Monday, 22 October 2012

Chiles rellenos!

Mexican Food guru Rick Bayless writes that many people have been "smitten" the Mexican snack known as chiles rellenos (stuffed chiles), "which is unfortunate for them, because they do take a little time to prepare."

Actually, they take a lot of time to prepare. I've read recipes for this dish in every book I could get my hands on, plus all of the many Mexican food blogs I follow (September is the traditional season for chiles rellenos, so everyone was writing about them. I'm late!).

They are all pretty much identical, and there are no short cuts.

Ordinarily I'd file this under Don't Try At Home (unless you're a hardcore MexiGeek). But these are so delicious I think everyone should try them, and until Edinburgh restaurants start serving them, you'll have to make your own.

(Chiles rellenos are common in Mexican restaurants in the US, and you can get them from the London Mexican restaurant Mestizo.)

So: chiles rellenos or "stuffed chiles". Basically, these are exactly what they sound like, only better.

For me, the classic chiles rellenos are stuffed chiles poblanos (literally "chiles from Puebla"). The poblanos' large size, medium-thick flesh and mild heat makes them ideal for this. In fact, many Mexicans call them chiles para rellenar ("chiles for stuffing").

I've read that Mexicans also stuff smaller, hotter chiles, as well as reconstituted ancho chiles. And in the US you can get deep, fried jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese, which are addictive, but I'm not sure they're very Mexican.

To prep the chiles, first you have to roast them. Ordinarily this is where I've talk about asar-roasting on a dry pan. You can do that, but in this case it's not the best choice.

Poblanos have a though transparent outer skin which must be removed or your fork will have trouble cutting through it. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to char the skin off without overcooking the rest of the chile.

If you roast the poblano on a dry pan, you'll probably burn through the skin in places before you get all the outer layer charred. Then you can't stuff the chile. FAIL!

If you do the Diana Kennedy thing and stick the poblano under a grill, turning it until it blackens on all sides, the outer skin will slip off easily, but the remaining flesh may be a bit to soft to hold its shape. You want it to be flexible, but not on the verge of turning to mush.

So what works best is to hold the poblano over an open flame until all the skin blisters and loosens. I find you need a gas hob for this.

Once your chiles look like the above, stick them in a plastic bag to "sweat" for ten minutes. This makes them easier to peel, but beware "easier" is a relative term here. The skin will come off in maddeningly small bits and you will have to "shave" some of it with a sharp knife because the flame won't reach into the "valleys" of the chile.

You will get your hands dirty, but they won't sting, because the chiles are mild.

When the chile is peeled, take a small, sharp knife and make a slit down one side of it. This is the hole you're going to put the stuffing in, so don't slice down the entire length of the chile. You want it to stay closed after you're stuffed it.

Now, put the tap on and gently wash the chile inside and out. I'm not kidding. Also, stick your finger in the hole and gently brush the seeds out, and carefully pull out as much of the white veins as will come free easily.

It is vital that you don't rip, tear, or poke through the chile or it becomes unstuffable (though you can still slice it into rajas). Must recipes recommend roasting extras in case you rip a couple.

Now for the stuffing. What do you stuff them with?

One the popular Autumnal versions of this dish is chiles en nogada, "nogada" being a creamy walnut sauce. These chiles rellenos are stuffed with a Oaxacan-style picadillo, which is fried pork mince and dried fruit (think of old-school mince pie, which actually contained mince).

The stuffed green chiles are then covered in the white nogada, and sprinkled with red(-ish) pomegranate seeds: the three colours of the Mexican flag.

Because of that and because the walnut harvest usually comes around Mexican Independence Day (16th of September), it is a traditional Independence Day celebration food. To preserve the Mexican Flag colour scheme, chiles en nogada are usually not battered, though I have seen photos of an exception.

I didn't manage to get fresh walnuts for the sauce this September. But it's just as well, because the light, fluffy batter is one of the best parts, and in any case my favourite filling is cheese!

The main cheese in Mexico is queso fresco (literally "fresh cheese"),  a homemade cheese which is like a goat's milk version of cottage cheese, with a firmer, more crumbly texture. If you really want to rock the house, you can make your own, like Tiffany from Kitchen Conversations did.

