On a chilly, rainy Saturday morning, M and I set out for the local farmer’s market in Bellingham. On arrival, we found a thriving and well attended scene – it’s a thing I love about towns like this – Rainy weather does nothing to dissuade Bellinghamsters from their appointed rounds, any more than snow and cold did the Concordians of my youth.
What struck us as particularly vibrant was the surprising number of small farms represented, most of which were organic. The fall bounty of chiles, tomatoes, sausage, and cheese set my dinner plan in mind – Chiles rellenos de Oaxaca. We made our leisurely rounds, then headed home to cook.
You’ll find some variant of the Chile Relleno, ‘stuffed peppers’, all over Mexico. Most often, the chile used will be Poblanos, and rest assured that the people who share the same name, (folks from the State of Pueblo), lay claim to the origins of that famous dish. That said, the amazing number and breadth of relleno variants indicates that pretty much anywhere chiles grow, they are and have been stuffed for a long, long time.
The typical chile relleno is stuffed with cheese, coated in an egg batter, and fried. You’ll see that throughout Mexico, and of course, up here in the states as well. The Oaxacan version, however, is a bit more robust – It is, technically, a chile relleno de picadillo, meaning stuffed with cheese and shredded or minced meat; everything from goat and lamb, to pork, beef, or chicken is used, as is chorizo, that singularly delightful Mexican fresh sausage. The other hallmark of Oaxacan rellenos is the range of chiles used; they grow a dizzying variety down there, and whatever looks good and is in season is as likely as not to end up stuffed. That’s a good thing for us all to embrace, frankly – Each chile brings a different level of taste, heat, and color to a dish, and variety is indeed a wonderful thing.
Chorizo, or chouriço, is not indigenous to Mexico; it is an import from the Iberian Peninsula, where both Spain and Portugal lay claim to its origins. While the Spanish version uses smoked pork, the Mexican is made with fresh. There are as many varieties of chorizo as there are chiles, frankly, so defining The Real Recipe is a bit of a crap shoot. I’ve got a favorite recipe that I use, and I’ll share that here. I make Chorizo as a loose sausage, and you can too; it’s much simpler that way. If you’d rather buy and you’re from this neck of the woods, I’ll tell you that the Haggen’s version has been declared muy authentico by trusted Mexican friends, and after testing that claim, I agree wholeheartedly – It’s surprisingly good stuff. As promised, here’s my version.
2 pounds fresh ground local Pork
1/4 Cup Apple Cider Vinegar
3 cloves Garlic, minced
2 Tablespoon Smoked Paprika
1-2 teaspoons flaked or ground Chipotle Chile
1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1 teaspoon flaked Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black Pepper
3-5 Tablespoons Ice Water
Chill a large stainless steel mixing bowl in the freezer for about 20 minutes prior to building the chorizo. Pork should be refrigerated right up to the point of assembly.
Combine all ingredients in the cold bowl and mix by hand until you have a homogenous blend. You should end up with a nice moist, deeply red sausage.
Transfer sausage to a airtight, non-reactive container and place it in the freezer for about fifteen to twenty minutes.
Remove from freezer and refrigerate until ready to use.
If you’re not using the chorizo right away, wrap tightly in plastic, then aluminum foil and freeze.
The cheese used for this dish simply must be fresh queso blanco. This soft, non-aged white cheese also has its roots on the Iberian Peninsula, but has been wholeheartedly adopted throughout the Americas. Queso blanco is remarkably easy to make; if you’ve never given it a try, you really must. The caveat here is that ultra-pasteurized milk simply will not produce good cheese. You need something fresh and as local as possible – Since there’s no aging involved, and no culture added, this cheese will directly reflect the milk you make it from, (although you certainly can add herbs, veggies, etc if you like). While the ability to press this cheese will make a more consistent product, you really don’t need a dedicated press. Here’s how it’s done. Here again, you can find fresh queso blanco at many grocery stores these days, too.
Non-reactive stock pot,
Steel mixing spoon,
Instant read thermometer,
1/2 gallon fresh whole milk, (no ultra-pasteurized)
6 teaspoons Live Apple Cider Vinegar
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
Salt to taste
In a stock pot over medium low heat, add the milk.
