‘Tis is the season, but not the season you’re all thinking about—it’s only September for Christ sake! It is the season of chiles en nogada in Mexico. The colors of the chile you see in the picture are not the Christmas colors, although all my American friends relate them to the jolly season. They represent the Mexican flag, green for hope, white for unity and red for the blood our heroes shed to give us independence.
So what is this chile en nogada I’m talking about?
It is just one of the most delicious dishes Mexico has to offer. Unfortunately for most of the world, it is only available in Puebla and the surrounding regions during August and September (maybe even the last few days of July and the few first days of October). There are restaurants in Mexico and outside this region that offer this dish all year round, but they are no more than poor imitations of this majestic dish.
Legend has it that chiles en nogada were born in the Santa Monica convent in Puebla where Agustin de Iturbide stopped for a few days on his way from Cordoba, Veracruz where he had signed the treaty that gave Mexico independence from Spain in 1821. The townspeople decided to hold a feast to celebrate this victory and Iturbide’s saint’s day, August 28th. Using local ingredients from the sierra the Augustinian nuns of the convent created a dish that proudly bore the triumphant army colors: green, white and red.
However, many recipes of stuffed chiles covered in walnut sauce were already prepared before that date. It seems like the nuns used one of these recipes and only added pomegranate (red) and parsley (green) as garnish on top of the white walnut sauce to represent the colors of the Army of the Three Guarantees–the army that defeated the Spanish.
What makes chiles en nogada so special
The cuisine from Puebla is known for combining savory, sweet, and spicy flavors. This dish is a perfect example of that exotic combination. Poblano peppers have the perfect amount of heat and flavor without overpowering the dish (every now and then you run into one that makes you breath fire, though). The filling is a combination of ground meat, plantains, pink pine nuts, raisins, candied cactus, almonds and heirloom pears, apples, and peaches from the sierra. These ingredients give the dish the sweet and savory elements.
However, what makes this dish extremely special is the fresh walnut sauce. This is the only time of the year that walnut trees brought from Spain can be harvested. The sauce uses these fresh nuts that have to be used without the thin, brown skin that covers them. Peeling walnuts is a long and labor-intensive process that I used to hate when I was kid. Fortunately, we can buy peeled walnuts now–meaning that somebody else’s kid is doing this by hand in the back of a truck or the booth where we’ve been getting them. The sauce is very simple, yet delicate. Besides walnuts, it uses milk, bread for thickening, goat cheese, salt, and a little bit of brandy to keep it from going bad fast. The delicate and fresh flavor of the sauce contrasts beautifully with the capricious flavor combination of the stuffed chile. You might have to visit Mexico soon to find why some of us go crazy over this enticing and fascinating dish.
Making chiles en nogada
My parents made chiles en nogada for their restaurant ever since I can remember. I was the child in charge of the tedious task of peeling fresh walnuts. I hated it with all my heart. But while I was away in Ohio I longed to taste them again. In 2008 I made my first chiles en nogada for a group of friends in Columbus. But like I said before, it was only a poor imitation of the chiles of my childhood memories.
This year a group of friends and I decided to organize a series of dinners at my house to celebrate Mexican Independence. We are offering three courses: soup, chile en nogada, and dessert. We have had three dinners so far and they have been a huge success. The first one was just a test where a few friends and my parents were our Guinea pigs. We learned a lot from my mom that night and the comments from my dad and friends.
The next two dinners we had actual customers who said that ours were the best chiles en nogada they have ever tasted. I’m blowing my own horn here, but it is an honor to hear that from people who know about food. Of course, my friend Lulú is the one with the touch in the kitchen. She’s been doing most of the cooking while the rest of us help. She is the real reason these dinners have been a success. Our last dinner is this coming Saturday. We expect to have a full house, full bellies and happy faces at the end of the night. And if everything works out fine, this could be the beginning of a new business adventure. But only time will tell.