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:
Walnuts are only one of the many perishable ingredients in the dish. You must track down fresh peaches, plantains, apples, pomegranates and pasilla peppers too. I used frozen peaches because in February in Seattle there is simply no hope for a decent peach. Yes, February is an odd choice to make chiles en nogada, but I’ve been meaning to get around to it for months, and I noticed the pomegranates are getting to be on their last legs. I figured if I had to substitute frozen ingredients for fresh in the pasilla filling that would be one thing, but there really isn’t a way to fudge the fresh pomegranate seeds that spackle the top of the beautifully composed and plated dish. Next autumn I’ll make chiles en nogada along with everyone else at the right season, but I have to say, for February this was an entirely satisfying substitute.
There are several ingredients in chiles en nogada that are downright elusive to track down. Piloncillo is one of them, though I tracked it down at a good Mexican grocer on Beacon Hill in Seattle called ABC. If you are unfamiliar, piloncillo is cane sugar that has been hardened into a cone about 3” high and maybe 2” at its base. In order to extract the sugar you must melt it down in boiling water. When I was boiling it I stole occasional licks (to test whether it was sufficiently emulsified, of course!) and decided I’ll be making simple syrup from piloncillo from now on. It is sweet to be sure, but it has a depth of flavor that I find lacking in white or most common brown sugars, yet it isn’t overly flavored like maple sugar can be. I’m ripe to bust out a new batch of limoncello (I’m thinking Meyer lemon since they look so good right now) and I may just throw three cultures in the mix, an Italian liquor made with American Meyer lemons and Latin piloncillo sugar. Better take another bite of that yummy quail egg appetizer- almost time for the main course:
The real tough ingredient for me was acitrón. It is candied then jarred cactus leaves and as you may imagine we don’t produce much cactus around these parts. I commenced by quest by calling Latin grocers, specialty grocers and the like, to no avail. I then decided to drive the streets of the International District hitting up every little bodega, which also proved fruitless. I spent two days questing for an ingredient I should have just ordered online, but it was too late, guests had been invited and chiles were soaking in their piloncillo-marinade. I use an amalgam of recipes for my nogada, one of which suggested candied pineapple as an acceptable substitute for the acitrón. I found a funky product at Viet Wah market on Martin Luther King Blvd that is basically cubed pineapple geleé in syrup and I thought it might even be a better approximation. It worked out well and the filling turned out delicious, but next time I think I’ll order the acitrón online just to see if there is any improvement.
Chiles en nogada is a very filling dish, and it’s meant to be served lukewarm. As such, I thought long and hard about what might appropriately flank the glory of the main course without overpowering it. I decided the plate could use some additional color to keep the pomegranate company so I served sous vide carrots with carrot stem pureé that I piped in dollops at the top of the carrots. The carrot pureé was intriguing- I went the creamed route as opposed to pureeing the greens in water and oil, and the resulting color and texture was brilliant green with softness like mousse. I will definitely add that side to the repertoire for its whimsy, flavor and fun presentation. I will leave you with the base recipe that I like the most for clarity along with my changes noted. It is originally from the website patismexicantable.com and it excellent all on its own for a first-time Nogada chef. I tend to mix it with several other recipes taking bits and pieces that I like, but I feel with the exception of a couple notes I’ve made inline to the recipe, it is the best baseline to start with and not get hopelessly confused. I hope you consider this recipe for your next Mexican fiesta- it’s truly a guest-silencing, plate licking affair.