Stir occasionally and monitor temperature until milk reaches 185° F, about 10 minutes or so.
Reduce heat to low and add 2 teaspoons of vinegar, and stir gently. You will see curds begin to separate from the whey; going forward, stir very gently – The curds retain moisture, which you want, so stir them, don’t batter them.
After a minute or so add 2 more teaspoons of vinegar and stir.
Repeat with the last 2 teaspoons of vinegar after another minute or two.
Let the curds and whey rest for five minutes.
Once you’ve got well formed curds, continue to stir gently to keep the curds from clumping, (called matting in the cheese making parlance)
Spread cheesecloth over your colander. If you’d like to make ricotta with the whey, put the colander inside a mixing bowl; if not you can discard it.
Gently pour the curds into the lined colander. Add salt,(and any herbs or veggies), and mix gently by hand.
You can now hang the cheese in the cloth for 10 to 20 minutes if you prefer a dryer cheese. If not, (and thereafter if you do), it’s time to press the cheese. I’ve got a press, so that’s what I use; I realize 99% of y’all don’t have one, so here’s what you do:
Return the cloth wrapped cheese to the colander. Place a flat plate small enough to fit well within the colander on top of the cheese. Place a stock pot on top of the plate. Water weights 8 pounds a gallon. Start with one gallon of water and let the cheese sit for 20 minutes. Add 2 more gallons of water and continue pressing for 2 hours.
Remove cheese from cloth, wrap it in waxed paper and refrigerate until ready to use. Fresh queso will last for 3 to 4 days refrigerated.
And finally, the rellenos.
Chiles Rellenos de Oaxaca for 4, (or a hungry two, or leftovers…)
4 Poblano Chiles
1/2 Pound Chorizo
1/2 Pound Queso Blanco
1 14.5 ounce can Tomatoes
1/4 Cup diced Sweet Onion
2 tablespoons minced, toasted almonds
2 cloves minced Garlic
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground Cinnamon
Sea Salt and fresh ground Pepper to season
Canola Oil or Lard for frying
For the Batter
4 Egg Whites
1 Tablespoon Wondra Flour
Pinch Sea Salt
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour for dredging
To a sauté pan over medium heat, add chorizo and cook until lightly browned and no pink shows.
Add minced almonds and continue cooking until they’re lightly toasted.
Remove chorizo blend from pan into a small bowl.
Add diced queso to chorizo/almond mix, and incorporate. Set aside.
Add a tablespoon of olive oil to the sauté pan and scrape all the little chorizo remnants loose.
Add onions and sauté until they start to turn translucent.
Add garlic and sauté until raw garlic smell dissipates.
Add tomatoes to sauté pan and heat through, stirring to incorporate, until sauce starts to simmer.
Add cinnamon, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low and stir occasionally.
Heat oven to Broil and place a rack on a high setting.
Place chiles on a baking sheet and broil until the skins begin to blister, turning steadily to get all sides evenly seared.
Remove chiles from oven and set onto a plate to cool.
Set oven to bake at 300° F and set a rack to a middle position.
When chiles are cooled enough to handle, carefully cut the stem and seed cluster free from each chile and discard.
Carefully stuff each chile with equal volumes of the chorizo/queso mixture. Set stuffed chiles on a plate.
Add 1/2 cup oil or lard to a frying pan over medium high heat to 350° F.
Set 1/2 cup of flour onto a plate or shallow dish for dredging.
Beat egg whites, with a pinch of salt added, to a stiff peak, then add a tablespoon of flour and beat to incorporate.
Carefully roll chiles in flour, one at a time, then roll them through the egg whites to coat.
Carefully place chiles in hot oil and fry until golden brown, turning carefully onto each side, about 3 to 4 minutes total.
Carefully place chiles on a baking sheet and slide that into the oven. Bake chiles for 15 minutes at 300° F.
To serve, ladle a generous dose of tomato sauce into a bowl, and add a relleno to each.
Top with sour cream and fresh chopped cilantro.
I’m certainly not going to tell you how to eat your dinner, but I will say this – The real joy of this dish is to break up the relleno in the tomato sauce until you’ve got an even, kind of chili-like consistency – Doing that lets all the ingredients blend together in each bite – And it is amazing, indeed.