Is there a dish you always order, no matter what else is on the menu? For me, it’s chile relleno. I started ordering the stuffed-, battered- and fried-pepper dish in my West Texas childhood, and haven’t stopped during a lifetime of eating at Mexican restaurants here and in Mexico. I’ve made them at home, too, sometimes battering and frying them the traditional way and sometimes baking. The latter can be perfectly satisfying with the right sauce and filling, but it’s the former I truly crave.
The whole shebang takes some time, but I love the dish so much and think you will, too (if you don’t already), that I’m breaking my easy-enough-for-a-weeknight rule to walk you through a stellar version. It comes from chef Gabriela Camara’s beautiful new book, which showcases the kind of contemporary Mexican cooking she serves in her Mexico City and San Francisco restaurants, Contramar and Cala, respectively.
I said stellar, not simple. This recipe would be just the thing to make on a weekend, or perhaps spread out: On one day, make the sauce and the refried beans, and roast and peel - or even stuff - the poblano chiles. On another, batter and fry the chiles, and finish cooking them in the sauce.
Camara suggests another shortcut: stuffing dried ancho chiles instead of fresh poblanos. (They’re the same pepper in different forms.) It’s easier because you don’t have to roast and peel the anchos; you just soak them until they’re soft. They even hold together a little better after you stuff them. You still have to try to get those pesky seeds out without ripping the pepper to pieces, but that, too, goes a little more quickly than with the poblanos, because the seeds don’t stick as much.
I tested it both ways, stuffing poblanos with refried beans and mozzarella, and anchos with beans and goat cheese. The combination of eggy batter, sharp tomato sauce, earthy beans and rich cheese took me right back to Mexico City. I like the fresh, herbaceous bite of the poblanos a little better than the deeper ancho, but it’s really like picking between your two favorite children. They’re both wonderful.
This dish of stuffed poblano chiles, lightly fried and then finished in tomato sauce, is a Mexican classic for a reason. While there aren’t many ingredients, it’s a little involved to make start to finish on a weeknight.
You can roast and peel the chiles and make the refried beans and/or tomato sauce in advance; all those elements can refrigerate for up to 1 week. You can even go so far as to stuff the poblanos up to 3 days in advance, leaving just the frying and brief simmering for dinnertime.
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These make excellent leftovers, eaten cold or warm in a taco or on a sandwich. (You can make these using dried ancho chiles instead of fresh poblanos.)
An instant-read thermometer is helpful for monitoring the frying oil.
6 large poblano peppers (may substitute 6 large dried ancho chiles)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
One 15-ounce can no-salt-added black beans, with their liquid
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
1 white onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic
One 28-ounce can whole tomatoes or diced tomatoes
1 cup water
4 ounces (about 1 cup) shredded whole-milk mozzarella cheese (may substitute soft goat cheese)
2 large eggs
2 cups safflower oil, sunflower oil or any other high-smoke-point vegetable oil
Position an oven rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element; preheat to broil.
Place the poblanos on a baking sheet; broil until they brown in spots and blister without charring, watching them carefully and turning them with tongs until they are blistered all over. (If they char all over, they may become too soft to work with easily.) Transfer them to a heatproof bowl and cover with a plate or pan lid to let them steam and cool enough to be handled, at least 10 minutes.
While the peppers are steaming, make the refried beans and tomato sauce: Pour 1 tablespoon of the extra-virgin olive oil into a large Dutch oven or large, heavy pot over medium-high heat. When it shimmers, add the beans and their liquid, plus 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Use a fork or potato masher to mash the beans, and stir until they bubble and thicken. Turn off the heat, taste, and add more salt as needed. Transfer to a bowl, then rinse out the pot and return it to the stove.
Combine the onion, garlic, tomatoes, the water and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt in a blender; puree until smooth.
Put the now-clean pot you used for the beans over medium-high heat, and pour in the remaining 1 tablespoon of the extra-virgin olive oil. When it shimmers, pour in the pureed tomato sauce. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat so the liquid is barely bubbling. Taste, and add more salt as needed. Let the sauce cook while you stuff and fry the peppers.
When the poblanos are cool enough to handle, use your fingers to carefully remove and discard their skins. Make a vertical slit from the stem end to the tip of each pepper and pull out the seeds, being as gentle as possible so as to not tear the peppers any more than is necessary.
Place the roasted chiles on a platter, slit sides up. Stuff each chile with 2 to 3 tablespoons (depending on the size of the chiles) of the cheese and 2 to 3 tablespoons of the refried beans. Don’t overstuff; better to have leftover filling than to not be able to close the chiles, or to have them burst during frying. Pinch the chiles closed; their flesh should stick to the filling, but if you need, you can thread toothpicks through the opening to help keep them closed.
Crack the eggs into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the balloon-whisk attachment, or use a handheld electric mixer and a medium bowl. Whip the eggs until they expand, become super-thick and foamy, and form very soft, temporary peaks when you lift out the whisk, 3 to 5 minutes.
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Pour the 2 cups of oil into a deep skillet over medium-high heat. When it reaches 375 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, fry the chiles. Use your hands to gently dip each stuffed pepper into the whipped eggs, carefully flipping it over so both sides get coated and using a spatula, as needed, to help coat them evenly.
Carefully lower each coated pepper into the hot oil; fry until the coating puffs and turns golden brown, about 2 minutes per side. Repeat, frying 2 or 3 chiles at a time. As they are done, lift them with a slotted spoon, letting any excess oil drip back into the pot, and carefully transfer them to the pot of hot tomato sauce. Repeat until all the poblanos are in the sauce. Don’t worry about crowding them; once they are fried, they can withstanding some jostling.
Increase the heat to bring the tomato sauce back to a boil, then reduce the heat so the liquid is barely bubbling. Cook the chiles for 5 minutes, until they are heated through. (Feel free to leave them cooking in the sauce for longer if you’re finishing other parts of the dinner or waiting for guests; you really can’t overcook them.)
Serve the chiles hot, with the sauce spooned over.
VARIATION: To use dried ancho chiles instead of fresh, soak them in very hot water for about 1 hour, until softened. Pat them dry, then slit, stuff and fry them according to the directions above, substituting the goat cheese for the mozzarella.
The ingredients are too variable for a meaningful nutritional analysis.
Source: Adapted from “My Mexico City Kitchen,” by Gabriela Camara (Lorena Jones Books, 2019)