I nearly always use feta in place of queso fresco because I love feta and the saltiness really works with this dish. However, Rick Bayless writes that real queso fresco isn't as salty as feta, so if you're not a feta fan try plain cottage cheese, ricotta, or even some mozzarella (there's a Oaxacan queso fresco that "hace hebras" or "makes strings" like mozzarella).

Chile relleno, stuffed and resealed, ready for frying

Now, I did the roasting, peeling and stuffing the night before to save some time on the day. I wrapped my stuffed chiles in foil and put them in the fridge. This is a common practice, but the chiles must be at room temperature before you fry them, so take them out of the fridge at least an hour before you start to cook.

Then comes the batter. This is what really scared the living hell out of me. I'm not a strong baker and making a batter - even if it's just for shallow frying - feels like baking to me.

Add to that it's a fairly unusual batter and my nerves were really through the roof. It felt like I was trying to walk before I could run and I was sure I was going to screw it up.

Once again, I read every recipe for this I could find and they all said the same thing. There are no short cuts. So here goes.

The easy part is dusting your room temperature chiles with pain white flour. They look like this:

The toothpick is because one wouldn't close on its own. Bad chile!

But then it gets tricky.

Chiles rellenos have a distinctively fluffy-textured batter. It is apparently quite similar to tempura batter, but I don't know how to make tempura, so that's no help to me.

What you do is get one egg for every two chiles and separate them. Whisk the whites until they just hold a peak (no stiff peaks; this is not a meringue).

Then whisk in the yolks one at a time. Don't be too vigorous or you'll lose all the air you so painstakingly whipped into the whites.

Lastly, fold about a tablespoon of flour into the batter for a bit more bulk.

Finished batter. MexiGeek ALWAYS whisks egg whites by hand.

Now have to do some frying. And despite living in Scotland, I'm not a big fan of frying, beyond shallow-frying with a tablespoon or two of olive oil. However, deep(er)-frying does have its places, and this is one of them.

Pour some flavourless oil (not olive oil) into a wide, deep pan until it reaches about 3/4 of an inch up the sides of the pan. Then heat it until it is quite hot (medium-high, almost to high, but don't set the oil on fire).

Now take a chile by the stem, dip it into the batter and quickly pull it out. It should be evenly coated in the batter, but if not don't stress. Just pour some more batter around the chile with a dessert spoon.

Lay the battered chile in the hot oil until it gets all golden-brown, then turn it over to fry the other side.

Repeat until all the chiles are fried.

These do not keep well; apparently they'll go soggy and stale if you leave them sitting around too long (I always eat them right away, so I wouldn't know). Therefore serve as soon as all the chiles are fried. If you're doing a lot at once, keep the done ones in a warm oven. But they don't take long to fry: maybe ten minutes tops for both sides.

Here's a finished one, with some pollo adobado and what turned out to be inedibly underdone potatoes.

Could be prettier, but could hardly be tastier!

 Now, despite all the faff involved, I managed to get these right my first try! I'll admit mine could have been a bit neater, but they tasted fantastic. In fact, they were Mrs MexiGeek's favourite part of the meal.

I want to stress again that poblanos are mild chiles. Whereas jalapeños have a Scoville Heat Unit count of 2,500 to 5,000, poblanos have like 1,000. So if you or your near and dear aren't into hot stuff, don't be afraid to try these.

Also, the batter and the cheese both help to tone down the heat (capsaicin, the substance that makes chiles hot, is not water soluble but it IS fat soluble, so pairing chiles with cheese, cream, or other dairy products is a reliable way to moderate the chile burn).

Once again, Mestizo in London serves these (stuffed with cheese or picadillo, which I notice they do with beef mince instead of pork). Possibly some other UK Mexican restaurants of similar calibre (if any) also have rellenos on the menu. Otherwise, if you want to taste these (and I highly recommend you do), you've got to make them yourself. Do it at the weekend.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

(¿)Carnitas de Pollo(?)

Apparently the Spanish for "WTF" is "WTF", and that is exactly what I'd expect Mexican and Mexican-American readers to think when they see the title of this post.

This is a dish I learned from Two Cooks and a Suitcase. I have no idea if it's really Mexican. It's not that I expect there is no shredded chicken in Mexico; it's just that the Spanish word carne usually seems to refer to non-poultry meat, and carnitas (the diminutive plural) in particular refers to slow-cooked, shredded pork (or "pulled pork" in the UK).

