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My Version of Chiles en Nogada

The Traditional Dish of September 16th

Despite hosting comidas (leisurely afternoon luncheons) celebrating Independence Day every year, I had not once served Chiles en Nogada. I loved this special dish served in local restaurants every September, but was fully aware of what could go wrong. A too sweet sauce, a greasy filling, or worst of all, a stingy sprinkling of pomegranate seeds could ruin the balance of this Mexican culinary masterpiece. Once and for all, it was time I learned to prepare Chiles en Nogada for myself…and if possible, to my own liking.

The first step was to dive into our collection of Mexican cookbooks. I soon discovered that there were as many versions of this famous recipe as there are cookbooks! Although all recipes were stuffed versions of poblano chiles, the similarities ended there. Some chile pepper fillings (picadillo) contained almonds, others walnuts, and still others contained both. But the greatest source of confusion was the ingredients of the famed nut sauce that tops the chiles. For the creamy base, some recipes used goat cheese, others Philadelphia cream cheese, and others sour cream or crème fraîche. Furthermore, the "en nogada" or nutty part of the sauce required milk-soaked walnuts in some recipes, peeled (yes peeled!) walnuts in others, and sometimes even piñon nuts. Were not walnuts a requirement in THE walnut sauce?

After reading 20 plus recipes, I decided to amend a good basic recipe with the following goals in mind; ease of preparation, excellent flavor, and a traditional presentation. And no walnut peeling! Here are the results.

CHILES en NOGADA
My Version of Stuffed Chiles with Walnut Sauce

STEP 1: POBLANO CHILE PREP
12 fresh poblano chiles

SWEAT THE CHILES
To "peel" the chiles, place each directly on the burner of your gas grill. Rotate with tongs until all sides are blackened (tops and bottoms, too). Toss into a large Zip-lock bag and seal until all chiles are done (charred).

If you do not have a gas stove, fire up the Weber and char your chiles on the fire.

PEEL THE CHILES
Remove one charred chile from the Zip-lock bag (re-seal), and "peel" while holding under a stream of warm tap water. The skins will easily fall off with gentle coaxing (scrape away the charred chile skin with your finger nails). Place the peeled chile in a colander to drain. Remove the skin from all chiles in this manner.

CLEAN THE CHILES
Cut a slit down the side of each cleaned chile, vertically, from the stem end almost to the pointed end. Remove all the seeds and any large veins, leaving the stem attached. Place on layers of paper towels to further remove moisture from the chiles.

ADVANCE PREP NOTE
The chiles may be "peeled" two days in advance of your comida and stored, covered in the refrigerator.

STEP 2: PICADILLO (MEAT STUFFING)
1 medium white onion, diced, or to taste
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced, or to taste
2 pounds ground beef or chuck
Salt to taste
Add ground black pepper to taste
½ cup of chopped pecan meats, or to taste
½ cup raisins, or to taste
½ cup candied barrel cactus called BISNAGA (if available). Or substitute chopped, dried apricots


ABOVE: Bisnaga for sale at a Mexican grocer.

COOK'S NOTE: CREATING A SAVORY-SWEET PICADILLO
Approach making a good picadillo in the same way as you would make a good Thanksgiving stuffing. That is to say, maintain a pleasing balance between the savory (the meat and onions) and the sweet (the raisins, bisnaga---or dried fruit---and pecans). Also, strive for a nice balance of textures---particularly the ratio of nuts to meat (I like more chopped pecans than most). Adjust all ingredients to your liking. I also am a fan of adding the onions last so they don't "disappear" or become too soft while the meat is browning.

BROWN THE MEAT
Sautee ground meat in a large heavy pan until lightly browned and the meat's grease has been released.

COMPLETE THE PICADILLO
To the browning ground meat, add the raisins, chopped pecans, and diced candied cactus (bisnaga) or chopped dried apricots, to taste. Then add diced onion (to taste) and chopped garlic to taste (note, not too much as there is garlic in the walnut sauce, also). Salt and pepper to taste. Drain only if there is excess grease. Cool the meat mixture.

STUFF THE CHILES
Place the chiles on a cookie sheet lined with a bed of paper towels (to soak up liquid from the chiles). Gently spoon the meat mixture into the chiles. Cover with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator.

ABOVE: Cleaned chiles stuffed with picadillo.

ADVANCE PREP NOTE
Make the picadillo meat filling and stuff the chiles one day prior to your comida.

STEP 3: WALNUT SAUCE (NO COOKING!)
1 cup chopped walnuts, or to taste
2 cups sour cream
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce, then add to taste
1 teaspoon Maggi seasoning sauce, then add to taste
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped, then to taste
Black ground pepper to taste
Salt to taste
And A Secret Ingredient…


ABOVE: Maggi Sauce

CHOP WALNUTS
Place whole walnut meats into a food processor container fitted with the chopping blade. Chop walnuts until fine yet still have texture (like for pesto). Set aside.


ABOVE: Ground walnuts (in relationship to a teaspoon).

ASSEMBLE WALNUT SAUCE
Place sour cream in a large mixing bowl. Add minced garlic. Add the chopped walnuts (setting aside some chopped walnuts for garnish) and mix well.

To the sour cream mixture, begin by adding 1 Tablespoon of Worcester sauce and 1 teaspoon of Maggi stirring completely to blend. Taste. Continue adding Worcester sauce and Maggi until the flavors are balanced with the sour cream. Add salt and pepper to taste.

