How to make a proper chile en nogada

Every year in late summer and early fall, the chile en nogada makes its brief run through Mexico. The star ingredients, walnuts and pomegranate seeds, are not available any other time of the year. So it's a festive time. Restaurant storefronts become festooned with "We have chiles en nogada!" banners. Pomegranates glitter at the tianguis. Mexican Independence Day is right around the corner (on Sept. 16), and the dish is pretty much the culinary centerpiece of the celebration. To me, the most interesting thing about chiles en nogada is that it's a living piece of Mexican history. Puebla nuns invented the dish in 1821, to honor a visit by Mexican General Augustín de Iturbide. The dish featured the colors of the Mexican flag: a poblano chile stuffed with dried fruits and nuts, covered in creamy walnut sauce (white) and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and parsley (red and green). The Mexican flag was unveiled around the same period, so you can imagine the patriotic fervor. Today, the chile en nogada sounds awfully baroque. Fruity meat? Pomegranate seeds? Who would eat that? At the time, however, nogada sauce was popular. And so was the idea of combining dozens of ingredients to create a complicated, tedious dish. (The Pueblan nuns also invented mole.) Chiles en nogada is not an easy dish, and it's not meant to be. That's part of the tradition. Walnuts must be peeled. Spices assembled. Raw and dried fruit, chopped. Even after assembling your chile, you must dunk it in egg batter and fry it. In the olden days, the nuns didn't have blenders, so they ground the walnut sauce on the metate. As someone who has done her fair share of metate-grinding, I can tell you that it had to take entire days of grinding to get the texture they wanted. Let me repeat that: days of grinding. Last week, I took a chiles en nogada course at the Escuela de Gastronomía Mexicana, where I'm currently studying for a diploma in Especialización de Gastronomía Mexicana. Yuri de Gortari, who teaches cooking in my diploma program, taught the chile course. Since there was so much worked involved, he decided to conduct most of the course as a demonstration. By the time we arrived his kitchen assistants had already roasted, seeded and de-veined the chiles, and chopped all the fruit and measured out the spices. It was kind of like being on the Mexican version of Barefoot Contessa.

Roasted poblano chiles, waiting to be filled with picadillo

Clove, thyme and cinnamon, among other spices, for the picadillo

As he spoke, I got caught up in how amazing it is that this dish is still eaten how it was intended, nearly 200 years after it was invented. Yuri has studied colonial-era cookbooks extensively -- he stressed that authentic chile en nogada picadillo contains finely chopped meat, not ground. In addition, one must use small, hard yellow peaches, not the regular large kind, because they're too watery. The nogada sauce contains walnuts, sherry, milk and goat cheese. No cream cheese or heavy cream.

The picadillo, as it cooked

A bowl of peeled walnuts, preserved in milk. The eggs will be used in the batter, and the sherry, in the nogada sauce.

Yuri pours milk into the walnut sauce

Chef Yuri de Gortari, opening a bottle of sherry with a knife

To speed things along, Yuri made the nogada sauce with a Thermomix, which is a high-tech kitchen gadget that blends, cooks, kneads and does a dozen other things. We each dipped our spoons in the pitcher to taste, and the sauce was thick, creamy and completely smooth. Oh god, it was good. I didn't realize this, but there's a controversy among Mexicans as to whether a real chile en nogada is capeada or not. To capear, as I've mentioned in other posts, means to dunk an item in frothy egg batter and fry it in lard or oil. It's totally unhealthy. But it's an integral part of this dish. The egg-batter shield prevents the chile from becoming too soggy, once it's doused in walnut sauce. Plus the chile en nogada, for the sheer amount of work involved, is not meant to be eaten every day. Yuri insisted that we capear the chile, because otherwise we wouldn't be respecting the plato. (I agreed.) He showed us how to stuff and batter our chiles, and then we each attempted to repeat the work.

In case you were unsure how much lard we were talking about, when cooking just one chile en nogada in a pan...

Stuffing the chile with picadillo

Dredging the chile in flour, before dunking it in egg batter

The egg-batter covered chile, about to hit the frying pan

The messy-looking chile, once it begins to cook

See the picture above? That's exactly how you want your chile to look when it hits the frying pan -- surrounded by a little cloud of egg batter. The idea is to scoop up these folds with a spatula and cover the chile, so it's entirely swaddled in a puffy, eggy blanket.

A properly swaddled chile

My chile turned out okay. I stuffed it as best I could. I pinched the seams closed with my forefingers and thumbs, dunked it in the egg batter and carried it, slightly dripping, to the pan. (Note: keep egg batter closer to the stove next time.) I hadn't put enough egg batter to swaddle it too well, so it only had a thinnish layer. The chile turned a dark-golden brown in a matter of minutes and then, just like that, it was done. Hours' worth of work -- or a week's worth, no doubt in the olden days -- finished in seconds. I drained my chile on paper towels and then spooned over my sauce. "How much sauce do I add?" I asked another student, who happened to be a chef at a restaurant. He shrugged. "Al gusto," he said. That means: "to taste." So of course I ladled a small lagoon of sauce over, so you could no longer see the chile. That's how it's meant to be, I think. Here's my little chile, in all of its patriotic glory: Yuri told us to make the dish again in the next 24 to 48 hours so that we could retain all that we'd learned, but I'm visiting the United States for the next few weeks and don't have time to do it. I'll just have to remember through the pictures. RECIPES: This is my own homemade chiles en nogada recipe, based on the one we used in this class. Click here to view the Escuela de Gastronomía Mexicana's Chile En Nogada recipe, which contains metric measurements only. It's in Spanish first, then English, so you'll have to scroll down.
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