During the years I’ve been teaching at the Mexican Cultural Institute I’ve been hesitant to demonstrate and serve Chiles en Nogada. There are many reasons…
First, one of my goals has been to open a window into the world of Mexican cooking in an accessible way. I’ve introduced basic ingredients and dishes along with bits of their history, fun facts, cooking methods and new spins, so people can become familiar with this cuisine and feel empowered to play with its basics in their own kitchens.
No sense in teaching how to make something incredibly complex with tons of new ingredients, which can be quite overwhelming, right?
Also, Chiles in Nogada look strange. If you are not familiar with them, you see a large green chile overstuffed with an odd looking filling, covered in a pale looking sauce and pomegranate seeds on top. What’s more, they are served lukewarm, which is unexpected.
Let me add more. Since they are so rich and complex, they are typically served on their own. They don’t like the company of much more than white rice or a freshly favored water….
All this said… I am making them for my next class!! Let me tell you how this came to be.
To start with, the topic is Celebrating Independence Day with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
Chiles in Nogada are the quintessential dish eaten throughout the country on this day, and for the whole month of September. It is is a symbol, although there are many versions for how they came to be (ladies in waiting celebrating a military victory, young nuns welcoming a famous presidents, and a people’s way of celebrating the seasons’ bounty) they all agree it was created with the colors of the Mexican flag in mind: green chile, white walnut sauce and red pomegranate.
Other years, I had gotten away with making other dishes prepared for this holiday that aren’t so labor intensive and just as good. However, the second part of the topic made it harder. Frida and Diego, one of Mexico’s most iconic figures who embody Mexicanidad and they ate Chiles in Nogada during this holiday. And believe me, I thoroughly researched, trying to find other things they also ate then!!
The last straw came when Humberto (coordinator at the Institute) sent me the proof for the invite for the classes. The cover? Chiles en Nogada. I wasn’t going to change something that had hours of work involved already. And yes, Chiles en Nogada are such a staple. And…OK! If they are in the cover, I have to make them.
So with the fear of not wanting to scare away our guests with such complex dish on the back of my mind, I set on a quest to find the most delicious recipe. Remembering how every year I, along with millions of Mexicans and Mexican food aficionados, await for September to be able to eat this deliciously extravagant dish, I had to find the best version to share.
I began by making the version I grew up eating made by my nana, who gave me detailed instructions over the phone. Then I tried my mothers’ sophisticated take. Then I compared the two, and even mixed things of one into the other (oh sacrilege! the eternal culinary competition of my memories). Then I made Guadalupe Rivera’s version (Diego Rivera’s daughter), followed by Diana Kennedy’s… and any other I could find. Misery! I could not get the exquisite result I remembered savoring time and again.
Frustrated, as she saw me, Alejandra de la Paz (Director of the Mexican Cultural Institute) contacted Don Luis Bello Morin, director at the Restaurant of Palacio Nacional de las Bellas Artes in Mexico City. It took no more than a couple hours for him to respond with a recipe which included possible substitutions for hard to find ingredients and a detailed guide to make them. His instructions were so precise, that it was like having a co-pilot throughout the ride: he described the minutes, the smells, the sounds and textures to be found through his tested road to make the best ever Chiles en Nogada I have ever tried.
Not only was he so generous to share his recipe, but the results went beyond my expectations. Since he loves to share recipes so that dishes such as this will not be lost, here is his adapted recipe (since the one he sent is for an industrial quantity). Thank you Don Luis!
As for my hesitations: I can’t wait to share this recipe and all the stories I’ve gathered for next class. In hindsight, I have been so pleasantly surprised with the eagerness of participants to eat and cook many more things than I would have expected. Of course, Chiles en Nogada are at the end of labor intensive spectrum, but they are so worth it.
Now, if you feel like making this recipe, let me know how it turned out. If you don’t and really want to try it, come to my next class!