Obviously, from a purely technical and scientific point of view, the flesh of birds (as well as fish, reptiles, and amphibians) counts as meat or carne in Mexico just as it does in the rest of the world. And tomatoes are technically fruit, as we all know. But we still think of them as a vegetable, and I suspect Mexicans still think of carnitas as pulled pork, not chicken.

Also, "shredded chicken" in Spanish is pollo deshebrado. It's related to hebras, which are "strings". In Mexico, cheese which hace hebras ("makes strings") is highly prized.

Having said that, this is certainly a clever construction: having seen carnitas all over the place in Mexico, the authors of Two Cooks clearly thought "Hey, why not do the same thing with chicken?" And indeed, why not?

Also, it's delicious. I've used this as a filling in tacos, burritos, even tamales. It's never gone wrong, and, with good, tender chicken breasts, is certainly quicker to make than the traditional carnitas.

Our story begins when I ran out of epazote just as The Cool Chile Company got their fresh tomatillos in stock. Normally I would just get epazote from Lupe Pinto's, but I decided to take the opportunity to do a bulk order from the Cool Chiles, as I mentioned in my last post. When it arrived it looked like this:

The tortillas, by the way, were a suggestion from Chilli and Chocolate by Isabel Hood, who recommends you always keep a pack of Cool Chile Company tortillas on hand (they freeze and defrost well) in case you ever want to whip up some tacos for a quick meal. Hood writes that she only uses masa harina for making non-tortilla-based corn antojitos like tamales, sopes, etc. When I read that, it was like a revelation. In many ways I'm guilty of taking the hard road when it comes to cooking (for example, I'm peculiarly attached to roasting and grinding seeds by hand). But even I have been put off making tacos because I couldn't be bothered making homemade tortillas. It is a lot of work for something like a taco, which is meant to be a simple and hassle-free meal (or snack, really).

Plus, Hood reminds us that, except maybe in rural areas, most Mexicans don't make their own tortillas anymore either. Think of it like this: do you bake your item bread every day, or do you leave it to the professionals?

I will do a proper review of these tortillas soon. For now let's just say these are the best tortillas you can buy in the UK, and easily hold their own against any I've bought or tasted anywhere else.

Now, fresh (or non-stale) tortillas are usually used for tacos, and obviously that's what the so-called carnitas de pollo were for. However, tortilla and filling are only two of the three components of a complete taco. Any taquería with it's masa would also provide you with at least two or three salsas to put on your taco (self-serve, your choice and at your discretion), and one of these is invariably a salsa verde, which is a kind of green version of more familiar Mexican salsa, using tomatillos in place of tomatoes

Having just received half a kilo of fresh tomatillos, it was really the salsa verde that inspired me to make this dish. Until then, I had only ever made it with tinned tomatillos.

Any common Mexican salsa has a number of acceptable variations in ingredients, and I read quite a few recipes before I decided how I was going to make mine. Because I was using fresh tomatillos, I had three options:

1) use them raw
I decided against this after trying one on its own. Tomatillos are related to the Cape Gooseberry, and as such are very tart, without a large quantity of natural fructose to balance it out.

2) boil them until "just tender"
Two things stopped me doing this. First, how the hell do I know when they're "just tender"? And second, I imagine they would come out, taste- and texture-wise, a lot like tinned tomatillos, which are heat-treated after all.

3) asar-roast them
We have a winner. I am, as you know, a major proponent of asar-roasting, and I feel very comfortable with the technique. Also, I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that this style of roasting would concentrate the sugars and yield a superior flavour.

But let's start with the carnitas de pollo.

For traditional carnitas you would marinate pork shoulder in a spice mix, slow-cook it for the better part of a day, cool it, shred it, then fry it quickly before serving. It's delicious, but you need a lot of planning. With a couple of tender chicken breasts you could be eating carnitas de pollo in under an hour.

Chicken, in Mexico, has traditionally been more economically valuable as an egg-layer than as a meat source, usually not being killed until they have reached the end of their laying life. In addition, the chickens usually got more roaming space, so they could be quite "muscular".

By contrast, British and American chickens have largely been degraded into mere biological machines whose sole function is to produce (usually flavourless) meat.

