Friday, February 3, 2017

Chiles Rellenos at Last

Most in the U.S. know chiles rellenos (or "stuffed peppers") as being stuffed with gooey melted cheese. I cannot say if this is "the" Mexican way to make them, or if it is something Tex-Mex that came about with time, or even if they make them this way in Mexico at all.

What I can say is that in the 12 years I lived in Guatemala, I never once came across a chile/pepper filled with cheese. Instead, the ones in Guatemala were filled with a meat and vegetable mix. The peppers and the individual vegetables were made "en escabeche", or slightly pickled with vinegar. Generally served on or between fresh corn tortillas, they were sometimes also served with a simple tomato sauce.
Chile Relleno on Corn Tortilla
Chile Relleno on Corn Tortilla with Tomato Sauce

The first time I ate a chile relleno was the very first time I went to Guatemala. My Dad went with me, to see where I would be going to live when I married my (then) fiance, and meet his family. My fiance's family took us all over the place, sightseeing in that beautiful country. One of the many places we went was to a market (I believe in Escuintla), and seeing the native men and women selling their wares. Most everything was available in the market, from every vegetable and fruit to meats, breads and tortillas and also cooked foods. I was given a chile relleno, slapped between two corn tortillas. The corn tortillas at that time were always, always, always made fresh and patted out between capable native hands and cooked on a comal of some sort over open fire more often than not. 

Guatemalan type Green Pepper
Guatemalan Type of Green Pepper
I had never had a chile relleno of this kind before. I had eaten what passed as a stuffed pepper when I was briefly at the university. These chiles rellenos bore no resemblance to those I ate at school. I also had never eaten corn tortillas and really never had tasted anything like these freshly made ones. The whole experience was new flavors and textures and smells, and I really loved it. So my love affair with chiles rellenos began 47 years ago. And in all that time, I only ever tried making them once, and they tasted nothing like I remembered, and somehow . . . just never revisited that recipe.

About a year ago when I was revising my cookbook of Guatemalan recipes and recollections of my time in that lovely country, I realized that I had not ever made these chiles rellenos (pronounced "CHEE-lehs rre-YEN-ohs") and needed to rectify this oversight. And here I am, a year later, finally getting to it. I have revisited and made a lot of the Guatemalan recipes in my book, mainly to get photos taken of the foods, and of course, since I loved these foods, it is a real trip down memory lane. My daughter went with her Dad to Guatemala a little over a year ago for a visit, and I asked her to bring me back a piece of the traditional woven material that the native women use for their skirt. It is called a "corte" and is wrapped around and around, then held in place by a "faja", or a long piece of material used as a belt. I used the material she brought me as a tablecloth to photograph my chiles rellenos, in my photos above and below. Immediately below right is a photo from the internet, showing how the typical dress or "traje" is worn.

Traditional Guatemalan Dress: Huipil, Corte and Faja
Traditional Guatemalan Dress: Huipil, Corte and Faja
I have a lot more cooking experience under my belt (figuratively AND literally!) at this time, so looking over my "recipe" as it stood, I realized there were a lot of things just not even listed. My memories of every chile relleno I ever ate, and there were many, had meat (cooked ground beef), and a vegetable mixture that consisted of onions, likely also garlic, carrots, potatoes and green beans. All these vegetables were chopped very small and cooked. The flavor of the lightly pickled vegetables did not jump out screaming "pickled in vinegar". Instead, it was an underlying note of piquancy that made them taste so fantastically good.

As with most recipes from Guatemala, there are a lot of steps, and multiple cooking methods involved, all for the same recipe. The peppers can be poblanos, or they can be green peppers. The difference is that the "green peppers" in Guatemala were never the thick bell peppers we know in the U.S., but instead a thinly fleshed and somewhat crinkly pepper, lighter green than our green bell peppers. The peppers used for chiles rellenos are first charred and blistered, then peeled and set to marinate in a half and half mixture of white vinegar and water for at least a couple of hours or up to a day. The vegetables are cooked or sauteed, either separately or all together until soft, then these also have a half vinegar / half water mixture added. The meat is cooked separately and lightly browned. Egg whites are beaten to stiff peaks. The yolks are also beaten until lemon colored and slightly thickened. A little flour can be added to help the mixture hold together. The yolks are folded into the whites. 
Peeled chiles, vegetable mixture, beaten eggs, finished chies rellenos
Peeled chiles in vinegar water, vegetable mixture in vinegar water, combining beaten eggs, finished chies rellenos