CHILES EN NOGADA
Recipe adapted from Don Luis Bello Morin
10 chiles poblanos
6 cups water
5 tablespoons shredded or chopped piloncillo, or brown sugar
To cook the meat
2 pounds pork shoulder, butt, leg or ribs, or a combination of meats such as veal and beef, deboned and cut into chunks
2 garlic cloves
1/4 white onion
1 carrot, peeled, cut into two pieces
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme or a couple fresh thyme sprigs
5 black peppercorns
1 teaspoon kosher, coarse or sea salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1/4 cup white onion, chopped
1 pound ripe tomatoes, pureed, or about 2 cups tomato puree
All the cooked meat, finely chopped
2 cups meat cooking broth
1 teaspoon kosher, coarse or sea salt
3 oz acitron, or candied pineapple, chopped
1 ripe plantain, peeled and diced, about 1 1/4 cup
1 Bartlett pear, diced, about 1 1/4 cup
1 Golden Delicious apple, diced, about 1 1/4 cup
1 large yellow peach, mature but firm, diced, about 1 1/4 cup
pinch of cumin
pinch of ground cloves, or 4 to 5 whole cloves, seeds smashed and stems discarded
1 Ceylon or real cinnamon stick
1/4 cup blond raisins
1/4 cup silvered almonds, lightly toasted
1/4 cup pinenuts, lightly toasted
1/4 cup chopped manzanilla olives
For walnut or pecan sauce
1 1/2 cup freshly peeled walnuts, if not fresh DON’T use packaged, use pecans
2 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup milk, more or less to taste
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, or more to taste
pinch of salt, more or less to taste
pinch of ground white pepper
1 tablespoon Dry Sherry, or more to taste
1 cup pomegranate seeds
1/4 chopped parsley, optional
To prepare chiles
Rinse and char chiles. To char, you can either place them on a baking sheet or pan under the broiler, directly on the grill, hot comal or directly on an open fire flame. In any case, turn every 2 to 3 minutes until they are charred and blistered but not burnt. Place them, while very hot, in a plastic bag. Close bag tightly and cover with a kitchen towel. Let them sweat for 10 to 20 minutes.
Take them out one by one, and peel off the skin in the sink. As you do so, lightly rinse the chile with water. With a knife, make a slit down one side to take out and discard the seeds and membrane. Treat the flesh carefully so it will not tear and keep the stem on. Place them in a container and cover with the water previously simmered with the piloncillo or sugar until well diluted, anywhere from 2 to 24 hours. If it is more than 2 hours, place them in the refrigerator, covered once they have cooled down. Drain and either use or store in the refrigerator. You can prepare them 4 to 5 days ahead up to this point.
To prepare filling
I place my pork shoulder along with the spices in the sous vide supreme for 12 hours at 165°. If you do not have a means to cook sous vide, follow the standard instructions here:
Place the meat already cut into 3 to 4″ chunks on the bottom of a cooking pot along with the garlic cloves, 1/4 white onion, carrot, bay leaves, thyme, peppercorns and a teaspoon of salt. Cover with water and place over medium high heat. Simmer for 20 to 25 minutes, until meat is cooked through. Turn off the heat and let the meat and broth cool down. remove the meat with a slotted spoon and chop it finely, reserve. Strain the broth into a container, reserve.
Heat the olive oil in a large deep saute pan over medium high heat. Add the garlic clove and saute for a minute or until it starts becoming fragrant, but don’t let it brown. Add the onion and saute for a couple more minutes, until it becomes translucent and soft and starts gaining some color. Pour in the tomato puree and let it season, stirring often, for about 5 to 7 minutes, until it has deepened its color, thickened its consistency and lost its raw flavor.
Incorporate the chopped meat, 2 cups of cooking broth, a teaspoon of salt, mix it all together and let it cook 3 to 4 minutes. Add the chopped acitron, mix with the meat and let it cook for 4 to 5 minutes. Incorporate the chopped plantain, pear, apple, and peach and gently mix it all together, let it cook for a couple minutes. Sprinkle the cumin and ground cloves, making sure you mix those spices well. Place a cinnamon stick in the middle of the pan, cover with a lid, lower the heat to medium and let it cook for about 8 to 10 minutes.
Uncover, add the raisins, almonds, pine nuts, green olives, mix well and taste for salt. Add more if need be. Turn off the heat. You can make the filling up to 2 days in advance, cool, cover and refrigerate.
To prepare sauce
Place all ingredients except the Sherry in the blender and puree until smooth. (I pass the sauce through a fine mesh strainer to remove the pesky peels at this point) You can make the sauce a couple days in advance, but bring it to out room temperature before using. Mix the Sherry into the sauce up to 2 hours before serving. Add more to taste, but it shouldn’t have a strong alcohol flavor. If it thickened while in the refrigerator, lighten it up with some milk.
Finally!!!! To assemble Chiles en Nogada
Place the chiles in a serving platter. Stuff each one with about 1/2 cup filling. Close as best you can. Generously spoon walnut or pecan sauce on top to cover chiles entirely and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and chopped parsley on top.