Apart from the moral outrage, this means in Mexico you generally had to boil your chicken for hours to make it tender, while in the UK and US you don't, because the poor chicken has never actually been allowed to use its muscles before.

Having said that, I usually try to buy free-range or organic chicken, not only because the bird will have had a nicer life but also because it will actually taste of chicken. Many people think chicken is just a cheap carrier for flavour, but it was once a highly-prized food eaten only by the rich. That was, of course, before ethically bankrupt battery farming transformed chicken into the world's most affordable meat source.

So, now that you feel bad about type chicken you eat, let's get to the cooking.

The first step in making carnitas de pollo is "poaching" the chicken. This is also your first opportunity to add flavour to the dish.

Poaching chicken is basically boiling it in seasoned water. The seasonings will seep into the flesh. Also, the water can then be used as a weak chicken stock. For this recipe I used

1 tsp Mexican oregano
2 avocado leaves

You can also bung in things like roughly chopped onions and garlic or other vegetables - anything you don't mind throwing straight into the compost bin when the poaching is done.

I got the avocado leaves from the Cool Chile Company and so can you (Americans: they might have these in your supermarket, otherwise see if there's a Mexican grocer in your area). Or you can use bay leaves instead, but they won't have the subtle aniseed flavour of avocado leaves.

Put your chicken breasts in a pot, add all the seasonings, cover with about an inch of water and bring to a boil.

Turn the heat down and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Remove to a plate and cool.

In the meantime, I made rajas. To make rajas, flame-roast some chiles poblanos as if you're making chiles rellenos (which I'll write about next time). After you've cooled and skinned them, cut them into thin strips (which is what "rajas" really means).

I also chopped up some spring onions. I chopped them at an angle, Asian-style, rather than just straight across, so they wouldn't get lost next to the rajas.

When the chicken is cooled, shred it with a fork (it should fall apart quite easily).

Now heat some fat (oil, butter, lard: your choice, though Mexicans would use lard). When it's hot, add the shredded chicken and fry until it starts to colour. Then add the rajas, fry a couple minutes more, then add the spring onions.

Now turn the heat way down and add about two tablespoons of sour cream or creme fraiche (Mexicans would use their own crema fresca, but it's not pasteurized), stir it in, and provecho! You may need to add more cream, but otherwise you're done.

And since I already had some delicious corn tortillas on hand, this was a pretty hassle-free meal.

Or it would have been. But I had to make the salsa verde as well...

Salsa Verde


5 fresh tomatillos
2 fresh green chiles (I used jalapeños)
1/2 white onion
2 cloves of garlic
The stems of a bunch of coriander, plus some leaves
The juice of 1-2 limes


Tomatillos come in papery husks, so you have to take these off and then give them a good wash, because their skin is sticky.

Asar-roast the tomatillos. I used the dry pan technique, foolishly thinking they would go quickly like tomatoes (even though I know they're not actually related to tomatoes). It worked but it took a long time, and the skin didn't blacken evenly. Next time I will try the Diana Kennedy technique, where you take the rack out of your grill pan, line the bottom with foil, put the tomatillos under a hot grill until they start to get soft, then turn them over and grill the other side. I find things get mushy using this method, but the tomatillos turned out that way anyway, so you've nothing to lose.

Dice the onion and garlic. Chop the stems off your coriander and roughly chop them.

While you're still waiting for the tomatillos to roast and/or cool enough to be skinned, grind the chopped coriander stems in your molcajete or with a bloody great mortar and pestle. You need it to go down to a paste, more or less. This is really hard and takes forever. Or you can throw it in the blender and have done with it (I'm trying to keep in mind not everyone wants to cook for four hours a night).

When your tomatillos have roasted and cooled, take the skins off and add them to the molcajete (or blender) and grind them up. If you're using the blender, blend in pulses, because you want to retain a fairly chunky texture.

Now add the onion and garlic, a bit of finely chopped coriander leaf, and the juice of one or two limes (use taste and consistency as a guide. The sauce is wet enough without overdoing the lime).

I was very proud of this, because it was my first sauce made almost entirely in the molcajete. Really only the onions and garlic didn't get crushed with the pestle, and that's because they weren't meant to.

Also, Mrs MexiGeek thoroughly enjoyed it.

It was a very wet sauce, though, and reminded me once again that, delicious though they are, tacos are not "neat" food. Bring lots of paper towels to the table.