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Buenos Rellenos 

Celebrate Cinco de Mayo by making chiles rellenos

click to enlarge HOT PLATE Sebastopol's El Coronel Restaurant stuffs pasilla peppers with jack cheese. - SUZANNE DALY
  • Suzanne Daly
  • HOT PLATE Sebastopol's El Coronel Restaurant stuffs pasilla peppers with jack cheese.

Authentic, delicious and extremely affordable Mexican food was always plentiful where I grew up in West Los Angeles, and when my friends and I ate out at local Mexican restaurants, I often ordered chiles rellenos, deep-fried pillows of mildly spicy chiles stuffed with melted cheese and encased in a fluffy egg batter. An interesting alternative to tacos, burritos or enchiladas, this tasty vegetarian dish was most satisfying, like eating breakfast at night.

But when I left for college in Humboldt County—dios mio! Mexican restaurants were very few and far between; even worse, they had been hippie-fied, heavy on healthy brown rice and beans, and light on flavor. Rellenos on my plate became a rarity.

After subsisting on glorified quesadillas during my first year in college, my luck changed. While camping on the Trinity River, my friend Keith pulled out a can of Ortega chiles, and announced he was making us rellenos for dinner. With his trusty Swiss army knife, he opened the can, unfolded the chiles, and then cut up long cigars of cheddar cheese. While he carefully stuffed the cheese into the pre-seeded and peeled chiles, I was given the tedious task of separating two eggs and beating the whites stiff with a fork. After both the eggs and my arm were stiffened, I beat the bejeezus out of the yolks, added a pinch of salt and gently folded them into the whites. Gently, so as not to tear the chiles, he dipped each in the batter and slipped them into an oiled skillet. When puffy and golden brown, he flipped the chiles gently, letting the other side brown.

Food always tastes better after a long day in the fresh air, and with salsa and stream-cooled brewskis on the side, this meal was heaven on a plate. Better still, my relleno-less days were over, and with the comforts of a real kitchen, the recipe only improved.

Rellenos (Spanish for "stuffed") fuse the foods of the indigenous people of Mexico (chiles) with those of their Spanish conquerors (eggs and cheese). The city of Puebla, home of the poblano chiles often used to make rellenos, is most frequently credited with the inception of this dish, somewhere around the late 1500s. And since Puebla is the site of the battle against the French, celebrated on May 5, it seems appropriate to make chiles rellenos for the Margarita-drenched holiday Cinco de Mayo.

Though a variety of larger-sized, milder chiles, such as pasillas, Anaheims or anchos are sometimes stuffed with diced pork, raisins, chopped nuts or even crab or sardines, I prefer the purist version of this dish—just the chile, cheese and eggs. A well-cooked relleno doesn't need to be smothered in sauce, as it so often is. Served with rice and beans, and sour cream and salsa on the side, this meal translates to spicy comfort food.

I learned from an experienced cook how to use fresh chiles, roasting them on a pan in the broiler until they blister and start to blacken. Roast more than needed, because the skin is delicate and rips easily. Turn gently with tongs for more even roasting. Place them into a bag (I've used both paper and plastic—plastic holds the steam better but can melt if the chiles are really hot), and let them steam so peeling will be easier. Don't worry about getting every bit of skin off; the charred bits add flavor and are unnoticeable texturally after being battered.

Closely cut around the stem from the top, and pull the stem and seed sac out. The seeds in milder peppers pack little heat, so it's not important if a few are left inside. I use smaller chiles, about four inches long, for easier handling. Two per person makes a substantial meal. Cut cheese with a low melting point, like sharp cheddar or Monterey jack, into one long piece that fits the chile's size. Taper the ends to look like little daggers, so the square corners don't tear the fragile skin as the chile is filled. If they do tear, use toothpicks to patch them together.

For four chiles, a batter from two eggs is usually adequate. Separate the eggs, and beat the whites until stiff. Beat the yolks with a heaping teaspoon of flour and salt and pepper to taste until thickened, and then fold the whites and yolks together. Pour a few tablespoons of flour in a shallow bowl. Carefully dredge the stuffed chile first in the flour, shake off the excess and then coat with egg batter. Heat about half an inch of vegetable oil in a heavy skillet on high until a drop of batter sizzles and browns. Slide the chiles in and cook until puffy and golden. If the oil is too shallow for all parts to brown, use tablespoons of the hot oil to baste the uncooked portions. Flip carefully with a slotted spoon and cook until golden brown. Drain on a paper towel, and eat while hot, accompanied by a favorite salsa.

The flavor, and accomplishment, will make a real celebration of Cinco de Mayo.

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