This week, from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen: Pasilla Chile-Black Bean Casserole (aka budan de pasilla) with Jicama and Cucumber Salad. Rick Bayless may have taken a wrong turn on the journey to celebrity chef-dom when he lent his name to both Applebee’s* and a line of frozen pizzas**, but his cookbooks are wonderfully educational and full of great flavor. I’d been considered one of his moles, but I’m irresistibly drawn to lasanga-like layered dishes; pasilla is also a common base chile for mole, so it seemed like the best of both worlds.

* Rule # 4 to becoming a celebrity chef: Whatever Tyler Florence does, do the opposite.

** The fact that the pizzas are sold at Whole Foods does not in any way mitigate their troublesome existence.

Nobody drinks from my girl!

In Mexican Kitchen, Bayless lays out his 16 essential sauces, salsas and seasoning pastes, all of which are delicious, versatile and easy to make in bulk. The flavor base of the casserole is his Essential Pasilla Chile Paste, which may not photograph well but man does it make the kitchen smell good. The paste starts with toasted and re-hydrated chiles blended with roasted garlic, Mexican oregano and cumin until thoroughly sludgy and unattractive.

Pasilla chiles are dark brownish-purple with long, thin pods. They’re rich, earthy and complex, with a lilting, noticeable fruitiness; my specimens had a distinct raisin-y fragrance (the word pasilla actually means “little raisin”). Along with ancho and mulatto chiles, they form part of the traditional base of mole sauce.

I’m sorry: America does not think we can make you a supermodel.

Forcing the resulting sludge through a fine mesh strainer = painstaking.

The straining produces a thick, smooth sauce. To deepen the flavor further, the sauce is seared in a hot pan and cooked down until it’s so concentrated that the trail left when you drag a spatula across the bottom of the pan stays put. At which point I stirred in some chicken stock, and the whole mixture reduced again for about half an hour. I’m still not entirely sure why I had to reduce the sauce, re-hydrate and reduce it again, but I do what I’m told.

While the sauce reduced, I cooked up a pot of the musical fruit with onion and more cumin. I tried to find epazote, a traditional Mexican herb often used in beans, but I’m lucky to find a decent head of iceberg lettuce at my nearby Pathmark and didn’t feel like venturing farther afield, so I let it go.

I work hard for the money, so you better treat me right.

The sauce, beans and some Mexican crema (sour cream) and Oaxacan cheese are layered in a baking dish with corn tortillas and stashed in the oven.

Mmmm. Cheese.

My hips don’t lie.

Time to make the donuts salad, which is built around jicama, a crisp, mildly sweet veggie with the texture of an Asian pear. This salad is actually in the appetizer section of the book; jicama with lime and chili powder is a popular Mexican bar munchie. For this salad, I julienned jicama, cucumber and radish and segmented an orange. The fruits and veggies get doused with lime juice and sprinkled with salt and chili powder before they go into the fridge to chill and mingle.

This salad looked so light, crunchy and refreshing, I felt healthier just looking at it. I’d purposely chosen a veggie smackdown to try to reclaim the estimated 8 years the cheese-stuffed beef took off my life, so I was excited that my plan seemed to be working.

Casserole, or photo of the African savannah taken from outer space?

Lest we veer too far in the direction of good health and moderation, it was time to crank the broiler a little to get the casserole’s cheese topping nice and brown and gooey

If you bake it, they will come.

Pasilla and black bean casserole with jicama salad: 2 great tastes that taste great together!

This casserole must be the Mexican equivalent of macaroni and cheese or good ol’ baked ziti; it’s creamy, filling comfort food. The pasilla sauce is earthy and warming. The chiles don’t have any heat, but what they lack in zing they make up for in depth of flavor – slighly smoky, a little fruity, and with an herby note that cuts their deep darkness. The crema adds a tart note that lifts the chiles and black beans, and a little sprinkle of raw onion and salty queso fresco ups the ante even more; the little salty and tangy notes are a great foil to the casserole while still allowing the wonderful flavor of the pasilla to be the star of the show.

The salad is a cripsy, multi-layered delight. The coolness of cucumber, the bite from the radish, the juicy crisp jicama, the sweet orange, the gentle kiss of chile powder: this salad is the ultimate palate cleanser and lightener. It was nice to have the textural contrast of this salad with the casserole, but I’m especially excited to make it in the summertime and sit out in the hammock with a beer and some spicy wings.

The whole thing was washed down with some Sidral Mundet, the ever-tasty Mexican apple soda. Yum!

Final Score: Us 1, Food 0. Suck on that, food!

NOTE: You can get dried pasilla at Latin markets and some upscale shops, or at online spice purveyors; I like World Spice Merchants.