Eight years ago on Labor Day I threw what was probably the most significant dinner party of my life. The universe had pointed out the guy I would spend the rest of my life with, but I was at a loss as to how to secure his attention. That night, I hosted a Mexican feast and invited the fellow in question along with a number of friends we happened to have in common. He was about to move into a house a mile up the road from me, and inviting him to dinner seemed like the neighborly thing to do. He stayed after everyone else had left, and we sat and talked long into the night. We've hardly been apart since – we were married 5 months later and live happily in the house a mile up the road.
When I mentioned last week that I'd invited guests for dinner over the weekend, my wise husband suggested that I cook Mexican.
My impulse was to make tamales and some sort of long-cooked pork, but then a notion of Chiles en Nogada shimmered across my brain in a sort of cosmic intervention. Chiles en Nogada, for the uninitiated, are roasted poblano peppers stuffed with piccadillo – a sweet and savory mixture of pork (and sometimes beef) with fruit, nuts, and spices – napped with a creamy walnut sauce and scattered with chopped cilantro and pomegranate seeds. I'd never made them before, but it did seem an appropriate dish for the occasion. It's the meal prepared in the final chapter of Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, the dish that drives everyone from the table in a frenzy of passionate coupling.
When I read the book some 20 years ago, I wasn't much of a cook, and I lived in a Vermont that was still in the culinary Dark Ages – foodstuffs beyond the basic basics were hard to come by (even fresh basil was a stretch!) and the restaurants were limited and staid. So a dish comprising so many seemingly complicated steps and exotic ingredients was simply out of reach, something I could only conjure in my imagination.
These days poblano peppers, pomegranates, and cilantro are readily available at the grocery store right here in town, and complex recipes don't scare me at all. Chiles en Nogada have even shown up on nearby menus at one time or another (I was greatly disappointed when I ordered them – they were bland and perfunctory and not at all what I had in mind).
It's even the right time of year for Chiles en Nogada – it's the season for walnuts and poblanos and pomegranates, and the dish is traditionally served around Mexico's Independence Day (September 16). The green, white, and red of the chiles, sauce, and pomegranate are said to represent the colors of Mexico's flag.
Because I am not an authority on Mexican food, I have no compunction about mixing courses from various regions in a single meal. I rounded out the menu with a starter of Veracruzan shrimp cocktail and finished with a lemon-verbena-scented flan for dessert.
• • • • • •
Chiles en Nogada
I compared recipes from several sources and combined what felt rightest to me. Some called for battering and frying the stuffed chiles, some included beef in the stuffing, some had the meat browned for the filling, some wanted cumin for the spicing. I chose to leave the chiles naked (but for the sauce), used only pork in the filling, opted for meat not browned, seasoned with cinnamon and clove, and served it all at room temperature. The result was a sublime dish with layers of flavor and texture that shifted with each bite – sometimes sweet, sometimes tart, sometimes piquant and spicy, alternately crunchy, creamy, chewy, and meltingly soft.
Plan to start making this the day before you intend to serve it. Blanch the walnuts and soak them over night; poach the pork and make the filling (making it the day before will allow the flavors to marry).
Recipe serves 6
1 cup (3 oz.) walnut halves
1 1/2 cups (12 fl. oz.) milk
1 cup (8 fl. oz.) Mexican crema or crème frâiche
6 oz. queso fresco or mild feta cheese
2 tbsp sugar
Drain the walnuts and reserve the milk. Transfer the nuts to a blender (or into a suitable container if you plan to use a stick blender). Add the remaining ingredients, along with 1/2 cup of the reserved milk, to the blender or the container and purée until smooth. It should be thick, but still thin enough to pour. Add more milk if necessary. Taste and adjust the salt.
NOTE: While I was puréeing the sauce, just as it was about as creamy as I wanted it, it started to look terribly curdled, and I realized that because of the crème frâiche it had started to turn into butter...I poured it into a small sauté pan, and over the very lowest heat, I whisked it until it became smooth again.
Transfer the sauce to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let stand at room temperature until you are ready to use it.
