Chiles en Nogada: A Dish Doused in History
Starting in late August and throughout September, waiters at the finest restaurants in Mexico recommend a special entree not usually listed on the menu. This dish is only available during a short season each year and the opportunity to taste it should not be missed.
From the moment it is set on the table, this delicacy shatters most preconceived notions about Mexican food in particular and international cuisine in general. Its central element is submerged in a creamy sauce then topped with red, sweet pomegranate seeds. In spite of its inviting appearance, the dish emits a strong, penetrating, almost bitter fragrance.
As the fork punctures through the Chile en Nogada, it releases an aromatic celebration from within the Poblano pepper. There is an eruption of intermingled sweet aromas of cinnamon, apple, pear, peach, walnuts and almonds. The first initial bite delivers a contrast between the sweet smell and the strong taste of pork, garlic and onion. It would be easy to think that it is nearly impossible to mix so many ingredients in a single dish without their flavors competing. The ingredients in Chiles en Nogada, however, complement each other perfectly, in the same way eighty musicians in an orchestra harmonize to play a symphony.
In 1821, Agustín de Iturbide commissioned for Mexico a flag that would capture the colors that he and his army, the Ejército Trigarante, had donned in battle: green, white and red. Over almost two centuries the Mexican flag has seen some changes but the colors remain unaltered in both the insignia and in people’s hearts. The green represents hope, white stands for peace and red is for the spilt blood of heroes. These are the three colors that represent Mexico around the world and identify its people.
Green, white and red appear on Mexican diplomatic badges as well as on sports teams. Many other areas of this rich culture have adopted the tricolor motif, and food and drink are no exception. For example, one of the most popular drinks in a Mexican cantina is the “banderita”, a cocktail made up of three shots: lime juice (green), tequila (white) and a tomato based syrup called “sangrita” (red). Often found at the center of tables, “pico de gallo” is another tricolor contribution to Mexican cuisine. The salsa is a mixture of finely chopped jalapeño peppers (green), onion (white) and tomato (red). It is best served in a traditional basalt stone mortar.
The history –or legend, depending on the source– behind Chiles en Nogada is as rich and elaborated as the dish itself. In 1821, a few days before signing the Declaration of Independence, Agustín de Iturbide was celebrating his birthday in Puebla. The Augustinian nuns at the Santa Mónica Convent decided to honor the leader of the Ejército Trigarante with a dish created especially for the occasion. The nuns selected some local ingredients, such as Poblano peppers, together with other ingredients only available at the time of Iturbide’s celebrations, like Castillian walnuts. Finally, they adorned the dish with the colors of their guest’s military colors: green parsley, white walnut sauce and red pomegranate seeds.
One would think Chiles en Nogada are only served during August and September because of its association with Mexican national festivities, but this is not case. The creamy sauce covering the peppers is made with goat cheese, almonds and Castillian walnuts. This last ingredient is the main reason for the dish’s limited availability, as fresh walnuts can only be obtained from the central regions of Mexico in the months of August and September. Processing the walnuts for cooking is also complicated: it takes many hours to crack the shells and peel the skin off the necessary nuts required to produce enough usable ingredient.
Chiles en nogada is an unequivocally complex and exquisite delicacy whose preparation is the sum of many flavors, much effort and rich history. Buen provecho.
Chiles en Nogada
Ingredients for stuffing:
5 Poblano peppers
1 lb lean ground beef
1 lb lean ground pork
1 onion, diced
1 cup of parsley, chopped, divided
1 plantain, diced
4 tomatoes, diced
1 peach, peeled and diced
1 apple, peeled and diced
2 garlic cloves, diced
2 tbsp acitrón, diced
2 tbsp raisins
2 tbsp almonds or walnuts, peeled and chopped
2 tbsp shelled pine nuts
¼ tsp ground cloves
1 tbsp olive oil
Sea salt and pepper, to taste
2 cups pomegranate
Roast, peel and devein the peppers. In a large Dutch oven, heat the olive oil and add the garlic and onion. Sauté 3 to 4 minutes or until onions are tender. Add the ground beef and pork and brown for 7 minutes. Add tomatoes, parsley, raisins, almonds or walnuts, pine nuts, acitrón, peaches, plantains, and apples. Season with salt, pepper and ground cloves to taste. Mix all the ingredients well and cook until meat is done and all the juices have evaporated. Save the pomegranate and ½ cup of parsley for garnish.
Ingredients for sauce:
1 cup goat cheese
1 pkg (8 oz.) cream cheese
1 tbsp sugar
2 cups milk
3 cups almonds or walnuts, peeled
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Place all ingredients in a blender and liquefy until well incorporated. A thick creamy consistency is desirable. The sauce should be the last step before serving and should be poured over the stuffed peppers at room temperature.
Stuff the peppers and place on a serving dish. Pour the cream sauce over the stuffed pepper and garnish with pomegranate and parsley.