How to make chiles rellenos, Mexican-grandmother style

My friend Lizzie lives with a real Mexican grandmother. Her name is Juanita and she just turned 90 years old. I’m not sure what her secret is, but she’s very active — she cooks big meals every day at lunch, and she shops at the tianguis, where she knows all the vendors. Plus she still does her hair every day, wrapping it in various braids and twists that are bobby-pinned to her head.

I’ve been hearing about Juanita and her cooking for a few months. (And envying Lizzie from afar for her housing arrangement.) Finally, it worked out yesterday that I could come over for lunch. Juanita would make chiles rellenos and white rice, and I could take pictures and notes. I was super excited. How fun was this going to be?

I arrived around 11:30 a.m., right when the trash man was stationed outside Juanita’s yellow apartment building, ringing his bell. (This is the universal sign meaning, “Neighbors, come outside and bring your trash, because the trash people are here.”) I walked through a small atrium and up a set of Art Deco-looking steps.

Juanita’s apartment was comprised of several small, cheery rooms. In the kitchen, a half-wall separated the area into two spaces: one held the fridge and a small, three-seater table; the other hosted the sink, stove and a few cabinets.

It wasn’t a cocina integral, and there was exactly one counter to chop things, if you didn’t count the kitchen table. But it worked. Juanita zipped around in her white nursing-style shoes, opening drawers, washing dishes, digging through the fridge to make space for a container of arroz con leche. Everything had its place.

We started on the chiles right away. First step: toasting the chiles on the comal.

I should mention here that chiles rellenos are one of those quintessential Mexican comfort foods. They’re poblano peppers that have been stuffed with cheese or picadillo, depending on where you’re ordering them. (Different regions of Mexico prepare the chile relleno differently.) The chile is covered in a light egg batter and fried, and topped with a light tomato sauce.

You can really stuff them with whatever you want. While we toasted the chiles, Juanita mentioned that she’s added shrimp, and salmon with tomato and garlic. I started thinking about quinoa with raisins and a lot of veggies, maybe. Mmmm. Very Lesley.

After the chiles were blackened on all sides, we transferred them to a plastic bag covered in a dish towel, “para que sudan un poquito.” (So they sweat a little.) While they sweated, Juanita heated a little oil on the stove, in a clay olla. Then she blended fresh tomatoes, garlic and onion for the sauce.

She poured the sauce into the olla to fry it a bit. While it cooked, we peeled the chiles, rinsed them, cut them open and scooped out the seeds.

“La comida Mexicana es muy trabajoso,” Juanita commented. She wasn’t complaining, just stating a fact. Because heck, it was trabajoso. My feet were already hurting from standing up for so long.

Soon it was time to stuff the chiles. Using the kitchen counter as a workspace, we cut a block of Mexican manchego cheese into long strips, and then placed each strip gently inside the chiles.

“Hágalo bonito,” Juanita advised. “Como si fuera un niño que va a envolver.” Translation: Do it in a pretty way. As if it were a child you were bundling up.

We dredged the chiles in flour, and whipped up the egg batter until it was cloud-like and fluffy. Then, one by one, we dunked the chiles in the batter and transferred them to a hot skillet laden with oil. (Well, Lizzie and Juanita dunked the chiles. I scribbled notes and took pictures.)

Only two chiles rellenos fit in the pan at a the same time, so we made four batches. They were done when each chile had been cooked to a golden-brown.

To serve, we each grabbed a chile, placed it on our plate and ladled over the tomato sauce, which after about a half-hour of cooking had turned a deep red color.

Overall, it was a lot of work — about two hours from start to finish, just for the chiles and the sauce alone. But this was definitely something I could do, assuming I had a little help in the kitchen or I was cooking for only four people. And it was just really neat to learn from Juanita. While she fried the chiles, she had this habit of flicking the oil over each chile with her spatula, so it covered and cooked the chile bits that weren’t touching the pan.

When we were leaving, she invited me back. I was grateful, because I really wanted to come back but didn’t think it would be polite to invite myself. I wonder what we’ll make next time?

Here are a few shots of her, the only ones I managed to get in her small kitchen. Next time I’ll have to take a portrait.

Find the recipe for Juanita’s Chiles Rellenos here.

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34 Responses to “How to make chiles rellenos, Mexican-grandmother style”
  1. Joan

    Lesley–thank you for this–and thank Juanita and Lizzie too! I need a abuelita.

