Chiles en Nogada: A Fiesta in Your Mouth!
September was always my favorite month when I lived in Mexico City. It wasn't because of the weather, which—let's face it—is pretty idyllic year-round in the "land of eternal spring."
No, I loved September because that was when the signs would start popping up outside all the restaurants I passed by—signs that promised they were now serving the famous chiles en nogada (literally chiles with nut sauce).
Sporting the colors of the Mexican flag (red, white, and green), chiles en nogada is the traditional dish for Mexican Independence Day, which falls on September 16th. And it's probably not entirely coincidental that pomegranates, which are one of the key ingredients, just happen to be in season at this time of year, as well.
A Fiesta in Your Mouth
Colorful and patriotic, yes, but chiles en nogada offer much more. A virtual explosion of flavors and textures, the hint of sweetness from the candied fruit in the meat filling contrasts beautifully with the spiciness of the chile that encases it, while the decadent, creamy sauce is punctuated by bright bursts of flavor from the pomegranate seeds.
"It's like a party in my mouth," one friend exclaimed when she first tasted them, and she was right—but as they're Mexican in origin, let's go with "fiesta."
Chiles en nogada is a complicated dish that is similar in some ways to holiday tamales in Costa Rica and Oaxacan black mole. Virtually every cook and restaurant has their own signature recipe, so the flavor is never exactly the same anywhere you go.
I've experimented with this particular recipe a lot, and you won't go wrong with it (though I fully expect that anyone who makes it will eventually add his or her own tweaks).
For the Chiles:
- 8 poblano chiles (can substitute Anaheim chiles, also known as Hatch or New Mexican)
- cooking oil, optional
For the Picadillo (Meat Filling):
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 3/4 pound ground beef or pork (or a mixture)
- 1/2 medium onion, chopped
- 1 small pear, peeled and diced
- 1 small, tart apple, peeled and diced
- 1/4 cup raisins, plumped in hot water and then drained
- 2 small (1/2 pound) tomatoes, peeled and diced
- 1/4 cup slivered almonds, diced
- 1/4 cup candied fruit, diced (I prefer mango or papaya, but you can also use pineapple or even candied cactus fruit)
For the Nogada Sauce and Topping:
- 1 and 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
- 4 ounces cream cheese, softened
- 3/4 cup sour cream or Mexican crema
- 3 tablespoons brandy, optional
- Seeds from 1 large pomegranate
- The first and most time-consuming step is to roast and peel the chiles. The ideal chiles for this recipe are big, dark green poblanos. If they are not available you can use Anaheim chiles (also known as Hatch or New Mexican). They will be a bit more fragile and difficult to stuff, however. Removing the chile skin can be accomplished a couple of ways: either by boiling the chiles in oil or roasting them over an open flame (such as a grill) or under the broiler. I prefer the roasting method because frying the chiles leaves them so greasy that the skins are slippery and hard to handle. Depending on your kitchen set up, it may be your best option, however.
- In either case, begin by poking each chile several times with a fork so they won't explode when they heat up. It is also important to turn the chiles throughout the process (using tongs) so the skin is well loosened all the way around. Another trick is to move the hot chiles to a ziplock bag immediately after roasting and leave them to steam and cool a bit in there. It seems to help loosen the skin.
- When the chiles are cool enough to handle, carefully remove the skin, making every effort not to damage or tear the chile below. You may find it best to use gloves for this and/or do it under running water. Next, cut a small slit in the side of the chile and remove the seeds, keeping the rest of the chile, including the stem, as intact as possible. While handling the chiles, be very careful not to touch your face, and in particular, your eyes, until you have finished and washed your hands very well. (If you accidentally do it once, you won't likely forget again! I warned you this was the toughest part!)
- Set the chiles aside and begin working on the picadillo. Mash the garlic with 1/2 t. of salt to make a paste. Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the ground beef or pork and cook until browned, stirring to crumble.
- Add the garlic paste and onion and cook until the onion is tender.
- Add the pear, apple, raisins, tomatoes, almonds and candied fruit and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Set aside to cool a bit
- Next, prepare the nogada sauce. This is easy; just put all the sauce ingredients in a blender or food processor, and process until smooth.
- Seed the pomegranate (see the video below for an easy way to do this), and set the seeds aside to use later.
- Once the picadillo (meat mixture) has cooled slightly, taste and add more salt if needed. Then spoon the mixture into the chiles through the slits you made earlier. This can be a little tricky, but the goal is to keep the chile as intact as possible. Place the stuffed chiles on a serving platter with the slit side down (so it looks as much like a whole chile as possible).
- To serve, spoon the nogada sauce over the tops of the chiles and then sprinkle with pomegranate seeds. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Easy Trick for Seeding a Pomegranate
This video demonstrates the best way I know to seed a pomegranate without your kitchen looking like you murdered someone!
Is Chiles en Nogada an Aphrodisiac?
Chiles en nogada even plays a significant role in the beautiful and romantic book (and movie) Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate). In it, the protagonist, Tita, expresses her emotions through the dishes that she cooks. In one significant scene, Tita serves chiles en nogada at a wedding dinner, and all the guests are overcome with passion and desire, remembering past and current loves. The only clip I could find is in Italian, but it doesn't really matter because the images tell the story. Can't guarantee that you and your guests will have the same reaction, but it doesn't hurt to try!
A Few Final Hints and Tips
These are a lot—and I mean A LOT—of work, but oh man, are they worth it! I often turn it into a work party; I invite everyone over and have them help cook, and then we all enjoy the delicious results together.
Given the amount of work that goes into making these, I would suggest doubling or even tripling the recipe for the chiles. The stuffed chiles freeze well, so then all you have to do is whip up the nut sauce (which is easy), pick up a ripe pomegranate, and you can have this fabulous meal again.