COOK'S NOTES
SAUCE TEXTURE: The sauce should have a good distribution of chopped walnuts throughout, but the overall impression in the mouth is creamy. I think a rougher chopped walnut achieves the desired texture---if the nuts are pulverized, the sauce seems too grainy in the mouth.

SAUCE COLOR: A pleasing creamy color. .

SAUCE CONSISTENCY AT THIS STAGE: The present consistency of the walnut sauce is not much different than the original sour cream---very, very thick.

SAUCE TASTE TIPS: The flavors of sour cream, Maggi and Worcesteshire are all present, but no one flavor overpowers. After tasting, there is a subtle lingering of fresh garlic.

MY SECRET INGREDIENT: COLD COFFEE LEFTOVER FROM BREAKFAST!
Slowly add (cold) strong brewed coffee---stirring constantly after each addition---thinning the
sauce to a smooth, "spoonable" state. The coffee brings out every flavor in the sauce…in a good way! Store covered in the refrigerator.

ADVANCE PREP NOTE
Make the walnut sauce the morning of your comida.

STEP 4: FINAL PREP AND PRESENTATION
1 fresh pomegranate, peeled and seeded (reserve the seeds)
½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts

ABOVE: Perfectly ripe pomegranates for sale in the Pátzcuaro market.

GATHERING THE FINAL COMPONENTS
POMEGRANATE SEEDS: Seeds in a bowl, ready to be used as garnish.
CHOPPED WALNUTS: Chopped walnuts in a bowl, ready to be used as garnish.
STUFFED CHILES: Remove from the refrigerator at least 2 hours prior to serving. They should be room temperature when served.
WALNUT SAUCE: Remove sauce from the refrigerator at least 2 hours prior to serving. The sauce should be room temperature when served. Mix well before assembling the dish.

PLATE UP!
Lay one stuffed chile on the serving plate. Ladle walnut sauce over the center portion (leaving the ends of the chile visible).


ABOVE: Plated, stuffed chile with walnut sauce.

Sprinkle the walnut sauce with pomegranate seeds followed by a dusting of chopped walnuts. Serve

ABOVE: Chiles en Nogada, plated, garnished and ready to serve.

MORE COOK'S NOTES…

PERFECT FOR ENTERTAINING
Chiles en Nogada may be prepared in advance and are (correctly) served at room temperature. This is the perfect entrée to keep you with your guests and out of the kitchen!

SERVE WITH…
Although Chiles en Nogada is a meal in itself, here are some suggested side dishes…

Mexican Rice Pilaf, also in the red-white-green motif (made with chopped tomatoes green peas and onion). Keep it mild (no cilantro) so as not to overwhelm the sublime and complex flavor of the walnut sauce.

Mexican Beans (not refried). A mild brown bean is best. Serve in small bowls.

Try (easy) Calabasa Casserole made with chunks of zucchini, onion, and fresh tomato piled into a casserole then simmered in chicken broth (lid on) until tender. Crumble in some thyme. Add fresh sweet corn kernels if in season. Salt and pepper to taste, then cover the tender vegetable chunks with strips of Oaxacan cheese (or Monterrey Jack). Put the lid on, turn the flame to low, and wait until the cheese is completely melted. Leave the lid on until ready to serve.

Pickled jalapeños with marinated onion, carrot and cauliflower.

Dessert? Tres Leche Cake, of course! Here's my favorite recipe…

Go to the nearest Mexican neighborhood. Select the busiest bakery. You will know it when you see it. Order the Tres Leche cake one day before your comida. If it is a bakery making specialties from central Mexico, they will ask you to select a filling from no less than 30 dizzying choices. Tell them "mocha" or "café"…a coffee flavored filling that enhances the cake's milky richness (my preference versus the overly sweet fruit fillings). Pick the cake up the morning of your comida leaving it in a cool spot until time to serve. After serving, left over cake must be refrigerated (still good, but not as good as when you first bring it home).

FREEZES BEAUTIFULLY
I suggest doubling or tripling the recipe when preparing Chiles en Nogada. Freeze the chiles, sauce, and pomegranate seeds in separate Zip-lock freezer bags according to servings.

RIPE POMEGRANITE SEEDS…THINK AHEAD
As pomegranates are a seasonal item, buy, seed and freeze them when readily available. To freeze, place the seeds in a Zip-lock bag---that's it---and freeze.

NOT FOR SEPTEMBER ONLY
Don't wait an entire year to prepare this delightful dish! I recently heard from a friend who serves Chiles en Nogada every year for Christmas.

LAST THOUGHTS…
Having now served Chiles en Nogada for a large comida, I am only sorry that I did not learn to prepare them before! It may be the very best, prepare ahead, serve-at-room-temperature entrée EVER. I would even tote these to a picnic!

You can trust my experiment above, or delve into the fascinating history and many wonderful recipes for CHILES EN NOGADA yourself. I've made it easy for you. Go directly to Google. Result #1 of 24,500…that is!

http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&ie=UTF-8&rls=GGLD,GGLD:2003-35,GGLD:en&q=chiles+en+nogada

BUEN PROVECHO!
September 2005
By Debra Hall
Co-owner
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Pátzcuaro, MEXICO
www.zocalofolkart.com


Recipe concocted by Deb Hall, distilled from 3 different recipes.