    Questions on the beans. Are those white beans on the plate? They look like canneloni or large navy beans. Next, the first photo shows beans and manchego inside the poblanos. Was that the filling that you ate that day? Whatever the answers are, the chiles rellenos look delicious!

  2. Mike

    I noticed that also. The first photo looks like pinto beans and the one near the bottom looks like navy beans.

  3. Cooking in Mexico

    I love chiles rellenos so much, that I order them whenever I see them on a menu. Maybe some day I’ll get tired of the same thing every time, but until then, mas chiles rellenos, por favor!

    This is the best way to learn a recipe — from a real abuela. Lucky you.

    Thanks for the photos!

    • Lesley

      Glad you enjoyed it! I’m actually really excited to start filling my own chiles rellenos. The quinoa is only the tip of the iceberg. :-)

  4. Lesley

    Mike and Joan: Sorry if that was confusing. Yes, those are white beans on the plate. Juanita had a separate pot of white beans she’d already cooked — they’re not navy beans though, they were much bigger. I think in Mexico they’re just “frijoles blancos.” (Although if anyone out there is a bean expert and knows their real name, I would love to know it.)

    We separately filled some of the chiles rellenos with pinto beans, which are the beans you see in the first photo. Juanita had already cooked the pinto beans by the time I arrived. She isn’t in the habit of filling her chiles with beans and cheese — this was a first-time experiment. So yes: there were two types of beans we ate at the meal, the frijoles blancos on the side, and the pinto beans inside the chiles. Hope that clears things up.

  5. Ian

    If they were about the size of kidney beans, which it looks like they are, I’d guess cannellini beans.

    And I love putting the stick of cheese in the chile before cooking — stuffing a poblano without tearing the flesh, then keeping the filling inside, are always the hardest parts of making rellenos.

  6. Nancy

    Loved this post, thank you! I learned to make these from my mexican daughter in law, and she used the same motion with the oil that Juanita did!

    Here in Mazatlan the two most common beans served are Flor de Mayo and Peruano. My favorite are Peruano, very creamy and flavorful. You can find pinto beans but they are way less popular.

  7. Joan

    Thanks for clearing up the bean issues!

    Ian brought up a point that I have to ask you about. The poblanos are cut all the way down the side which makes stuffing them easy but did the filling stay within the chiles? Or were the chiles fastened somehow?


    • Lesley

      Good eyes Joan! No, the chiles weren’t fastened. Actually we probably cut them too far. The cheese stayed in okay, but the beans tended to tumble out while they were frying. We tried to shove the filling back in, and they turned out okay. (Doesn’t matter in the end, when you’re biting into this tomato-drenched cheesy thing that is just so GOOD.) Next time I’d make sure to cut the chiles so I’ve got at least an inch of space left at the bottom, so the filling doesn’t spill out. And I’d use less beans than what you see in the photo.

  8. Lizzie

    Thanks for posting this Lesley — and so soon! I translated it for Juanita and she was encantada. Come back anytime! There are lots more recipes to be learned…

  9. Michael

    Lesley…when I received your blog post, I was just starting on a batch of rajas con crema that I learned to make when Lizzie put me in Juanita’s capable hands last October. Since then, I’ve been planning a return trip to learn how to make chiles rellenos. Thanks for the inspiration.

  10. Lizzie's mom

    I know how lucky you are, Lesley, because the last time I visited Lizzie, I was fortunate enough to have the same cooking lesson. Isn’t Juanita a magician?!! I’ve had the good fortune to eat her rice pudding, cake, and a few other items — they have one thing in common: they are all delicious. Thanks for your post; you did an excellent job of capturing and describing everything (even the tiny kitchen with the wonderful results)….it recreated the experience for me — delightful!!!

  11. Lesley

    I’m glad you liked it, Lizzie’s mom. (And delighted that you commented!) Michael, if you want to share the recipe for the rajas con crema, I’m all ears… I’ve seen them on the street but haven’t made them myself.

  12. edwierdo

    Them’s canary beans; Peruanos–
    Frijoles pintos, en la valle de mexico, not so much

    • Lesley

      Hey thanks! Wish I could consult some type of bean dictionary when I’m writing these posts. Always try searching the Internet, but I can never find what I’m looking for. Appreciate you clearing that up.

