My first exposure to Mexican cuisine didn’t occur until I was in college and that was limited to ketchupy salsa and salty tortilla chips. A few years later, I experienced the contrast of the good Mexican food produced in a hole in the wall, mom and pop restaurant with a mediocre chain restaurant (remember Chi Chi’s anyone?)
As it was with other foreign cuisines I was unfamiliar with, I gained knowledge of the food by reading cookbooks. The cookbooks of Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless introduced me to Mexican cuisine that varies from state to state, much the same as it does in the United States. I bought a press and set out to make my own tortillas using a product I never heard of before, masa harina. My well intentioned attempts were less than perfect for certain but I developed an appreciation for how it was done.
Then, there were the many varieties of peppers, used both fresh and dried I was unfamiliar with, their heat measured on the Scoville scale. Some were hot, like the jalapeno and serrano, others very hot, habenero and Scotch bonnet, others with only mild heat, like poblanos and pasillas. The herbs, not readily available thirty years ago in markets like cilantro and Mexican oregano, were accessible to us as gardeners. There is always a small patch of cilantro in the garden in the warmer months, and we have a large Mexican oregano plant that Joe dries at the end of the season. We use hot peppers in their fresh, frozen and dried states. It has always surprised me that dried peppers, several years old are still as hot as a fresh one.
This year we have had a bumper crop of peppers, both sweet and hot. The peppers that are supposed to be hot, are hot. We learned last year, after a disappointing crop of rather mild jalapenos, the plants need to be stressed, as in, no special watering or fertilizing to produce hot peppers. I guess there is a life lesson there, but we can leave that for another time.
Another reason for the excellent pepper crop were the plant supports. When a plant starts producing peppers, it can weigh down the plant and many of the peppers touch the ground, making them susceptible to damage from pests and rotting. The delicate pepper plants stand tall with the supports and the peppers have room to grow.
We had the largest crop ever of poblano chiles. Poblanos have a dark green skin and left to ripen further on the vine will turn red. They are somewhat heart-shaped, 3-6 inches long and 2-3 inches wide. Which brings me to another pet peeve of mine. Our seed packet identified the pepper as an ancho and it was in actuality, a poblano. Poblano is the raw or cooked form of the pepper, it is only referred to as an ancho in it’s dried form. I had enough poblano peppers this season to dry some and to use some fresh.
Feeling ambitious, I decided to make my own interpretation of chiles rellenos. I will not lie to you and say this is an easy, quick, weeknight meal. The Mexican version of stuffed peppers, the translation of chiles rellenos, does take considerable time. The peppers were picked, sorted, with the wrinklier ones assigned to the drying pile. The chiles were roasted over the gas flame on the stove over the asador. Once charred on all sides I placed them in a large paper grocery bag to steam the peppers, loosening the skins even further and making them easier to peel. Remove the skin by running your hands down the chile, use a damp towel to remove any skin than won’t easily come off. Once peeled, the pepper is slit on the side so that you can remove the seed sac (Diana Kennedy refers to this as the placenta) and any large ribs.
Now it’s time to fill your peppers. I used about 1/3 to 1/2 cup filling per pepper. Some recipes instruct you to close the peppers up with toothpicks but I found the peeled pepper skin adheres nicely to itself. Most recipes call for dipping the peppers, first in flour, then in a egg and flour batter and fried in hot oil. I wanted to attempt something a bit simpler, so I dipped the peppers in an egg wash and rolled them in panko crumbs and baked them. I served them with an easy sauce of roasted tomatoes, cooked with onion, chipotle chile and some of the adobo sauce that the chipotles are packed in.
Poblano pepper on the vine.
Baked Chiles Rellenos
Make one dozen stuffed chiles
- 12 Poblano peppers, fresh, red or green with smooth, not wrinkly sides if possible
- For a gas stove, arrange the chiles over a lit burner (you can fit two to three per burner). For an electric stove, arrange all chiles on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet and position it 4 inches below a hot broiler. As each side blackens and blisters, turn the chiles with tongs until they’re blistered all over.
- Immediately put the chiles in a large bowl, cover, and let steam for 15 minutes. Remove the skin with your fingers or a paper towel. (It’s OK if you can’t remove all of it.)
- Slit the chiles lengthwise, starting about 1/2 inch from the stem and ending about 1/2 inch from the point. Remove the seed core, being careful not to damage the stem.
Recipe for the filling and finishing the chiles
- 1/2 c low fat or regular ricotta cheese
- 1/4c crumbled feta
- 1/2c shredded jack or cheddar cheese
- 3/4c well drained chopped spinach or chard (I used chard)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 large egg
- 1c panko crumbs (more or less)
Directions for the filling and finishing the chiles
- Preheat oven to 425°F.
- Combine the first four ingredients in a medium bowl. Mix well and season to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.
- Spoon about 1/2 cup of the filling into each chile and then press the cut edges together. (If the chiles tear, press the torn edges together.) Arrange the chiles on a tray or baking sheet.
- Whisk egg with 1/2 cup water in bowl. Spread panko crumbs on a small plate.
- Dip chiles in egg wash. Coat with breadcrumbs. Place on baking sheet, and bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden.
Ingredients for the sauce
- 1/2c finely chopped onion
- 2 tsp. chili powder
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- 1 28-oz. can whole tomatoes
- 1 canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce, drained
Directions for sauce
- Heat oil in saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, chili powder, and cumin, and cook 4 to 5 minutes, or until onion is soft and spices are fragrant.
- Add tomatoes, and simmer 10 minutes, breaking up tomatoes with spatula or wooden spoon. Transfer to blender, add chipotle chile, and blend until sauce is smooth.
- Serve chiles rellenos in sauce.
I like to roast pepper on an asador, an open grated grill over the gas flame.