The assembly is tricky for the novice. I consider myself novice at this particular assembly, since I've hardly done it with this application. Once ready to assemble, if there is any liquid left in the vegetables, it should first be drained off and the meat and the vegetables are combined. This mixture is placed inside the chiles. This is not easy with the peppers being so very soft. Keeping the vegetables inside while stuffing the peppers, and even worse when trying to coat the stuffed peppers with the egg mixture, is difficult, without practice. I had NO practice. It was treacherous. Once filled and coated in the egg mixture, they are fried until all the egg coating is lightly browned. The insides are already cooked through, so it is only a matter of the outer egg being cooked through. These can be served either warm or at room temperature.

Guatemalan Style Chiles Rellenos

Makes 10 large peppers 
Chile Relleno with Tomato Sauce

10 Poblano chilies or green bell peppers
3/4 cup white vinegar
3/4 cup water

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
2 - 4 cloves garlic, minced
2 handfuls fresh green beans, sliced thinly across
1 large carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 medium or 2 smaller potatoes, peeled, finely diced
1 teaspoon salt
1 bay leaf
2 - 3 sprigs fresh thyme
few grinds fresh pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound lean ground beef
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt

6 eggs, separated
2 - 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour, optional

More oil for frying

Combine the vinegar and water in a measuring cup. This mixture will be divided between the peppers and the other vegetables. Set aside.

Set the peppers of choice under the broiler or over a flame and blister until blackened and skins are noticeably loose. Place the blackened peppers into a zip-top bag or other sealed container to steam for 10 to 15 minutes. Once cooled enough to handle, peel off all the skins. If possible (for authenticity), try to keep the stem in place while making a slit in one side of the peeled pepper and removing the seeds. Once all peppers are peeled and prepped, return them to the bag or container and pour over them 1 cup worth of the vinegar and water mixture. Set the container aside for 2 or three hours, or refrigerate overnight. Turn the container often for even marinating.

Heat a large skillet and add in the 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add all the vegetables, the salt, bay leaf, thyme and fresh black pepper. Cook over medium low heat for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are all softened and cooked through. Place the vegetable mixture into a large container with lid and pour the remaining vinegar and water mixture over top. Stir to combine. Seal the container and let stand for 2 to 3 hours or refrigerate overnight, mixing or turning often for even marinating.

Wipe out the skillet, and over medium heat add in the 1 tablespoon of olive oil and then the ground beef with the bay leaf, thyme and salt. Cook, breaking the meat apart in very small bits, until the meat is lightly browned and completely cooked through. Set the meat aside until needed, or refrigerate overnight.

When ready to assemble the chiles rellenos, bring the peppers, the vegetable mixture and the meat to room temperature (if refrigerated). Remove the bay leaf and thyme sprigs from both meat and vegetable mixtures, then combine the meat with the (drained) mixed vegetables and set aside. Separate the eggs, placing the yolks into a small bowl and the whites into a large, scrupulously clean bowl. With a hand mixer, first beat the whites until they are at stiff peaks. Now, separately, beat the yolks until light and lemon colored. They will be noticeably thicker. Fold the yolks into the whites until a nice, even color. If desired, sprinkle the flour over top and fold in. 

Assemble all the peppers: Remove the peppers from the vinegar mixture and set to drain on paper toweling. Set one pepper in front of you and spoon in some of the meat and vegetable mixture. They do not need to be tamped down, but just gently filled. Set them aside once filled and repeat with remaining peppers. 

Heat a large skillet with more olive oil. Gently lift one of the filled peppers with clean hands and set into the beaten egg mixture. Spoon more of the mixture over top to encase the whole stuffed pepper. Lift out and set into the hot oil. Once the egg coating is well browned on one side, turn the pepper so the opposite side is browned. Do not over crowd the pan. It is far easier to turn them with plenty of space between. Repeat with each of the peppers. Set aside onto a baking sheet with rims once cooked and set into a very low oven to keep them warm.

Serve with fresh corn tortillas and a Simple Tomato Sauce, if desired.

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest (AHOFpin). I am also on a spiritual journey and hope you will join me at my new blog, An Eagle Flies