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Cooking the Classics: New Mexican Chiles Rellenos

Cooking the Classics: New Mexican Chiles Rellenos

A closer look at chiles rellenos recipe, a traditional New Mexican dish made with stuffed and fried peppers: a gourmet icon of the fusion in local cuisine.

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Most world cuisines are a fusion of a variety of sources. New Mexican cuisine is more obvious than most in its weave of influences (Mexico, Tex-Mex, Pueblo Native American, Spanish), and it has featured its own regional tapestry of delicacies for centuries. We have chosen chile rellenos recipe as our “classic’ New Mexican dish: literally meaning “stuffed chile”, it's a New Mexican dish made with peppers stuffed with goodness, dipped in a batter of egg and fried.

This is a good choice because so much of the distinct flavor of New Mexican food comes from New Mexican peppers, a local cultivar that separates this region’s version of dishes from some very similar types you could find in Mexico or in other neighboring states. Round these parts, you say “chile” and the assumption is that you mean this type of chile. They are unusually large, which makes them good for stuffing, and this one cultivar has a range of flavors and uses. The green ones are picked unripe, roasted over an open flame and peeled before use. The ripe red ones are most often dried for use, sometimes stored in beautiful woven ristras, as much decorative as a form of storage. These chile peppers can range in heat, and tend to be hotter here than elsewhere, because the climate of New Mexico enhances the amount of the chemical we associate with spiciness, capsaicin.

Ground zero for chile relleno is the city of Puebla. New Mexican chiles from Puebla are called poblano peppers, and this is the one you want (if you can find it). They are in short supply in the European Alps, so my biggest problem is finding a chile worthy of the name. I can find extremely mild point green peppers that have almost no spice to them, but that’s the best I can do. Pretty lame, and it means that my creation will look more than taste like the real thing. An 1858 book, Mariano Velazquez de la Cadena’s A Dictionary of the Spanish and English Languages, defines chile relleno as “green chile pepper stuffed with meat and coated with eggs,” which tells me that this is an old recipe, but doesn’t tell me much more. “Coated with eggs” could mean a lot of things, and does not specific that it is fried. The version you’re most likely to find these days on a culinary excursion to Puebla is more nuanced and interesting, so that’s the version I’ll make. The stuffing is picadillo meat (chopped pork with other goodies added, here they include raisins, nuts and canella, a close cousin of cinnamon (made from the wild or white cinnamon plant). Several cheeses should go in, as well. I’ve got to settle for the easy-to-find Monterey Jack and asiago, but in Puebla you’re more likely to find queso Oaxaca and queso Chihuaha (both from Mexico). The chile should be singed over an open flame (I’m reduced to doing this with a cigarette lighter, since I only have an electric stovetop), peeled of the translucent outer skin that pulls off the “meat” of the pepper when the flame kisses it. Then sliced open, seeds scooped out, and the mash of picadillo and cheese stuffed inside. The pepper is then dipped in egg, and here’s where you can get creative. You can just use the egg coating and then fry it. Or you can dip in egg, then corn flour (masa), which just feels more authentic, although research tells me this is but one variation. Without a deep-fryer, I pan fry the chiles, but I’m guessing a deep-fry would be more satisfying, making more of a crunch, something that looks more like a Scotch egg and more aesthetically pleasing. Sauces are optional, with a sauce of diced and simmered green chiles, or even a chocolate-infused mole, all good to throw on.

This dish was popular enough to have made its way to San Francisco by 1914 (appearing on menus as “chili reinas”), but its heart and soul are in the city of Puebla, New Mexico. Now if only I can convince someone to open an American Southwestern grocery store in my region of central Europe…

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