Chiles en nogada is a dish that strikes fear in the hearts of many a chef. It’s a multi-day affair replete with dozens of steps deceptive in their seeming simplicity. You might think peeling chilies is a relatively straightforward affair, but if you consider that you first must roast them, then sweat them, then peel them and finally concoct a piloncillo mixture in which to soak them for 24 hours suddenly straightforward is not the word you’re looking for. There is a reason chiles en nogada is typically served only once a year on the day of Mexican independence- it truly is a labor of love. Of course there is also the fact that there is really only a very short window of time during which all the myriad ingredients for the dish are in season- a crazy culinary serendipity when you think about it.
The walnuts that comprise the majority of the nogada sauce, for instance, must absolutely be fresh in shell and recently harvested, according to most experts on the dish. The reason for this is that you need to be able to peel them as the peeling imparts a bitter taste on the sauce, and you won’t have a chance in hell if you’re using older walnuts. I have heard many a United States-based Nogada chef lament the difficulty of peeling the walnuts, no matter how fresh, and I’ve recently heard tell that it’s because we have a different, harder species of walnut less prone to peeling. I unwittingly came across something of a solution to the bitter peel problem with nogada. Try as I might, even with a mixture of half pecans (softer skin) and half walnuts, to peel the little suckers, I just couldn’t remove the majority of the peel before blending it with the milk and cream to compose the sauce. I decided to pass it through a fine-mesh strainer to achieve a smoother texture and lo and behold, the vast majority of the peel would not pass through the strainer, leaving me with a creamy sauce pure as the driven snow. Now all this complicated food talk makes me hungry. Take a gander at the quail egg, bacon, mini-apple appetizer I needed to serve to stave off my guests’ longings for the nogada: