Monday, January 31, 2011

"Capeando" with my Friend Frida K: Chiles Rellenos de Picadillo

Frida Kahlo: Mexican Woman, Artist & Great Cook

"A la nina no le gusta capear."  

"The girl doesn't like to batter things." 

I can almost imagine my grandmother saying that phrase to one of her girlfriends during afternoon coffee in Mexico City, shaking her head hopelessly and shrugging her shoulders, in reference to my mother, her youngest daughter.  It's an odd thing to think of, both because it probably never happened and because it's really such a shockingly unimportant thing to know how to, much less like, batter things.  And by "batter" I mean "battering" in the way that Mexican women know how, to create an endlessly fluffy mix of beaten egg whites and beaten egg yolks to coat various things and then fry them: Chiles Rellenos - stuffed peppers - are the most widely recognized and pertinent example here.

My mother hates battering things.  She hates getting her hands dirty, especially getting things under her nails - I inherited this trait, incidentally - and she also hates laborious, elaborate cooking.  So whenever I brought up making chiles rellenos and how to do it I usually got the same conclusive response after an elaborate explanation on method:

" Es una friega capear."

"It is a pain in the ass to batter things."

Fair enough.  We all have things we hate to do in the kitchen: I hate using double baths to melt chocolate, I hate having to put things in ice baths (seems so pointless when you can just run them under cold water), and I hate pouring powdered sugar into a bowl because it's impossible not to be dusted with a cloud of it.  I am very paranoid about over-beating whipped cream, buttercream icing, and am usually too lazy to refrigerate or wrap things in plastic wrap as often or quickly as I should.  So I don't blame my mother for having her battering issues.

But actually, I don't really think that the "capeando" part of making Chiles Rellenos is the hardest or most "pain in the ass" part of the whole rigmarole.  For me it's the roasting and peeling.  I hate roasting Poblano peppers (or any peppers for that matter), because I truly hate peeling the charred skin off the peppers once I'm done.  It's messy, it's never as easy as the recipes say it will be, and it's the step that always gets skipped on instructional videos.  Sure, wouldn't it be nice if a bowl of roasted, peeled, de-seeded and de-veined Poblano peppers just magically appeared next to your chopping board like in those videos?  Yeah - that's never gonna happen.

For these reasons, among others, we almost never had Chiles Rellenos at home.  In fact, the only times we ever had them was when we went out to eat at Pancho's, and that was almost never (I still maintain Pancho's has the best ever sopapillas and truly applaud the "raise & lower the mini Mexican flag on your table" method as a great way of quickly getting service from waiters).  Plus I always got given a hard time if I wanted to order them because nobody else in my family even really liked them.  It was a hard knock life, what can I tell you?

Anyway, dammit, today I was feeling homesick and determined to have some Chiles Rellenos if it killed me.  I decided that in my mother's absence (despite not liking to make them, she does know how) I would pull out the next best thing in culinary terms - a cookbook Matt bought me several years ago and which is still one of my favorite, for both its amazing recipes and its nightly aesthetically pleasing layout, pictures, and content: Frida's Fiestas: Recipes and Reminisces of Life with Frida Kahlo

This book follows Frida's style through party menus which in turn follow special occasions and holidays in the Mexican culture and the charmed but tragic life of Frida Kahlo.  It's filled with interesting biographical tidbits, original photos from La Casa Azul, and artwork by Frida, of course.  It's simply amazing.  

The book transports you to a different time, a different place, and a different way of living: a time and place where cooking for your family all day was a feminine duty and pleasure, a time of avant-garde art and revolution, and a time and place of unabashed nationalism and love of country.  It makes my heart hurt for Mexico, a Mexico that was and is no more.  But heartache aside, at least it allows me to savor some of those sorely-missed flavors, even if it does mean roasting and peeling Poblano peppers all by myself, and then battering them without my mom around to complain with. :)

* * *

Chiles Rellenos de Picadillo
adapted from Frida's Fiestas

Serves 2-3

Chile Relleno de Picadillo con Salsa de Tomate
Not to put you off, but this is not an "easy" dish to make.  Not that it's incredibly hard either, it just takes time, patience and perseverance.  My mom sure isn't kidding about "capeando" being difficult - as batters go, egg is not the easiest or least messy to work with, but it is delicious, which makes the trouble well worth it.

Picadillo is a ground beef based dish made with chopped vegetables and tomato.  It is eaten on its own or used to stuff things with in Mexico.  I think it pairs perfectly with these peppers but if you're vegetarian or simply looking for an alternative, chiles rellenos can be stuffed with cheese (probably the most famous iteration of this recipe).  Use queso blanco if you can find it, if not throw in some cheddar or mozzarella.

* * *

4 Poblano Chiles, roasted, peeled, de-seeded & left intact
(Substitute: Anaheim chiles or bell peppers in a pinch)
Oregano Mexicano
4 eggs, separated into whites and yolks in two bowls
4 tbsp flour
salt and pepper

For the Picadillo Stuffing:
2 tbsp vegetable oil or shortening
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2lb ground beef (~250g)
1 medium potato, peeled, cooked and cubed
1-2 carrots, cooked and chopped into squares
1/4 cup tomato sauce
1 chicken bouillon cube (optional)
thyme, marjoram, oregano (to taste)
salt and pepper (to taste)

*Note: This is my picadillo recipe: Frida puts shredded cabbage in hers, which sounds great, but I don't generally do that, nor did I have any on hand.

For the Salsa:
2 tbsps olive oil
Zanahorias & Cebolla
4 large tomatoes, roasted, peeled, de-seeded
& roughly chopped  (substitute: 1 can chopped / whole tomatoes & juice)
1 medium carrot, sliced finely
1 medium onion, sliced finely
1/4 cup vinegar (white)
1 pinch sugar
salt &pepper (to taste)
1 tsp Mexican Oregano


1. Make the picadillo by sauteeing and mixing the ingredients in order above in the hot oil or shortening.  Do not add other ingredients until after the onion and garlic are fragrant and translucent.  Add seasoning while the meat is still raw.  Allow to simmer for 10 minutes to allow the flavors to meld.  Set aside.

2. For the salsa: In another small pot, heat the oil then add the onion and cook until translucent.  Add the carrot and saute for a few minutes.  Then add the chopped tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer for 10 minutes, then add the oregano.  Simmer until the tomatoes have broken down and the sauce is, well, a sauce. :)  Set aside.

3. For the chiles: the best way to roast them if you have a gas stove is to hold them over the flame directly using kitchen tongs.  I simply set them down on the flame and turn them occasionally, then use the tongs to make sure I get every little area of the pepper completely charred.

4. Immediately put the hot, black-charred peppers into a sealed plastic bag and leave until they are cold enough to handle (10 minutes).  Using a butter knife, gently scrape all the charred skin off, leaving the pepper in tact.

Chiles Poblanos: Roasted, Peeled and de-seeded

5.  When you are ready to stuff and fry the peppers: Heat 1/2 to 1 cup vegetable oil in a pan or small pot (the oil should go about 1/2 to 2/3 of an inch up the side of the pan).  Make a vertical slit down 2/3 of the length of the pepper and remove the seeds, taking care not to rip the pepper.  Using a spoon, place 1 -2 heaping spoonfuls of picadillo into the cavity of the pepper.  Then dredge in the flour mixture (flour, salt and pepper).

6. Meanwhile, beat the egg whites until they form medium-hard peaks.  Then beat the yolks until slightly foamy.  Combine the two gently into one bowl - use immediately.

7.  Using a slotted spoon, gently place one pepper into the egg mixture and cover it in the "capeada" or "batter."  Gently remove from the batter with a slotted spoon and place immediately in the hot oil.  Fry until golden on both sides, about 2 minutes, and batter is cooked through.

Serve immediately with the tomato salsa spooned over the top.
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  1. What a fun read, and what an interesting sounding book. I love chile rellenos, but I confess to cheatingas I rarely make them properly. I usually just stuff the peppers and roast them, sans peeling and battering. Does this make me a bad person?

  2. It doesn't make you a bad person - it just makes a different dish! :)