Cooking Like A Mexican

September 16, 2019 Edition
BY: ALE BORBOLLA

National Holidays are here, and with them, 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 goes into it. I have prepared this dish; it was a 12-hour marathon in the kitchen and 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, a very hard one, requires tons of patience and love. The most rewarding thing anyone can cook.

I personally say that whoever can make chiles en nogada properly can do anything. The flavor that comes from combining sweet, sour, salty and bitter makes the tongue and palate sing. The original recipe calls for more than 100 ingredients, nowadays there are many versions but still not as extended as the original one, which has sadly, been lost. However, I searched for the closest one to the real deal, grandma’s tips included.

Chiles en Nogada season is only three months long, whoever says anything different is lying. I know, science has come a long way to bring ingredients all year long, but still, this dish can only be made and served in July, August and September when the ingredients are traditionally in season.

You know how champagne can only be made in Champagne France, Parmigiano-Reggiano in Parma Italy, etc.? Well, chiles en nogada should only be made in Puebla, Mexico. Some of the ingredients like chiles, walnuts, peaches, pomegranate, pears, apples and biznaga (bishop’s weed) can only be found in that state, because of the species but modern life has pushed us to use regular species for the same ingredients, thus achieving a very close copy of the flavor.

There are different stories about the appearance of chiles en nogada in Mexican cuisine, but it is definitely known the year they appeared was 1821.

Some versions say that Chiles en Nogada appeared around when Agustin de Iturbide was an 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 in 1821. A year later, he was announced as the Constitutional Emperor of Mexico, reigning briefly from 19 May 1822 to 19 March 1823. He is credited as the original designer of the first Mexican flag and signed the Independence act and the Cordoba treaties.

Santa Monica Convent nuns, the Augustine sisters, are often claimed as the masters behind this dish when they found out Iturbide was coming to town; it is said that they prayed for inspiration for a main dish that was worthy of being up to huge celebratory standards.

A little add-on to this story is that the first chile en nogada must be served on Saint Augustin’s fete on August 28.

Mexico has always been a very fervent catholic country, and Iturbide’s arrival from Veracruz to Puebla conveniently fell on the same day as the saint’s party. It must be mentioned that the shortest way from Veracruz to Mexico City, (where all the important stuff always happened) was through Puebla.

Coincidentally, or, maybe not so, the civil celebration for Iturbide signing the treaties was the same as Iturbide’s birthday, on September 27, and he was led to believe that the dish was made specifically for him- which is complete BS, since the dish was made a month earlier, the only difference is that someone had the bright idea to decorate it like the first Mexican flag for Iturbide, who designed it.

Some people say the colors of this dish were chosen by the sisters for a very good reason, some others say the symbolism was added years later to give it a deeper, more heartfelt meaning and as an effort to raise patriotism.

Green: Independence and hope; a band of parsley is added rich in A, B2, B6, C and E vitamins.

White: Catholicism and unity; the walnut sauce is almost white, rich in folic acid and vitamins.

Red: The bloodshed by those who fought for the country; pomegranate seeds are the perfect complement, they have a high manganese content.

A completely different story is that in Agustin de 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, which had the first Mexican flag’s colors on them and they didn’t want to refer to their momma’s recipe books. They prayed to the Rosary Virgin and Saint Pascal for enlightenment, got cooking and the result was Chiles en Nogada.

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

The recipe:

For the stuffing:

5 Poblano peppers. (Read below for instructions)

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

½ pound of beef, chopped the same as pork.

1 big, mature brown pear, chopped.

1 big, mature apple, chopped.

1 big, mature peach, chopped.

1 plantain, chopped.

1 pound tomatoes, ripe, chopped.

½ onion, chopped.

3 garlic cloves, minced.

1 oz. raisins, whole.

1 oz. almonds, peeled, toasted and chopped.

½ piece of acitrón (read below), chopped.

¼ cup of pine seeds (find them as piñones)

CINNAMON SUGAR

Salt

 

FOR THE SAUCE:

50 walnuts

¼ lt. crème freche (NOT SOUR CREAM, if you can’t fund it use “media crema” or half cream)

¼ cup of goat cheese, “queso fresco” or panela cheese (I know these vary in taste greatly, all three are accepted, depends on your personal preference)

FOR THE BATTER:

3 eggs and 1 extra white

Vegetable oil to deep-fry

1 bundle of parsley to decorate

1 cup of pomegranate seeds to decorate

PREPARATION:

1.    In a deep skillet, add two tablespoons of oil and cook the onion until the onion is soft. Then, add the beef and pork and brown.

2.    Puree the tomatoes and the garlic and add them to the meat with the saffron and laurel, and simmer until bubbly, turn the heat to the lowest setting.

3.    Add the fruit* and acitrón, almonds, and raisins, let simmer until liquid consumes.

4.    Grill, skin, devein and clean the peppers.

5.    Cut a slit in the peppers carefully and stuff them with the picadillo.

6.    Sprinkle flour over the peppers.

7.    Separate the eggs and beat the whites into stiff peaks, slowly incorporate the yolks, make sure you don’t stop whisking!

8.    Carefully, soak the chiles in the batter and fry them. Once the batter is golden brown, take out the chiles and rest them in a paper towel to remove excess oil.

9.    For the walnut sauce, peel the walnuts and blend with the cream, cheese, sugar and cinnamon.

10. Pour the sauce over the chiles and decorate with pomegranate seeds and parsley, making a Mexican flag!

Tips:

-Acitrón is made from the very large round biznaga cactus (Echinocactus grandis) In Mexico the acitrón would be found in candy stores and sold in the form of square bars. The bars would typically be cut into small cubes and added to a variety of desserts, sweet tamales and even in some picadillo recipes. Don't confuse acitrón with citron, which is a type of citrus fruit.

-The stuffing can be made a day before but nogada must be fresh.

-To buy peppers: greener are sweeter, darker the spicier, remember you’re going to stuff them so make sure you buy them as regularly shaped as possible.

-To peel the chiles without breaking them, grill them evenly on an open fire, avoid burning them but make sure they blister up on every side.

-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.

-To make the batter, use a wooden spoon, to avoid breaking the bubbles and losing volume.

-In the olden days, families used to gather around the table to peel the walnuts, it was a whole family affair. Whoever did not want to do this could go to a convent and buy peeled walnuts from the nuns, who instead of talking over the walnuts would pray the rosary. People said that the chiles en nogada made with “nun walnuts” tasted better because the walnuts were “prayed”.

-Some people say that the true chiles en nogada are covered in egg batter, some say it’s not necessary, it’s up to your preference.

-The consistency of the sauce is tricky. It must be nice and even, not too thin and not too thick, kind of like paint, to coat the chile 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 in busy kitchens.