September is a month of celebration for Mexico, it’s when we celebrate our most important holiday: our day of independence.
Today I want to share with you a recipe for a dish that embodies the rich and complex history and culture of Mexico; a dish that’s also a symbol of Mexican independence, which we celebrate on the 16th of September, chiles en nogada or stuffed poblano peppers in walnut sauce.
Chiles en nogada has been among the most labour intensive meals I have ever prepared — but please don’t let this deter you from attempting it because there are far more dishes out there that take even longer, so do cook it even if only at least once in your life. The reward is delectable and you’ll feel very proud of your scrumptious accomplishment. I have to admit that I was a tad nervous taking on this dish because of all the steps involve, and because of the challenge of transforming such an important Mexican meal from a carnivorous one to a meatless one. With that said, I also have to tell you that I felt quite proud of the results and it even made me feel a bit more in touch with my Mexican heritage.
Like so many classic dishes in cuisines all over the World, chiles en nogada recipes have so many variations and it always results in a discussion of opinions. The common belief is that this very special meal was created in Puebla in 1821 by a group of nuns as a way to honour a visitor by the name of Agustin de Iturbide, who signed the Treaty of Córdoba to gain Mexico’s independence from Spain and who also went on to briefly become Emperor of Mexico. It is said that the nuns wanted to create a dish that included the freshest local seasonal ingredients as well as incorporate the three colours of the Mexican flag: green (symbolising independence), white (symbolising religion), and red (symbolising union).
The elaborate meal had to of course include a very important ingredient to the region: Poblano peppers. Puebla is the birth place of Poblano chiles, and also another perhaps more better know Mexican stuffed pepper dish called chiles rellenos or cheese or meat stuffed Poblano peppers that are dipped in beaten eggs and deep fried. While many disagree on the traditional list of ingredients (which can be any where from 40 or 20 or 10 items) the most common are very finely chopped mixture of pork and beef, raisins, sherry, fruits such as apples, pears, plantain and peaches; almonds, pine nuts and of course walnuts for the creamy sauce. The sauce can include goat cheese or queso fresco or even a very modern cream cheese; additionally milk or double cream or sour cream can be added. As for the spices they are simpler and typically ground cinnamon, ground cloves, salt and ground black pepper. Some say that the stuffed pepper should be dipped in the beaten eggs and fried, then there are others that say that is not the case. At least the toppings are not something people disagree on, and they are the walnut sauce, pomegranate seeds and finely chopped parsley.
There are many historians that say that the first time this elaborate meal was made, the recipe was never written down but instead passed down from one generation to another simply by word of mouth. This would explain all of the disagreements on what the actual dish that was served on that special visit included or didn’t. Another thing to take into account is that since chiles en nogada has been part of our history for over 200 years, every cook is going to add a special touch as well as incorporate what is locally and seasonally available to them. I think what matters most is that we all make an effort to stick with the tradition of preparing this meal and to pay homage to those that fought for and won our independence — so if your recipe isn’t exactly like the neighbours, it’s okay.
For me the biggest challenge, after gathering all of the ingredients, was making sure that my vegetarian version tasted as amazing as the meat-based ones I’d eaten before becoming pescetarian. I read so many recipes and watched so many cooking demo videos that after a while my mind became dizzy with details and the cook’s personal touches. In the end, after all of the historical research, I decided to stick to the traditional recipe as close as possible — with the exception of the meat, of course. For the “meat” stuffing I combined rehydrated TVP, or textured vegetable protein, (which you can purchase at any grocery store or health food store), with the mixture of fruits, nuts and seasonings. When you work with TVP the challenge can be allowing enough time for the spices and flavours to really seep into it so that everything comes together instead of having the TVP stand out from the other flavours. To make sure this didn’t happen I cooked the filling the night before and it was a total success because the next day the flavour was fantastic. TVP requires its own detailed article, which I’ll share another time, but do know that this stuff is amazing and is a fantastic meat substitute — specially for finely minced meat.
The walnut sauce was as classic as I could get it — with the exception of the walnuts. The traditional recipe calls for peeled fresh walnuts, but all I found were ones with their skin still on them. I attempted to peel the skin off but I gave up a quarter of the way in because this dish is difficult enough without meticulously trying to peel walnuts — it will make you crazy! The reason the traditional recipe calls for peeled walnuts is because they are harvested in these months and when they’re still young the skin is thin and easily comes off. There are people that say that the skin will yield a slight bitterness, but I didn’t detect that and perhaps it was because of the addition of sweetness that balanced it out. The one thing I did notice by leaving the skin was that my sauce had a slight tone instead of the purely white, but the flavour was still delicious.