  13. Kindra

    I love your blog. The beans she made look like what my Mexican husband calls “Patola”

    His family is still subsistence farming in Zacatecas. They grow frijoles and maiz, along with other stuff every once in awhile like oats. I’m sure these beans exist here in Tijuana. Another name for this kind of bean is Alubia. The beans I haven’t seen here in Tijuana are called Ojo de Liebre. Supposedly they are very rare, and not commercially produced, but that is one of the kinds of beans my husband’s family grows.

    • Lesley

      Thanks so much for the info Kindra. And glad you’re enjoying the blog. I guess if I really want to expand my bean knowledge in Mexico, I just need to buy them, and cook them on my own. There’s a bean vendor at the tianguis who carries around a half-dozen varieties. I bought some Peruanos today — am very excited to give them a go.

      • Kindra

        Lesley, You’ll probably like the peruanos, they can be very creamy. Just try them all! Maybe you can find the ‘vaquita’ beans I discovered here in Tijuana. They’re black and white, like holstein cows….and they cook up very tender and delicious! (Just Google frijol vaquita – you’ll see what I mean!)

  14. eddie

    Alubias are cowpeas, like blackeyes, purple hull, crowder.
    Can’t figure out what Mexicans call lima beans, butter beans etc.
    Colloquialisms abound naturally, but not exactly haricot or haba beans either.

  15. Kindra

    Eddie, when I lived in Spain, alubias is what they called these beans too. I’ve never seen lima beans or blackeye peas in Mexico…Which is not to say they don’t exist; I’ve just not seen them in my travels.

  16. eddie

    Kindra: I should have qualified “I think” cowpeas are called alubias in much of Mexico. But for English peas, all others served us in Spain were called habas. You’re kind, I didn’t wish to be contradictory, this is a very flat forum and you can get into trouble discussing beans.

  17. Kindra

    @ Eddie: no worries! I lived in Valladolid Spain for a time and I didn’t see much in the way of beans, just those alubias. The peas of course, were guisantes and not chicharos (of course they look the same; just the regionalism changes), which is why I’m sure they *all* have different names in different places.

    Beans are serious business, especially to Mexicans; so I understand what you mean about perhaps getting into trouble discussing beans! When my husband first told me those white beans were patola, I told him they may be patola in his rancho, but in other places they’re alubias.

  18. Joan

    Recently Rick Bayless tweeted that peruanos taste potato-like and go well with pork. This has gotten so ingriguing that I have to get me some peruanos!

  19. chefyourself

    Niiiice! It simply doesn’t get more authentic that this! I love the shots with Abuelita’s hands…, can’t describe it, but it is very moving.

  20. elsa

    I absolutly enjoyed this! Coming from a hispanic background its so nice to hear/see real mexican women sharing their recipes. That’s aways so much better coming from the pin point itself

  21. Maria

    This is you writing about chiles rellenos and a quintessential grandmother rather than a “How to make chiles rellenos.” Or did I miss the How-to part?

    • Lesley

      I posted the recipe the next day and forgot to include a link. I just linked Recipe for Juanita’s Chiles Rellenos at the bottom of the post now. All the info should be there, and the pictures from the day work as a guide.

  22. linda

    Thanks for sharing. I tried making chile rellenos for dinner this evening…. 28 years being married and I never made them before. It was alot of hard work….! I think Ill just go to the restaurant instead and order them…. to much work….

    • Lesley

      Hi Linda: It is a lot of work. You could also prepare the chiles the day before — charring them and peeling off the skin tends to be the most tedious step.

      • Rachel

        I use a hand held propane torch and burn the skins off. I burn one side then grab the other side and char it, then I use a vegetable brush and scrub the rest off. Very fast, job done. If I want them softened I’ll roast them in an air tight roaster. You might also be able to microwave them but haven’t tried it yet. Thanks for your recipe on chiles rellenos.

        • Lesley

          Ooh… like a creme brûlée torch? I hadn’t thought of that. LOVE that idea. I think I may have to add hand-held propane torch to my Christmas list this year. Thanks for the tip!

  23. Jaira Estrada

    God bless Juanita, my great grandmother passed away two years ago. I miss her cooking.

  24. Alma

    So tasty and with a little help from my hubby it turned out to be fun. One thing I will do different next time is not over-roast the chiles. This way they won’t tear while stuffing them. They can finish cooking when frying later.

    Thank you for sharing this recipe. May God continue to Bless Juanita with good health.

    Saludos de Chicago

    • Lesley

      Hi Alma: So glad it worked out for you, and thanks for the tip on the chiles. Saludos!

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