Red Pipian Seafood Soup
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This is an unorthodox way of putting together a very classic sauce. Red pipian (pipián rojo) is one of Mexico’s famous mole sauces, but unlike some of its daunting Oaxacan cousins, it doesn’t take very long to prepare, and it only requires two types of chilies. The sauce is based created by combining ancho and guajillo chilies with nuts and seeds in order to create a velvety and creamy sauce. Red pipian is superb in pretty much any iteration, but I was particularly taken with a recipe by Pati Jinich that marries the wonderful pipian base with pureed tomatoes. I mentioned Pati and her incredible Chicken Tinga recipe in a previous post, and I’ve actually been spending a lot of time with her books this month; her recipes are thoughtful and authentic while remaining entirely approachable. I also had the distinct pleasure of meeting her last week at an event hosted by Barbara Jo’s Books to Cooks here in Vancouver (the store is sadly closed now, but food and book delights are still going on under the same name), and she was every bit as wonderful and talented in person.
I wanted to do a rich sauce this month (without spending 3 days on a hardcore mole), so I decided to do something that riffs off of the Shrimp in Red Pipian recipe found in her book “Pati’s Mexican Table” Now this sauce is good – so good in fact that it seems a shame not to just eat it straight up with a spoon. So that’s exactly what I did here – I’ve adapted the recipe and turned it into a luxurious seafood soup. Seafood and pipian are a match made in heaven, and the whole thing is shockingly flavourful despite the relative paucity of fat. Putting the two together in this way also touches on something very important that Pati brought up at the little class/lunch I was at: the concept of marrying your sauce to your meal. The idea is fairly simple – some component of the meal should be used to tie the sauce in with all of the other ingredients, otherwise it will feel like it’s been slapped onto the meal and not partnered with it. This is a hallmark of good Mexican cooking, but it’s also a common practice in a wide variety of cuisines (gravy, jus, and deglazed sauces are all perfect examples). In this particular instance, the clam broth gives the soup/sauce a salty-sweet marine flavour profile, allowing it to play nicely with the squid and shrimp.
Even if seafood isn’t really your thing, I seriously encourage you to give this sauce a try. You could make chicken, beef, chickpeas, roasted peppers, and any number of other ingredients work with it. Whatever you do choose to do, I recommend you make sure to marry your sauce to your ingredients for the best overall effect!
The combination of the two chilies is essential for creating the character of this sauce. As is often the case with chilies, simply specifying the number necessary can be a bit confusing, as the size can vary (especially for the ancho chilies, which can vary considerably in size). Six guajillo chilies is generally a good number, as they tend to be pretty even in size. The ancho chilies that I can get tend to be a little smaller than some available in or near Mexico, so depending on the size you can get, you may only need two. When in doubt, weigh your peppers (before removing the stems and seeds) for best results. You should be able to find both types of peppers at a Mexican or Latin American grocery store. If there isn’t one in your area, try looking for an online retailer; because they’re a dried good, they ship well. As for the spice level, this soup has a tiny bit of heat, but it’s certainly not what I would call spicy. While there are a lot of dried peppers, guajillos and anchos tend not to impart too much heat to a dish. Both of my kids (aged 1 and 4) were able to eat this without any complaints at all.
Make sure to time things carefully so that you’re adding the seafood at the end, ideally right before serving. If the shrimp and squid sit in the soup/sauce for too long, they’ll get tough, chewy, and flavourless. Less is more when it comes to this kind of seafood. If you decide to use a larger shrimp species (I used the small cold water shrimp from Canada’s North), adjust your cooking time slightly, and take care to account for how long the squid need to be in. You don’t want to overcook one seafood at the expense of another. As for the clams, Manila clams tend to be the easiest to find, but you could use any number of clam species. I personally wouldn’t use mussels, as I think they would be overwhelmed by the sauce. You can also use frozen clam meat (especially if you can’t get good clams), but if you do, make sure to buy some clam broth to add in place of the cooking liquid. If you’re looking for a substitution, firm white fish (especially large, bone-in pieces) would stand in for any of the seafood quite well (though I’d use fish stock in place of the clam broth if you drop the shellfish altogether).
