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.