When I think back on my family’s relationship to Mexico and Mexican cuisine, I find myself thinking of two things, handmade local tortillas and poblano chile rellenos. The chile wars break out often in my family. The smell of roasting green chiles fuels the fire. It fills the air all over Arizona, New Mexico and Peñasco from the huge gas torched metal roasting drums in parking lots roasting tons of dark stubby poblano, and long bright green Anaheim chilies. We have a saying that you must eat chilies, and a lot of them often, or your fire will go out. I think it is the spicy, piquant flavor and the fact that you never know just how hot the chile, or even the bite of chile, will be that adds to the excitement of cooking and eating chiles.
The first line of the chile wars is not if we want any but how many and what intensity of chilies we want. The chiles come in mild, medium, hot and flames. Every year my sons, Dustin and Ryan, along with my Dad, the confirmed crazy Habanero hot chile guys, want the extra hot or flames variety. I personally prefer the smoky gentle kick of the mild, my mother the middle of the road potency of the medium. I am sure someone also likes the hot. A couple of years ago we ended up with a case – about 20 lbs. of the hot ones. It took a long time and a lot of limeade and Mexican beers to wash down those flames.
Just thinking about the intensity, nothing else like it in the world, flavor of the world of chiles makes my mouth water. Fresh chiles must be roasted or flamed to char the skin. They are then left to steam in a bag so that the skin can be removed. The next argument is about seeds or no seeds (the seeds can be cleaned out as they are the hottest part), rinse or no rinse (using water to remove the skin and seeds is easier but flavor is lost).
And the next essential ingredient we learned decades ago is a tortilla from Peñasco made from world famous Sonoran heirloom wheat. No one argues about a cheese crisp made with a fresh Sonoran tortilla from Mexico covered in a blend of Mexican cheeses with strips of roasted green chiles on top. We sort of collect cheese crisp experiences. Making the very best “quesadilla” or cheese crisp is high culinary art in my family. And the best cheese crisps we have found at any restaurant, Arizona or New Mexico or Mexico, and there are some great ones, are when they butter the tortilla as it is baking. It goes something like this: You toast the tortilla in the oven till it is just beginning to crisp then butter it, not just on one side but two, allow the butter to bubble then add the blend of shredded cheese. Cross the cheese with strips of perfect dark green chile strips then put the whole thing back into the oven to let the cheese bubble. Perfection.
In another skirmish of the chile wars we argue about which chile, what color and how to prepare them. I prefer, hands-down, the thicker flesh and smoky mild flavor of the almost purple-black of the fat poblano chile, sometimes called a pasilla pepper in Mexico. They look something like a bell pepper, only a darker green with a pointed tip. Poblanos are my favorite for stuffing with roasted chicken, chopped dried apricots, nuts and cilantro, a chile relleno that does not have to be battered and fried. Actually, relleno is a Spanish word that means to stuff, chile rellenos are chiles that have been stuffed. Ah the choices – what to stuff them with, besides the traditional cheese, to batter and with what, then finally to fry to sauté and finally, to sauce or not. So many choices.
Chile rellenos are one of my all-time favorite foods and I have tried them every way. There is a classic Mexican dish called “Chiles en Nogada” that is prepared for weddings, as well as to celebrate Mexican Independence Day in September, that consists of a poblano chile stuffed with a mixture of smoked chicken, dried fruit and nuts that is then covered with a black walnut sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. It is as beautiful to look at as it is perfection to eat. Very time consuming to cook with all the preparation of the chiles, stuffing and sauce. You can find a recipe for Chiles en Nogada in Dianna Kennedy’s amazing cookbook “The Cuisines of Mexico” and also in the lovely picture book “Mexico the Beautiful Cookbook”. In this dish the chiles are not battered and fried. It is similar to the amazing open-face, healthy chile rellenos severed at Jesse’s Carreta on the northside of Peñasco. Jesse claims that the shrimp version topped with bacon is his personal favorite.
We have long heated discussions over the attributes of red or green chile for making sauces for things like enchiladas or for the base of a chili stew. Red chile is made by stringing the green chiles together into a ristra. Lovely bright red chile ristras and wreaths can be seen hanging on houses drying in the late sun of Indian summer. Once the chiles are dried they can be ground into red chile powder which is then made into a sauce for enchiladas or added to soups and stews. The powder, in all its shades of red, comes in as many intense flavors as the fresh chiles. There is even a trend of adding red chile powder to chocolate in candy bars and desserts. There is an amazing array of dried chiles, as well as fresh dried local spices, to be found at the local tienda de hierbas “Especias Moy” on Nicolas Bravo here in Peñasco. If you haven’t been to Moy, I invite you to make a visit to enjoy the true experience of the sights and smells of real Mexican chiles and spices.
Lastly, we try to outdo each other with new recipes featuring chiles. Some of our favorite things to do with chiles are toasted Spam and green chile sandwiches (don’t judge it till you try it!), chile rellenos, green chili stew with pork or beef, quesadillas, potato soup with poblanos, green corn tamales and pink dip (what is that you ask) to name a few. Our love of the chile is extended to an extensive collection of hot sauces from mild to searing, chile cookbooks, tea towel, aprons, tee shirts, posters and all manner of chile souvenirs. When we aren’t eating them, we are growing them, reading about them, wearing or talking about them.
I am always looking forward to trips to Mexico for the tortillas, fresh and dried chiles, thinking about what to do with all those chiles and tortillas. How much room can I find in the freezer?