Last week we had a guest instructor in cooking class, and he gave us a list of dishes to prepare over three hours: chiles rellenos, salsa de chile pasilla, fish wrapped in hoja santa and banana leaves, jalapeños en escabeche and rajas con queso cotija.
Out of all of them, the rajas were probably the least exciting. I love rajas (pronounced RAH-has) but what more can you learn about roasting, deveining and peeling poblano peppers, and then cutting them into strips? I’d already done it several times at home.
Instead, I chose to spend the class — where else — in front of the molcajete, grinding the chile pasilla salsa. I roasted my chiles and rehydrated them in boiling water, and then ground them to bits. (The key there: the chiles must be completely pliable. You can’t remove them from the water too soon.) I plopped one tomatillo after the other into the bowl and smooshed each one to death, while also trying to shield my apron from the splatter. (If you’re wondering why I used a partner’s molcajete instead of my own, it’s because I was too worried about a possible pumice aftertaste. I still haven’t seasoned the damn thing correctly.)
At the end of class, everyone got to take home a chile, one fish filet and the rajas in little plastic baggies. Back at our apartment, Crayton and I sat in front of the TV with a couple of beers and dug in.
I love to share with my husband, but the rajas were so good I wanted them all to myself. They had the sweetness of a roasted root vegetable, while the cheese gave the dish these bursts of saltiness, and a kind of sour, pastoral tang. Cotija is hard, crumbly cow’s-milk cheese that’s named after a town in Michoacán, where it’s manufactured; it is characteristically salty and slightly acidic.
The dish seemed hearty enough to work on its own as a taco filling. So I invited my friend Daniel over for dinner a few days ago and decided to make the rajas again. Right before he came over, I momentarily panicked: Was this going to work? Were the rajas too strong to serve on their own, with a few crumbly bits of cheese?
I made brown rice at the last minute, just in case we needed something bland. But everything turned out fine. The peppers were as sweet as I remembered, and I think the cheese actually helped mellow the dish out. I served the tacos with some of my leftover chile pasilla salsa and they were a hit.
Tacos de rajas with queso cotija
Note: In Mexico, the freshest queso cotija is available at the tianguis or mercado. In the U.S., I’d try asking your local cheesemonger. (You can find queso cotija at Latino markets, but the packaged stuff isn’t that great, in my opinion.) If you can’t find it, you can substitute another crumbly, salty cheese.
8 poblano chiles
1 medium onion, cut in half around its equator, and then sliced into strips
125 grams queso cotija (about 1 cup), crumbled
Roast your chiles on a comal, or under a broiler, until they’ve become blackened and blistered on all sides.
Gather them into a plastic or paper bag and cover the bag with several dish towels, so they’ll sweat. (This makes the skin easier to peel.) Leave them there until they cool, perhaps 45 minutes. While the peppers are resting, cut your onion and set aside.
When the chilies have cooled, carefully remove them from the bag and peel off the skin with your fingers. Slice each chile open and remove the seeds and veins.
Cut the chiles into thin strips. Some would say you might need a measurement (“How thin, Lesley?”), but I say, let’s break free from recipe restraints. Cut them into skinny strips like this:
Pile all your rajas into a bowl and set aside. Heat a few glugs of canola oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add your onion slices and fry until translucent. Then add the rajas. When the mixture has warmed, add salt to taste and pour the chiles into a bowl or serving platter. Toss with cheese crumbles. Serve with warm corn tortillas.