what Lake Saint Louis had to offer in spicy food.

I found it at . For 45 minutes I sat and talked in depth with the restaurant's employees about topics such as what they consider to be the spiciest item on the menu, and more importantly, what they cook for themselves at home.

To the untrained tongue, anything beyond a "medium spicy" label is instant cause to run for a cool drink, but this week I'm pushing you out of your comfort zone (a little, or a lot, depending on your zone), with these results.

Vincento, an El Maguey employee, said his favorite dish his mother makes for him when he visits his home in Mexico is Chile Colorado, a simmering bliss of beef, red chile sauce, rice, beans and flour tortillas. It's the equivalent of Mexican comfort food and can be found on El Maguey's menu.

I tried to convince Vincento to ask the chef for his red chile sauce recipe, but was met with a solemn face and an answer that it was a secret recipe, even to him.

Alejandro and Ricardo, two other helpful advice givers at El Maguey, recommended the Camarones a la Diabla as the spiciest dish on the menu.

It comes with shrimp and the restaurant's signature salsa (I tried it, it is definitely spicier than some, to a pleasing extent), rice Jalisco style (with tomatoes and spices added) and guacamole.

But I was still left with questions and a hunger for spice. Also, I needed a solid recipe to give our food adventurist Patch readers for a trail-blazing spicy dish.

Finally, Vincento, Alejandro and Ricardo put their heads together and gave me such a winner of a recipe I almost did a dance of joy.

Salsa Verde

  • 4 Serrano Jalapenos
  • 5 Tomatillos
  • 1/2 T La Sal (salt), or to taste
  • 4 cloves Ajo (garlic), mince
  • 1/4 bunch Cilantro, destem, mince

While the ingredients may seem simple enough, it's the amount of each one that comes into important play here.

When choosing your serranos, look for the ones with white lines on them, said Ricardo. These lines indicate the pepper is mature and very spicy.

Boil the serranos in water until tender to maximize their spiciness. You can also fry them in oil, but Ricardo said the best method is to boil.

Boil the tomatillos in water about three minutes. You can peel them or not, as long as they are tender enough to puree. 

Mix all ingredients together in a blender, then adjust seasonings.

You won't find this salsa recipe in any Mexican restaurant in Lake Saint Louis, or surrounding areas, so hit the kitchen and get cooking to enjoy this spicy food adventure.

Next Week: Steak, thick and juicy.

Calling all Chefs: Think your restaurant has what it takes to make it to the top of our 'Best Of' List? Got a trick up your sleeve even the best home cook can't replicate? Let us know, and we'll come check you out!

Michelle Blodget June 29, 2011 at 01:56 AM
Hi Geri! I do believe there are places that serve what many consider to be spicy food, absolutely, and in Lake Saint Louis too. The guys at El Maguey knew exactly what they were doing, and I was so happy they were in Lake Saint Louis. I think that my personal spice preference could be described as extreme, having grown up with a mother who could eat food so spicy tears would run down her face, yet she wouldn't stop because she loved it so much. In New Mexico we would attend food festivals growing up that would serve salsa so hot a half a teaspoon could make your mouth burn overnight and into the next day - but you still remembered the flavors. If you know of a place where I could have that type of experience, I would genuinely love to hear about it - any advice would be great! Thank you so much for your comments, your tip for ordering sauces on the side is perfect for someone testing the spicy waters.
Geri Greene June 29, 2011 at 03:06 AM
Ruiz Castillo in Wright City has some of the best Verde sauce I've tasted, as well as a menu that offers everything I could wish to eat. I now live in Florissant where Ruiz has flourished for some 40 years, but the Wright City cousin is an excellent representation of Mexican food in the Midwest - imo. It's great to have this dialogue as I am a huge fan of Mex and Tex Mex in a town that pronounces Gallardo as Gal Lard O............;-) Keep writing and giving us options!
Geri Greene June 29, 2011 at 03:13 AM
The comment on sauces on the side, comes from my brother in El Paso, where you can eat any version of fire until you can eat no more, and from a marriage to man whose first experience with Mexican foods came while on business travel. His hosts told him that little green pepper was really sweet and delicious - and he nearly died for two days trying to flush the fire. When his new wife was eager to visit a Mexican restaurant, the sweat broke out on his brow immediately, but he humored me, ordering only a minimal sampling, when I normally knew him to be a healthy eater. When the food came, and it was edible, the rest of the story tumbled out in great relief and from there I learned of the prank played upon him and his tongue by his buddies in New Mexico! My El Paso brother is the one who mention to always keep the sour cream at hand!
Tamara Duncan June 29, 2011 at 01:36 PM
Great stories, Geri! And thanks for the tip about the sauces on the side. I have to admit I'm a wimp when it comes to spicy food. Does sour cream help cut the fire?
Geri Greene June 29, 2011 at 06:09 PM
Sour cream cuts the fire. Milk cuts the fire. Water does not - tortillas can cut the firey tastes. Again - don't turn away from Mexican food - an authentic Mexican restaurant does NOT add chili powder and hot spices to every dish with no other options. American based Mexican chains seem to think everything has to have chili powder flavor. - They will usually inform the customer about what is bland and what it not. Order it bland with sauces on the side so you can control the flame! I'm quite hungry now, so guess where I am going for lunch!

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