Stuffed Chiles with Walnut Sauce

Chiles en Nogada

Along with mole poblano, no other dish in Mexico better represents the spectacular creations from the Puebla convents than Chiles en Nogada, large green chiles stuffed with a fruity meat picadillo, cloaked with a creamy nut sauce, and studded with ruby red pomegranate seeds. Its fame began when it was prepared by the Augustine nuns for a great feast held in honor of Don Agustin de Iturbide, Mexico’s short-time self-declared emperor, shortly after Mexico’s War of Independence.

In Puebla and throughout central Mexico, Chiles en Nogada are always served on Independence Day, September 16th, with the vibrant green, white, and red of the dish symbolic of the colors of the Mexican flag. Another reason it is featured in early autumn is that pomegranates are red ripe, and the fresh walnuts milky tender, both considered essential to the perfect Chiles en Nogada. I once walked through a market in Puebla with my assistant Ana Elena Martinez and she pointed out the baskets of just gathered walnuts with women kneeling over them persistently scraping off the dark peel with their fingernails. Not an easy task. My four-hour-long peeling and scraping experience was enough for me, and now I just use the freshest walnuts I can find.

In central Mexico, the fruits used are quite different from the pears, peaches, and apples found in U.S. markets, as these are from trees in the highlands and quite small and solid. So do your best to approximate this type of fruit.

This dish requires many separate preparations, all which can be made in advance. Although Ana Elena traditionally serves her chiles “en capeado” or battered then fried, which will require some last minute efforts, it can be served unbattered, truly creating a colorful celebratory meal. Either way, it is without a doubt, a dish that will impress dinner guests—even an emperor.

To start this meal, a light elegant Sopa de Cilantro can be served and then, after eating, relax and enjoy a sliver of Flan de Leche accompanied by a small glass of tequila anejo. I like to serve a full bodied oaky chardonnay or voignier during this meal. This recipe is from La Cocina Mexicana: Many Cultures, One Cuisine.

Serves 10, with a few extra

For the Picadillo
Makes filling for 12 chiles

1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup finely chopped white onion
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 pound ripe tomatoes, about 2 medium, peeled, cored and finely chopped
1 tablespoon sea salt
2 pounds pork shoulder, trimmed of excess fat, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1-inch stick Mexican true cinnamon bark (pagexxx)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 pound slightly under-ripe pears, about 3 to 4, peeled. If available, the small Seckel is ideal, but Bosc or other cooking pears can be used.
1 pound firm tree-ripened peaches, about 3 to 4, peeled
1 pound apples, about 6 to 8, such as crispy Rome Beauty, McIntosh or Gravenstein
1 ripe plantain (pagexxx), not yet completely black
1/2 cup roughly chopped black raisins
1/2 cup roughly chopped blanched almonds
1/3 cup roughly chopped acitrón or candied pineapple

For the Chiles
12 poblano chiles, ready for stuffing (pagexxx), at room temperature

For the Nogada
25 shelled walnuts, the freshest possible
1 ounce, about 1/3 cup blanched sliced almonds
1/2 cup French bread, crusts removed, torn into pieces
1 1/2 cups Mexican Crema (pagexxx), crème fraîche, or thick sour cream thinned with 1 tablespoon of milk
2 tablespoons Spanish dry (fino) sherry
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 small garlic clove
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)

For the Egg Batter (optional)
1/2 cup flour for dusting chiles, plus 1/8 cup for batter
6 eggs, at room temperature, separated
1 teaspoon sea salt

For the Garnish
Seeds from 1 pomegranate
1 1/2 bunches fresh flat-leaf parsley, about 20 branches, chopped, stems removed

For the Picadillo: Heat the oil in a large heavy skillet, cazuela or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and saute the onion until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and stir for several minutes, add tomatoes and cook, stirring frequently until the mixture is almost dry, for another 15 minutes. Sprinkle with some of the salt. Stir in the meat and cook for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, peel the pears, peaches, apples, and plantains, and cut into 1/4-inch squares. This should not be done in advance, as the fruit will darken.

Add sugar and all the cubed fruit, raisins, nuts, and acitrón to the meat, and sprinkle in cinnamon and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, for another 30 minutes or until meat is tender. Taste and if necessary, add more salt or sugar. Remove from heat and set aside until ready to stuff the chiles.

For the Nogada: The day prior to making the Chiles en Nogada, boil walnuts in a saucepan with enough water to cover for 5 minutes. Drain nuts and peel or scrape off as much of the outer coating that is possible, then soak overnight in 1 1/2 cups of milk.

The next day, remove the walnuts, saving the milk, and grind in a blender or food processor with the almonds, bread, crema, sherry, garlic, and cinnamon, and enough of the walnut soaking milk to make a smooth thick sauce. Refrigerate until ready to use, but bring to room temperature before serving.

For the Optional Egg Batter: Put 1/2 cup flour in a flat pan and roll the stuffed chiles in the flour until lightly dusted, shaking off any excess.

In a standing mixing bowl using the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. In a separate bowl, lightly beat the egg yolks with a whisk, fold into egg whites with salt and 1/8 cup of flour.

To Assemble: Fill chiles with the picadillo. If covering with batter, heat 1 1/2 cups peanut or safflower oil in a wide heavy skillet over medium heat. When oil begins to shimmer, dip a chile into egg mixture, completely coating it. Carefully place in hot oil, using a spatula to splash the top with oil, and fry until both sides turn golden. If needed, briefly turn chile over. Remove with a slotted spatula, so any excess oil will drip off. Drain chiles on absorbent paper and keep warm. Continue frying the remaining chilies, adding more oil, if necessary, but make sure it first regains its heat.

When all are ready, place the chiles on a platter, or individual plates. Spoon nogada sauce over the top and decorate with parsley and pomegranate seeds.

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