For the chiles:
- 10 chiles poblanos
- 6 cups water
- 5 tablespoons shredded or chopped piloncillo or brown sugar
For the meat:
- 2 pounds pork shoulder butt, leg or ribs, or a combination of meats such as veal and beef, deboned and cut into chunks
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/4 white onion
- 1 carrot, peeled, cut into two pieces
- 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme or a couple fresh thyme sprigs
- 5 black peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt
For the filling:
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup white onion, chopped
- 1 pound ripe tomatoes, pureed, or about 2 cups tomato puree
- All the cooked meat, finely chopped
- 2 cups meat cooking broth
- 1 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt
- 3 ounces acitron or candied pineapple, chopped
- 1 cup ripe plantain, peeled and diced, about 1 1/4
- 1 diced Bartlett pear, about 1 1/4 cup
- 1 diced Golden Delicious apple, about 1 1/4 cup
- 1 large yellow peach, mature but firm, diced, about 1 1/4 cup
- Pinch of cumin
- Pinch of ground cloves or 4 to 5 whole cloves, seeds smashed and stems discarded
- 1 ceylon or true cinnamon stick
- 1/4 cup blonde raisins
- 1/4 cup silvered almonds, lightly toasted
- 1/4 cup pinenuts, lightly toasted
- 1/4 cup chopped manzanilla olives
For walnut or pecan sauce:
- 1 1/2 cup freshly peeled walnuts, if not fresh DON'T use packaged, use pecans
- 2 1/2 cups heavy cream
- 1/2 cup milk, more or less to taste
- 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar, or more to taste
- Pinch kosher or coarse sea salt, or to taste
- Pinch of ground white pepper
- 1 tablespoon Dry Sherry, or more to taste
For the garnishes:
- 1 cup pomegranate seeds
- 1/4 chopped parsley, optional
To prepare the chiles:
- Rinse and char chiles. To char, you can either place them on a baking sheet or pan under the broiler, directly on the grill, hot comal or directly on an open fire flame. In any case, turn every 2 to 3 minutes until they are charred and blistered but not burnt. Place them, while very hot, in a plastic bag. Close bag tightly and cover with a kitchen towel. Let them sweat for 10 to 20 minutes.
- Take them out one by one, and peel off the skin in the sink. As you do so, lightly rinse the chile with water. With a knife, make a slit down one side to take out and discard the seeds and membrane. Treat the flesh carefully so it will not tear and keep the stem on. Place them in a container and cover with the water previously simmered with the piloncillo or sugar until well diluted, anywhere from 2 to 24 hours. If it is more than 2 hours, place them in the refrigerator, covered once they have cooled down. Drain and either use or store in the refrigerator. You can prepare them 4 to 5 days ahead up to this point.
To prepare the filling:
- Place the meat already cut into 3 to 4" chunks on the bottom of a cooking pot along with the garlic cloves, 1/4 white onion, carrot, bay leaves, thyme, peppercorns and a teaspoon of salt. Cover with water and place over medium high heat. Simmer for 20 to 25 minutes, until meat is cooked through. Turn off the heat and let the meat and broth cool down. remove the meat with a slotted spoon and chop it finely, reserve. Strain the broth into a container, reserve.
- Heat the olive oil in a large deep saute pan over medium high heat. Add the garlic clove and saute for a minute or until it starts becoming fragrant, but don't let it brown. Add the onion and saute for a couple more minutes, until it becomes translucent and soft and starts gaining some color. Pour in the tomato puree and let it season, stirring often, for about 5 to 7 minutes, until it has deepened its color, thickened its consistency and lost its raw flavor.
- Incorporate the chopped meat, 2 cups of cooking broth, a teaspoon of salt, mix it all together and let it cook 3 to 4 minutes. Add the chopped acitron, mix with the meat and let it cook for 4 to 5 minutes. Incorporate the chopped plantain, pear, apple, and peach and gently mix it all together, let it cook for a couple minutes. Sprinkle the cumin and ground cloves, making sure you mix those spices well. Place a cinnamon stick in the middle of the pan, cover with a lid, lower the heat to medium and let it cook for about 8 to 10 minutes.
- Uncover, add the raisins, almonds, pine nuts, green olives, mix well and taste for salt. Add more if need be. Turn off the heat. You can make the filling up to 2 days in advance, cool, cover and refrigerate.
To prepare the sauce:
- Place all ingredients except the Sherry in the blender and puree until smooth. You can make the sauce a couple days in advance, but bring it to out room temperature before using. Mix the Sherry into the sauce up to 2 hours before serving. Add more to taste, but it shouldn't have a strong alcohol flavor. If it thickened while in the refrigerator, lighten it up with some milk.
- Finally!!!! To assemble Chiles en Nogada: Place the chiles in a serving platter. Stuff each one with about 1/2 cup filling. Close as best you can. Generously spoon walnut or pecan sauce on top to cover chiles entirely and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and chopped parsley on top.
- NOTE: Some cooks batter and fry the chiles before adding the sauce. But that version is much heavier and has become less and less popular over time.