1 1/2 lbs. boneless pork loin
1 large white onion, divided: half cut into 4 chunks, half finely chopped (set aside)
5 cloves garlic: 3 smashed, 2 minced (set aside)
1 bay leaf
10 black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
1 tbsp salt
1/3 cup lard or oil
the chopped onion and minced garlic previously set aside
2 cups ripe tomatoes, peeled, cored, and finely chopped
1 firm, tart apple, peeled, cored, and finely chopped
1 ripe Bosc pear, peeled, cored, and finely chopped
1 peach, peeled, pitted, and finely chopped
1/3 cup seedless raisins
1/3 cup sliced almonds
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch ground cloves
Cut the pork into 2-inch chunks and place in a 3 or 4-qt. sauce pan. Cover with about a quart of water and add the onion chunks, the smashed garlic, and the bayleaf, peppercorns, cloves, and salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then immediately reduce heat, cover, and simmer gently until the pork is cooked through and tender (about half an hour). Remove the pork to a plate or bowl to cool, then strain the cooking liquid and reserve about 1/2 cup of it. When the pork is cool enough to handle, finely chop or shred it.
In a large (12") skillet, heat the lard or oil over medium heat, then sauté the onion and garlic until translucent but not browned. Raise the heat to medium-high, add the tomatoes, and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the remaining ingredients – except for the pork – and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring often. Add the pork and reserved stock and stir to blend, then reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for about 10 minutes – until the fruit is softened and the mixture has thickened. Set aside to cool, then cover and refrigerate overnight (if making the day of, simply set it aside). Be sure and remove the piccadillo from the refrigerator about 5 hours before you plan to assemble the dish, so that it comes up to room temperature.
Peppers and Garnish
6 large fresh poblano peppers (no other pepper will do)
1 fresh pomegranate
1 small bunch cilantro, washed to remove any dirt or sand and dried well
Carefully blacken the skin of the peppers without charring the flesh, then set aside in a bowl and cover with a plate. Leave them to cool for about 20 minutes, then carefully rub off the skins. Slit each pepper lengthwise on one side, then carefully remove the seeds and membrane. Pat the peppers dry with a paper towel, wiping away any charred skin if it bothers you. Set aside.
Cut the pomegranate in half around its equator. Using your fingers carefully separate the seeds from the membrane and reserve the seeds in a bowl.
Finely chop the cilantro and set aside in a bowl.
Check the sauce – if it seems too thick, whisk in a little milk. Be sure the piccadillo is at room temperature.
Place each pepper on a dinner plate. Divide the piccadillo between the peppers, gently spooning the filling into them so as not to split them open.
Ladle sauce over each pepper so that it is completely coated and there is a circular pool surrounding it. Scatter a tablespoon each of pomegranate seeds and chopped cilantro over each plate.
• • • • • •
Lemon Verbena Flan
I don't expect novices to try this recipe, so I'm not going to go into detail about caramelizing sugar or baking a custard. If you're familiar and comfortable with the techniques, this is a terrific version.
I used the Classic Flan recipe, light-textured variant, from Rick Bayless's Mexico One Plate at a Time but didn't have enough half-and-half on hand, so I substituted crème frâiche and changed the dairy ratio slightly. It made a for a fine flan.
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups whole milk
2/3 cup crème frâiche
20 lemon verbena leaves
5 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Heat the oven to 325°F.
Caramelize the cup of sugar and divide between six 6-oz. ramekins, soufflé dishes, or custard cups. I find that going a little dark on the sugar lends a pleasing bitter edge to the dessert.
Whisk together the 3/4 cup of sugar with the milk and crème frâiche in a medium saucepan and heat gently to a simmer. Turn off heat, add verbena leaves, cover and let steep for about 20 minutes. Remove the verbena leaves.
Whisk the eggs in a large bowl until well combined and liquid, then slowly whisk in the warm milk mixture. Stir in the vanilla, then strain the mixture. Divide between the prepared molds.
Bake the flans in a bain-marie until just barely set in the middle (about 50 minutes), rotating the pan back-to-front about halfway through. Remove the entire pan to a cooling rack and let cool completely.
Cover each flan with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for up to five days.
To serve, run a small sharp knife around the outer edge of each flan, then invert the mold on a small dessert plate. Holding the mold and plate together, gently shake up and down and back and forth until you hear the flan release and drop onto the plate. Carefully lift the mold up and away, then scrape out the remaining sugar syrup with a spoon and drizzle it over the flan.