Chiles en Nogada always remind me of Laura Esquivel‘s novel, Como Agua Para Chocolate. When I taught students at a private all-girls school in Bethesda, May was the much-awaited month in our Spanish Conversation and Composition class where we would begin to read from the novel and watch the movie. I had watched the movie for all the years I had taught at that girls’ school, sitting on the edge of my chair, commiserating with Tita, the heroine. Each year felt as if it were the first time I watched her transform the cold wind that blew through her heart into a magical ritual surrounding the daily preparation of the family’s meals. The thing that struck me in different ways as I watched the movie each year was what the ceremony of shared and lovingly prepared meals means as a spiritual ‘glue’ in a family.
I chuckle to myself now whenever I remember the impact of the ending on the entire classroom of girls, (yes, including me!). Our feminine hearts beyond consolation, we would all sob loudly and with complete abandon, aghast at the realization that the happiness we wanted for Tita was a transcendental one. She and Pedro, the man she had loved for so long but who had been married to her sister, would ignite at the moment of their union and would perish in an explosion of flames, throwing us into further spasms of emotion. Years later, teaching in an all-male equivalent of the girls’ school, I decided to show the movie to the adolescent boys in my Honors Spanish class. My notion that men are from Mars and women are from Venus was confirmed! The boys broke out into hysterical laughter at the end of the movie.
In any case, besides the knowledge of Spanish gained from the study of the movie, I hope that my students, both genders, came to understand the role of food and its preparation in the life of a family. Undoubtedly, it is through food that many of the unwritten lessons of a culture are learned. Each year, I take a group of students to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, for Spanish immersion. One of my favorite things is to introduce them to chiles en nogada.
Chiles en nogada is a dish originally from the colonial city of Puebla, but here in San Miguel, it is prepared in many restaurants. Doña Beatriz’ chiles at Casa Carmen are the best, in my opinion. Needless to say, there are a million ways to prepare stuffed chiles in Mexico. Chiles en nogada is an elegant Mexican dish that is as beautiful to look at as it is delicious to eat. This version is adapted to make it slightly easier to prepare. The sauce is made without the walnuts, (no tedious peeling of walnut skins) they are simply added as a garnish. In fact, another variation is that the sauce has cilantro blended into it. It is, nevertheless, quite an elaborate affair, albeit all worth the trouble.
- 8 poblano peppers
- 2 ½ cups crème fraiche or clotted cream and some amount of milk to water it down
- cup parsley, chopped
- 10 sprigs of cilantro with the bottom part of stems twisted off
- 1 lb ground meat
- 2 or three chopped onions
- cups raisins
- Olive oil for the ground meat and for the green sauce
- Fresh pomegranate seeds (if they are available) for garnish
- Walnuts for garnish
- Grill the peppers over an open flame and then put them either in a plastic or paper bag to sweat for about 15 minutes.
- Peel them, slit one side, clean out all the seeds, rinse them well and set them aside. The more thoroughly you clean them, the less chance you will get a really spicy one. You can do this a day ahead of time. To avoid a really ‘hot’ pepper, rinse them in a mixture of vinegar and water.
- Cook the ground meat in about ¼ cup of olive oil for about 15 minutes at medium to high heat, add salt to taste, and pepper.
- Lower heat and add the parsley, two of the chopped onions and continue cooking for another 15 minutes.
- Finally, add the raisins and cover, cooking for another 10 or so minutes. This picadillo (pronounced picadiyo) is the stuffing for your chiles.
- In a 1 quart saucepan cook the other chopped onion in about ¼ cup of olive oil until it is transparent.
- Then, add ½ cup of the cream and continue to cook for another five minutes.
- In a blender combine the cilantro, roughly chopped so it doesn’t break your blender, two of the peeled chiles without their stems and the rest of the cream.
- Add salt and pepper to taste and blend this green mixture with the cream and onion mixture in your saucepan.
- Cook for about 10 minutes until it is well-combined.
- At this point, add the milk to make the sauce more liquid. This will be your sauce that you will pour on your stuffed chiles.
- Stuff the chiles with your picadillo, then place the chiles in a pan where you will warm them covered for a few minutes so all the flavors meld. They are often served room temperature.
- Variation: Add ½ chopped fennel bulb to the picadillo around the time you add the onions.