Coming from a cooking experience of having prepared countless dishes from North African, Middle Eastern, and Indian Subcontinent cuisines, I didn’t find the combination of meats with fruits and aromatic spices odd. But as far as Mexican gastronomy this is a combination that I’ve only ever seen in the filling (or picadillo) for the chiles en nogada stuffing. This touch is of course brought to the dish from the colonial cooking techniques and ingredients that were introduced by the Spanish. I do know that the sweet-savoury combination can seem strange, but once you’ve tasted it you’ll see how when done correctly it really is a very complimentary combination.
Amigos, I know the list of ingredients is long. And yes, this is a time consuming recipe. But I also know that this is a dish that you should cook and taste. I think that you will really love these unique flavours of savoury, sweet, roasted poblano pepperiness, creamy and velvety texture, and aromatic spices. Chiles en nogada is attainable Mexican haute cuisine that represents the flavours and techniques of Mexico’s Pre-Hispanic and European cuisines. It is a marriage of all these different ingredients that perhaps at first may seen like they will not come together nicely, but in the end transform into a unique and delectable burst of awesomeness.
Chiles en nogada is not a dish you will want to cook or eat too often, it is something that is special and a perfect treat for once or twice a year. In the end, and without ego, I have to say that I am very proud of how delicious my peppers turned out. My husband had eaten a vegetarian version previously but he told me that mine were much better than those — he would tell me if they weren’t. In each bite my tastebuds were met with the smooth creaminess of the walnut sauce, which you could taste the walnuts and the hints of goat cheese. And though the sauce had a touch of sugar added it wasn’t sweet, it was savoury and perfect. The tender Poblano had those delectable tones that can only be achieved by roasting it on an open flame, then came the scents of sweet fruits, cinnamon and aromatic cloves. You could taste the fruits which somehow weren’t overly sweet, they were tender and held their form. Now and then were little tender crunches of almonds followed by touches of sweet raisins. Then would come a pop of pomegranate sweet-tartness and followed by the fresh herb-iness of parsley. It was a magical combination of flavours and textures that left me wanting seconds — but with this very special meal you get but one chile en nogada… I’ll wait for tomorrow and have the leftovers. 😉
As we say in Mexico, buen provecho! and also viva Mexico! Hope my fellow Mexicanos have a fantastic celebration and that the rest of you join us for some good food and fun celebrations.
- !Ingredients for Filling!:
- 1.5 cups or 81 grams or 2.85 oz of dry TVP granules
- 2 cups of water
- one Tablespoon of fresh lime juice
- one Tablespoon of soy sauce
- !Vegetables and Fruit Ingredients For The Filling:
- 6 large Poblano peppers
- 2 Tablespoos of olive oil
- 132 grams or 4.65 oz of white onion, weighed then finely chopped
- 2 large cloves of garlic, finely mince and should yield 1 Tablespoon
- 2 small peaches or 80 gm or 6.35 oz of peeled and evenly chopped peaches*
- 2 small granny smith apples or 231 g or 8.10 oz of peeled and evenly chopped apple*
- 2 small green pears or 225 gm or 7.90 oz of peeled and evenly chopped pear*
- 25 grams or .90 oz or ¼ cup of blanched and roughly chopped almonds
- 50-100 grams or just under ½ cup of seedless raisins**
- ½ Tablespoon of ground Mexican cinnamon (canela), to start and adjust to taste
- ¼ teaspoon of ground clove, to start
- ½ teaspoon of dried oregano (to start but REMEMBER A little goes a LONG way)
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 Tablespoon of fine sea salt, start with half then gradually add more as desired
- 1 teaspoon of ground black pepper, to start
- !Nogada or Walnut Sauce Ingredients:
- 120 grams or 4.25 oz of walnuts (buy the absolute freshest available to you & peeled if possible)
- one small can or around 1 cup of media crema or substitute with full fat milk***
- 100 grams or 3.5 oz mild and plain goat cheese
- ¼ to ½ teaspoon fine sea salt, this will depend on how salty cheese is (I used ½)
- ½ teaspoon of granulated sugar
- pinch of ground black pepper, optional
- !Topping Ingredients:
- 134 grams or 1 cup or 4.75 oz of pomegranate seeds (I used 2 small pomegranates for this)
- finely chopped parsley leaves, amount will depend on your like or dislike of parsley
- !How to Rehydrate TVP:
- Bring the water to nearly a boil then pour in the lime juice and the soy sauce give it a stir then carefully add the dry TVP granules. Stir the TVP around the water to help rehydrate it. Turn off the heat and set aside for 15 minutes.
