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.
Who is Mija?
Mija is Lesley Téllez, a food writer and culinary guide in New York City. I spent four years in Mexico's Distrito Federal, which launched my deep love for Mexican food and culture. In 2010 I co-founded the tourism company Eat Mexico.
Be kind, ask permission!All photos on this site were taken by me, unless otherwise noted. If you'd like to use a photo, please email me.
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