Chiles en Nogada

Feliz Navidad?  I admit, I’ve had a poblano binge underway.  But I think the driving force behind my craving this week for Chiles en Nogada — a Mexican ceremonial dish created to mirror the colors of the Mexican flag — was the fact that (1) I categorically ban any Christmas decorating before Thanksgiving, but (2) the day AFTER Thanksgiving it’s decorating gangbusters, but also (3) you really have got to take a break from Christmas seasonings and flavors during that month between holidays, particularly in the not-remotely-wintery south.  Ergo: this beautiful red and green stuffed pepper extravaganza, which I had for the first time in a tiny Mexican restaurant in Ojai, California … and it was love at first nom nom nom.

Chiles en Nogada

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6 large poblano peppers
1 whole pomegranate or 3/4 cup pomegranate seeds
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves

For Filling:
2 pounds ground chuck
1 cup chopped white or yellow onion
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1-2/3 cup canned whole plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
3/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup white or cider vinegar
1-1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup slivered blanched almonds

For Cream Sauce:
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup walnuts, finely ground
1/2 cup blanched almonds, finely ground
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

One of my favorite things about cruising is that, while you may lack resources in terms of money to spend and extensive Whole-Food-esque grocery store breadth and convenience, you can make up for it in leisurely time.  So instead of buying a tiny cup of overpriced pomegranate seeds, I was more than happy on a 70-degree November afternoon to sit on a starboard beam reach picking pomegranate seeds out of their shells.

A wonderful Afghan woman tried to teach me the “local” method for this one day in Kandahar — she could lightly thump the whole fruit on the edge of a table and have it fall open on its membrane hemispheres, most seeds falling gently out, and none sacrificed to the blade.  We had a language barrier — my Pashto was non-existent — and I just could not get the hang of it.  So I still have to slice them around the circumference through the better part of the rind with a knife and then pull them open — losing a few seeds to messy magenta juiciness.  But after two whole fruits and a lazy half-hour tack, I had enough seeds for this meal, snacking, and several more.

The base of this dish is the charred and peeled poblano peppers.  If you are lucky like me, hand them up to your Captain to char on the barbecue grill, along with a big, long pile of paper towels to wrap them in as they come off the fire.  You can also char them under an oven broiler or over a gas stove flame, turning occasionally to blister on all sides.

The key is to get them as uniformly charred as you possibly can without having them totally lose their structural integrity.  Today we may have erred slightly on the charring end of things, which made them a little harder to peel and a bit more beat up when I was finished, but as you will see, that doesn’t matter much and the flavor from ample charring is so much more important.  So kudos to Captain Peter, skipper of the transom grill!

Whichever way you choose, when they are as charred as you can get them wrap them in a wad of paper towels, a dish towel, or even put them in a Tupperware to sweat their skins away.  After about 10 minutes, unwrap them and peel away as much of the papery outer skins as you can.  Pull the stems out and remove the seeds.Meanwhile, sauté the ground beef over medium-high heat until lightly browned and lumps broken up.  Drain off some of the fat if much more than a tablespoon or two has accumulated.  Add the onion and garlic and sauté another 5 minutes or so, until the vegetables start to soften.

At this point you might nod to your fan club at the companionway!

Chop a handful of parsley leaves for topping.

Then chop your canned tomatoes — roughly all the whole plum tomatoes from a large can.  You can obviously use fresh tomatoes that you peel, core, and seed, but I’ve always thought that — if you have a tomato that actually tastes decent enough to use in cooking where flavor counts — you should be eating that thing raw and natural!  Canned tomatoes are great for cooking — more flavor than most fresh tomatoes, and you don’t care about looks or structure anyway.

Add the tomatoes, raisins, vinegar, sugar, cinnamon, cloves and salt to the meat  mixture.  Stir through thoroughly and let simmer uncovered over low-medium heat for about 15 minutes to eliminate some liquid and let the flavors meld.  Remove from the heat and stir in the slivered almonds.

Once the peppers are peeled and seeded, stuff each one with the meat mixture.  Remember my saying that impeccable peeling and seeding of intact peppers wasn’t as important as delicious charring?  Here is proof.  Perhaps if you find a cooking blog called “Abuelitas at Sea” you will find perfectly seeded and intact poblanos, but I have never once accomplished this.  It’s why (in addition to not really getting anything out of the breading) I’ve stopped making chiles rellenos, which have to be seeded and stuffed in a way that then permits dipping in batter and deep frying while keeping stuffing in.

Bottom line, I use the poblanos like a kimono — I sort of drape them around the filling rather than stuffing them.  You aren’t going to pick them up again until serving, which can be done with a big, wide spatula.  And the halo of cream topping and decorative seeds and leaves is going to disguise a multitude of flaws, so just get pepper-around-meat and don’t fret.

For that whipped cream topping, start by whipping the cream.  Pirate Caroline may have her magical Ultra Chef Express gizmo, but I have my mom’s circa 1940 manual egg beaters and they get the job done in about 3-5 minutes.  Here I might have overdone it — in retrospect (and to match the Ojai experience) I would probably have left the cream a bit more runny and “sauce like” but this is purely aesthetics — the taste is the same either way, so go with the look and feel you prefer.

Fold in the cinnamon and nuts.

Spoon the cream over each chile — yep, just use it to hide the open kimono front and any other faux pas that might be troubling you! — then garnish liberally with parsley leaves and pomegranate seeds.

And by all means, as the season is upon us, Feliz Navidad.  Tune in over the next month or so for more holiday specials from our galleys to yours!  Don’t miss the sunset…

Postscript: depending on the size of your peppers, you may have leftover meat filling (and even cream topping).  Here’s a great, simple use for it — just substitute the meat as the filling in our Easy Empanadas and top either with the whipped cream or with just sour cream.  Quick and DELICIOUS.

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