- Once the TVP has been fully rehydrated, strain it over a fine sieve. Then use just a little cold water to rinse and run over the TVP to help cool it down enough for you to handle it. Once you can touch the TVP then you want to use your hands to squeeze out as much of the liquid as possible. After you’ve done that, and only if the granules are large you want to put it on a cutting board and roughly chop it into smaller pieces that resemble cooked ground meat. Set the TVP aside.
- Prepare the TVP then set it aside. Next start cutting up the onion and the garlic as well as peeling, deseeding and chopping the peach, apple and pear into small even pieces. Heat the oil in a large pan and once hot add the onion, saute until soft and translucent, about 5 to 8 minutes. Next add the garlic and saute for 2 minutes, stirring often. Now add the drained TVP and stir to combine the onion and garlic into it. Mix in the bits of peach and allow to cook for about 5 minutes, then add the apple and cook another 5 minutes. Now add in the almond bits, raisins, and all of the spices from the filling ingredients list. Give the mixture a very good stir and cook for 5 minutes. Now add the pear and cook under medium heat for a further 15 minutes. At this time if the mixture starts to stick to the pan you may add a little bit of water or vegetable broth to prevent it from burning and just until the fruits release some of their juices. Give the filling mixture a taste and if needed adjust the seasoning if desired. Turn off the heat and allow to completely cool before pouring the mixture into a container and storing in the refrigerator overnight.
- (I HIGHLY RECOMMEND that you cook the filling the day before to not only cut down the work in one day, but also because the TVP will absorb the flavours much, much better than if you serve it the same way.
- !Day Two Instructions:
- The next day right before you are going to continue cooking take the mixture out of the refrigerator and let it sit aside. Now throughly clean and pat dry the Poblano peppers so you can roast them. I use the open flame method on a stove top but you may also put the peppers under the broiler in your oven until their skin is nice and charr. On the stove char the chiles evenly on all sides just like in this tutorial. Once the Poblanos have been charred place inside of a plastic bag and set them aside to “sweat” so you can peel them in a bit.
- While you are waiting for the peppers to sweat, you can get the pomegranate ready by seeding it following this method I showed you previously. Once the pomegranate seeds are ready set them aside. Now go back to the peppers and put some gloves on so you can handle them. Open the bag and taking one by one use your fingers to carefully pull and slide the charred skin away from each pepper. Place them on a clean plate or cutting board until you’ve finished with each chile. Once all the chiles have had their charred skien removed (you don’t need to rinse them as any little bits of charred skin will only add flavour to the dish), make a small incision in each pepper going lengthwise but stopping before you get to the tip. The incision only needs to be long enough to remove the seeds and place the stuffing inside. Now use your hands to pull out all of the seeds and any attached veins from each Poblano. After you’ve done this to all 6 chiles set them aside.
- Pour the media crema or milk or cream into the blender then add in the walnut bits and a little splash of milk or water to help get the blender going, blend until the walnuts have completely broken down. Next add the goat cheese and blend until it is well incorporated into the sauce -- if needed add a little more milk to the blender in order to achieve a smooth and creamy sauce . Leave the blender as is and you’ll return to it in a few minutes.
- Now you can warm up the filling by placing it in a large pan and allowing it to completely heat up evenly. Once the filling is hot throughout, turn off the heat and set aside. Go back to the blender and now add a pinch of ground black pepper and fine sea salt to your taste (I added the ½ teaspoon), and the ½ teaspoon of sugar then blend again for about 2 minutes. Now taste the walnut sauce and if needed add more sugar or alt to it if desired. Pour the sauce into a large bowl and set aside.
- TO SERVE: Traditionally it is only one stuffed pepper per person. Carefully place one on a plate and fill it with the warmed up filling. Drizzle a generous amount of the walnut sauce over the stuffed pepper, then sprinkle some pomegranate seeds and lastly some finely chopped parsley. Serve immediately. Traditionally the pepper is served alone, but if you'd like some plain white rice may be added as an accompaniment. I prefer the alone method and find that the rice is unnecessary, but it is up to you. Lastly, I quite enjoy a glass of dry or fruity red wine with this meal -- beer is not recommended.
**I am not a huge fan of raisins so I don't add too many. Adjust to your taste.
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