Friday, January 22, 2010

Chiles en Nogada

Ana Ruiz, head chef at Café del Mar and my housekeeper/property manager, makes the best chiles rellenos I have ever eaten. She stuffs the poblano chiles with shrimp and cheese and covers them with a roasted tomato sauce that is as light-handed as it is flavorful. I pay Ana to make me dozens at a time, which I then freeze, individually wrapped, sauce on the side in zip lock bags. It’s my dinner of choice for guests’ first night at Quinta Elena and is a no-fail crowd pleaser.

Chiles can be stuffed with any number of things---panela or Chihuahua cheese, ground beef or pork, canned tuna or refried beans and onions. The king of chiles rellenos, however, is chiles en nogada---chiles stuffed with picadillo, a rich mix of meat, fruit, and spices, topped with a creamy walnut sauce, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and parsley. Touted as Mexico’s most patriotic dish because its colors are the red, white, and green of the Mexican flag, this stuffed chile has an equally colorful back story. The favorite version tells of nuns in a convent in Puebla inventing the dish in 1821 for Emperor Agustin de Iturbide and the first dinner celebrating Mexico’s independence from Spain. Frida Kahlo featured this dish on her wedding table when she married Diego Rivera.

I feature it on my table when I feel like showing off. To call chiles en nogada labor-intensive is understatement. For an amateur like me, all the roasting, peeling, dicing, and frying take up most of two days. (my recipe even calls for peeling the walnuts; I’m willing to sacrifice some authenticity and skip this step.) Fans of Mexican food, especially those who cook, have been known to break into applause when I set their plate in front of them. Even without tasting the first forkful, they pay homage to the effort involved.

Every Mexican grandma probably has her own special recipe for chiles en nogada. And would be aghast at shortcuts taken by some restaurants, e.g. plain ground beef passed off as picadillo; dried cranberries as a substitute for out-of-season pomegranate seeds. Here is a version I like.



For the filling:

1/2 lb. ground beef

1/2 lb. ground pork

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/2 medium onion, finely chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil

1 medium apple, peeled and cut into 1/2" cubes

1 medium pear, peeled and cut into 1/2" cubes

2 plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped

2 ounces blanched almonds, slivered

2 ounces raisins, soaked until soft, then drained

1 stick cinnamon

salt and pepper to taste

For the chiles:

8 large poblano chiles, prepared for stuffing (See Note)

4 eggs, separated, at room temperature

1/4 teaspoon salt

Oil for frying

For the sauce:

1 quart unsweetened heavy cream

4 ounces walnut meat, soaked in milk, drained, chopped

For the garnish:

2 pomegranates, separated into seeds

parsley sprigs


After preparing chiles as described in the note below, pat them dry and set them aside while you make the filling. The batter will not adhere to them properly if the chiles are not dry.

Melt the lard or oil in a large skillet; saute beef, pork, garlic, onion, apple, pear, almonds, raisins and cinnamon stick until the meat has lost its pink color. Remove the cinnamon stick, add salt and pepper to taste and allow the filling to cool to room temperature. When cool, fill the chiles, dividing the mixture evenly.

You will have fluffier and more uniform coating if you make the egg batter and fry the chiles in two batches. Beat two of the egg whites until they stand up in peaks, stiff but not dry. Lightly beat two yolks and half the salt together; fold them gently into the beaten egg whites. Dip each of four filled chiles into the mixture, turning them gently to coat evenly. Place each one immediately into a large skillet with hot oil. Fry them until golden on the bottom side (lift gently with a spatula to check) then turn and fry on the other side. Repeat this process with the rest of the chiles and the other two eggs. Remove and drain on paper towels before placing on serving dish.

Put the cream and the walnuts in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Pour over the chiles, and decorate with pomegranate seeds and parsley.

NOTE: The chiles are prepared for stuffing by roasting over a gas flame or under a broiler until charred all over. They are then placed in a plastic bag for 10-15 minutes. Peel by rubbing them gently, using rubber gloves, under a stream of running water. (Stems are not removed, but can be trimmed beforehand if very long.) After the chiles have been roasted and cleaned, make a lengthwise slit up one side of each and carefully remove the seed sac and any loose seeds. Avoid over-handling the chiles.

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