Even without a Mexican grandmother to call your own, it is still possible to yearn for the flavors of a particular cuisine as if you had been eating since it since birth. Maybe you’re like me and grew up in Southern California with at least one great Mexican joint for every neighborhood. Maybe you’re like my husband, Mike, who has family ties in Texas and a taste for Mexican flavors that is dead-on, thanks in part to his extended stay in Puebla.
I was one lucky senorita on an otherwise dull Monday night when Mike channeled his inner abuela and made us chiles rellenos that transported us out of Fort Lauderdale and straight across the gulf to Mexico.
We were both a little apprehensive, as neither of us had ever tried to pull off an authentic version of this stuffed pepper dish. The chiles are often deep fried, but we agreed that shallow pan-frying was the only way to go, both for simplicity and healthy, fresh flavor. I say “we” over and over, but Mike gets all the credit for this one. The excellent batter and shallow frying technique were borrowed from the October issue of Saveur which has a wonderful article about a Mexican family whose patriarch went from picking grapes as a migrant worker to owning his own successful vineyard in California. The sauce and fabulous filling is all Mike’s. Pinning the stuffed poblanos with toothpicks in order to fry them looked a little precarious, but they cooked beautifully with no tearing or oozing cheese making a mess of our cast iron skillet. Mike thought whipping the egg whites is what made this batter work so well.
You could top your golden, lightly fried chiles rellenos with your favorite salsa, but Mike made the same genius Mexican tomato sauce that he uses for his Saucy Enchiladas. This stuff is velvety and full of pure tomato flavor with a mild heat. It requires no cooking at all, so even a gringo can make it. One special authentic touch that I suggest you try is queso cotija. It is a crumbly, salty Mexican hard cheese that blends well with the milder, softer manchego that we used in the stuffing. Serve these chiles with a side of seasoned rice and black beans. Sip a Negro Modelo, and get in touch with your Mexican roots, either real or imagined.
Mike roasted and peeled the poblanos and made the side dish of rice and beans several hours in advance which makes the rest of the preparation go much more quickly. You could also do this the night before. For the salsa verde, use any brand and heat level you like. It is sold in cans in the ethnic food section or in jars with the other salsas. Cotija cheese is available in Latin markets and supermarkets with Latin sections. Mild feta is a good substitute or you can use all manchego or monterey jack.
8 poblano chile peppers
1 (15 oz) can tomato sauce
1 (7 oz) can salsa verde (we used Sabores Aztecas brand from Whole Foods)
1 lb ground beef
1 small onion, diced
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup manchego cheese, grated (or substitute monterey jack)
1/3 cup queso cotija, crumbled
¾ c. all-purpose flour
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
2 eggs, separated
Canola or other neutral oil, for pan-frying
2 tblsp. chopped cilantro
1 tomato, seeded and chopped
sour cream, for serving
Blacken poblanos under a broiler, directly over the flame of a gas cooktop or on a grill. Put in a bowl and cover with cling wrap to sweat. Wait until chiles are cool, at least 30 minutes, and peel off the skins. Cut a slit in each chile lengthwise and remove the seeds. Set aside.
Mix together the tomato sauce and salsa verde in a bowl.
Heat a skillet to medium-high and add ground beef and onion. Season with salt and pepper and cook stirring often until meat is no longer pink, but not quite finished browning. Add the garlic and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Add ¼ cup of the sauce mixture and cook for about 2 minutes more, or until sauce coats the meat.
Mix the two cheeses together in a small bowl. Stuff each chile with some ground beef, cheese and a spoonful of sauce. Use two toothpicks to “stitch” together the slit in each chile. You may prepare the chiles up to this point several hours in advance. For the two of us, we fried four chiles right away and saved the rest to fry another night.
Mix flour, cayenne pepper and black pepper in a shallow bowl or on a plate. Beat egg whites with a hand mixer until peaks form. Lightly beat the egg yolks with a fork and fold into the whites.
Dip a chile into the egg mixture, taking care to coat well. Dredge in flour and set on a plate. Repeat with remaining chiles.
Meanwhile heat about 1/8 to 1/4 inch layer of canola oil in a heavy skillet. Add as many chiles as you can fit, leaving about an inch of space around each one to prevent crowding. Cook 1 minute per side, or until lightly browned all over. Use tongs to turn. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate.
Serve topped with the tomato sauce mixture, cilantro, chopped tomato and sour cream.