Cooking Like a Mexican

BY: ALE BORBOLLA

For this column, I’m writing about the most exquisite, sophisticated dish in Mexican cooking: chiles en nogada. This is, hands down, my favorite dish and the one I’m the pickiest about, knowing the work that it takes. I have prepared this dish before; it was a 12-hour marathon in the kitchen but it is one of my fondest memories with my mother, who at first refused to help but ended up in the kitchen with me. It’s a bonding dish, one that requires tons of patience and love. It’s also the most rewarding dish anyone can cook. I personally say that if you can make chiles en nogada properly, you can cook anything.

nogada.JPGThe flavor of chiles en nogada comes from combining sweet, sour, salty and bitter, which makes the tongue and palate sing. The original recipe calls for more than 100 ingredients; nowadays there are many versions that are not as extensive as the original recipe, which has sadly been lost to history. However, I searched for the closest one to the real deal, my grandma’s tips included.

One thing you should know about chiles en nogada is that this dish can only be made and served July, August and September, when the ingredients are in season. I know, science has made it so we can buy pretty much any ingredient all year long, but this dish really should only be made during its three-month season. It’s a tradition thing.

You know how champagne can only be made in Champagne, France? Well, chiles en nogada should only be made in Puebla, Mexico. Certain types of some of the ingredients, like chiles, walnuts, peaches, pomegranate, pears, apples can only be found in that state. However, you can use other types of the same ingredients, ones that are readily available to you, that will get you very close to the original flavor.

There are different stories about the origin of chiles en nogada, but it is definitely known that the dish was first served in 1821. Some versions say that chiles en nogada was created because of Agustin de Iturbide, a Mexican army general and politician. During the War of Independence, he built a successful political and military coalition that took control in Mexico City on September 27, 1821, decisively gaining independence for Mexico. After the secession of Mexico was secured, he was proclaimed President of the Regency. A year later, he was announced as the Constitutional Emperor of Mexico, reigning briefly from May 19, 1822 to March 19, 1823. He is also credited as the original designer of the first Mexican flag.

It is said that the nuns at the Santa Monica Convent are the masters behind this dish. The story goes that when they found out Itrubide was coming to town, they prayed for inspiration for a main dish that was worthy of such a celebratory. Some people say that the colors of this dish (red, white and green, like the Mexican flag) were chosen by the sisters; others say the symbolism was added years later to give it a deeper, more heartfelt meaning and as an effort to raise patriotism.

Another story is that in Iturbide’s regime, there were three soldiers who had girlfriends in Puebla. The ladies wanted to welcome them with a special dish that had the colors of their uniforms, but didn’t want to refer to their momma’s recipe books. They prayed to the Rosary Virgin and Saint Pascal for enlightenment, then got cooking and the result was chiles en nogada.

Which is the real story? Who knows. The bottom line is, the essence of the recipe has been kept throughout the years and it is now a part of our heritage.

A few notes before we get started:

- In Mexico, the acitrón (used in the stuffing) can be found in candy stores, sold in the form of square bars. Don't confuse acitrón with citron, which is a type of citrus fruit.

- The consistency of the walnut sauce is tricky. It must be nice and even, not too thin and not too thick. Kind of like paint, to coat the chiles, and quite chunky, because of the walnuts.

- Chiles en nogada can be pricey when purchased at restaurants, because it’s quite a hassle to make them. Most restaurants though, serve them unbattered as they are easier to work with in busy kitchens.

 

INGREDIENTS

5 poblano peppers

FOR THE STUFFING:

½ pound of pork loin, chopped in small pieces, almost ground

½ pound of beef, chopped the same as the pork

1 large brown pear, chopped

1 large apple, chopped

1 big peach, chopped

1 plantain, chopped

1 pound ripe tomatoes, chopped

½ onion, chopped.

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 oz. raisins

1 oz. almonds, peeled, toasted and chopped

½ piece of acitrón chopped

¼ cup of pine nuts (you’ll find them as piñones)

Cinnamon/sugar to taste

Salt to taste

FOR THE SAUCE:

50 walnuts

¼ lt. crème freche (NOT SOUR CREAM! If you can’t find it use “media crema,” aka half and half)

¼ cup of either goat cheese, “queso fresco” or panela cheese 

FOR THE BATTER:

3 eggs and 1 egg white

Vegetable oil for frying

1 bundle of parsley to garnish

1 cup of pomegranate seeds to garnish

PREPARATION:

In a deep skillet, add two tablespoons of oil and cook the onion until soft. Add the beef and pork, and brown. Puree the tomatoes and garlic, then add them to the meat and simmer until bubbly.

Add the fruit, acitrón, almonds, and raisins, let simmer until liquid consumes. Fruits must be added in order, from toughest to softest, starting with the acitrón. This way, you’ll avoid some fruits mushing in a puree and some others being too tough.

Prepare the poblano peppers by heating a griddle or skillet over medium-high heat until a drop of water sizzles on contact. Add the poblanos and cook, turning occasionally with tongs, until the skin is blackened and blistered on all sides, about 5 to 7 minutes depending of the size of the poblanos. Remove from the skillet as they are done and place in a plastic bag, letting sit for 5 minutes, until the skins are soft enough to be easily removed.

Remove the poblanos from the bag, and using your fingers and small sharp knife, peel and scrape off as much of the blackened skin as possible. Leave the tops on and cut small (2 to 3-inch) lengthwise slits in the polios and carefully pull out the seeds without tearing the flesh. Then carefully put the stuffing into the chiles through the slit, taking care not to rip the chiles.

Sprinkle flour over the peppers. Separate the eggs and beat the whites into stiff peaks, slowly incorporating the yolks, whisking continuously. Carefully dip the chiles in the batter and fry them in hot oil (enough to cover the chiles). Once the batter is golden brown, take out the chiles and lay them on a paper towel to remove excess oil.

Blend the walnuts, cream, cheese, sugar and cinnamon to make the sauce.

Pour the sauce over the chiles and decorate with pomegranate seeds and parsley, symbolizing a Mexican flag just in time for Independence Day!