When you’re making the sauce, take care not to add any salt until after you’ve added the clam broth. Clams and clam broth can be quite salty on their own, and you want to make sure that everything has come together before you adjust the salt level. That being said, once you do get to that point, don’t be shy about adding salt – this sauce, like a lot of Mexican sauces, really comes alive when it’s salted properly. If you decide to make red pipian without seafood (i.e. as a sauce only), you can add salt earlier in the process.
If you decide you want to use the pipian as a stand-alone sauce, I’ve given instructions to reduce it (see the printable instructions below or click here).
Nutritional information is given for a single serving (approximately 1/8th of the total recipe).
- 1.3 kg Manila clams cleaned (and purged if necessary)
- 250 g squid scored and cut into small strips (or use rings)
- 200 g small shrimp
- 2 large bay leaves
- 500 g roma tomatoes
- 4-5 shallots (about 150 g) unpeeled
- 6 cloves garlic unpeeled
- 1/2 cup roasted peanuts
- 1/2 cup pepitas (unsalted, unroasted pumpkin seeds)
- 3 tbsp white sesame seeds
- 6 guajillo chilies (about 55 g/2oz) see note
- 3 medium ancho chilies (about 25 g/1 oz) see note
- 1 tbsp piloncillo or dark brown sugar
- 4 cloves
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp black pepper freshly ground
- 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1.5 tsp salt or to taste
- avocado to garnish (optional)
- Heat a large pan over medium heat (I like to use a cast iron pan, but anything should work as long as you keep an eye on it). Gently lay the chilies in the pan and toast them for about 20-30 seconds (less if they begin to sear) per side. They should become softer, dark, and pliable.
- Place the toasted chilies in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Bring the pot to a gentle simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Set the pot aside (do not discard the water).
- Heat a large pan over medium heat (once again, I prefer cast iron for this). Add the pumpkin seeds and toast, stirring frequently. The seeds should begin to brown and pop after about 3-4 minutes, taking care not to burn them (if they do begin to burn, remove them from the pan and reduce the heat, then return them and continue). Add the sesame seeds and toast for an additional 2 minutes. Add the cloves and peanuts and toast for an additional minute. Make sure to stir everything regularly. Remove the mixture from heat and set aside.
- Spread the tomatoes, onions, and garlic on a baking tray if using a broiler, or a grilling tray if using an outdoor grill (my preference). Char the ingredients under a high broiler or a medium grill; about 8-12 minutes, depending on the method you use. The shallot and garlic skins should be well blackened, and the tomatoes should be soft and splitting with a few charred patches. Set everything aside to cool.
- Peel the cooled garlic and shallots and add them to a blender or food processor along with the tomatoes, chilies, and 1 cup of the cooking liquid from the chilies. Add all of the toasted ingredients, cinnamon, pepper, sugar, and vinegar. Blend until smooth.
- Place the cleaned clams in a large pot. Add 3 cups of water, cover, and heat over medium. Allow the clams to simmer/steam until all the shells are open - about 5-7 minutes. Remove the clams, strain the liquid and set aside.
- Heat the oil in a large pot until very hot; about 1 minute (you can use the clam pot again). Add the pureed pipian sauce, reduce the heat to medium, and bring to a gentle simmer. Add the broth and return to a simmer, and add the salt (make sure to taste the mixture, as the clam broth adds salt on its own). Cook for 5-10 minutes. At this point, you can either proceed with the next step to finish the soup, or reduce the mixture by about 1/3 (30-40 minutes) to make a thicker sauce-like soup.
- Add the squid and shrimp and cook for 3-4 minutes. The squid should be firm, but tender. Add the clams and warm through, then serve, topped with a little avocado or cilantro.
The combination of the two chilies is essential for creating the character of this sauce. As is often the case with chilies, simply specifying the number necessary can be a bit confusing, as the size can vary (especially for the ancho chilies, which can vary considerably in size). Six guajillo chilies is generally a good number, as they tend to be pretty even in size. The ancho chilies that I can get tend to be a little smaller than some available in or near Mexico, so depending on the size you can get, you may only need two. When in doubt, weigh your peppers (before removing the stems and seeds) for best results.