Seasonal Chiles en Nogada: The Mexican Flag on Your Plate

The following post is courtesy of the wonderfully talented, Cristina Potters. Her blog (Mexico Cooks!) is incredibly successful and we are proud to have her as a contributor to share her knowledge, recipes, and gastronomical expertise about Mexico.

Mexico Cooks! couldn’t start the month of September without paying tribute to our iconic chiles en nogada (chiles in walnut sauce), the Mexican flag on your plate.

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Mexico celebrates its independence the entire month of September with parades, parties, and traditional food and drink in restaurants and at home.  The traditional festive dish during the weeks before and after the Independence Day holiday is chiles en nogada, a magnificent tribute to the seasonal availability of granadas (pomegranates) and walnuts. From mid- August till mid-October, fresh pomegranates and walnuts make chiles en nogada possible.  Mildly spicy chiles poblano, stuffed with picadillo and topped with richly creamy walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds, flaunt the brilliant green, white and red of the Mexican flag.

This festive dish is traditionally served especially on September 15 or 16 in honor of Mexico’s Independence Day, though it is popular anytime in the late summer and early fall. During August and September in the highlands of Mexico, particularly in Mexico City and Puebla, the dish is very popular. On streets bordering city markets and tianguis (street markets), you will see village women sitting on blankets painstakingly cracking open nutshells and peeling the thin brown skin from each freshly harvested walnut. It is important to use the freshest walnuts possible, as they produce such a creamy, rich sauce that it is worth the effort demanded to peel them.  Yes, the recipe is time-consuming…but you and your guests will jump up and shout “VIVA!” when you’ve licked the platters clean.

Fresh peaches, in season now.
Fresh peaches, in season now.

Ingredients

For the Meat
• 2 pounds beef brisket or other stew meat or 1 pound beef and 1 pound pork butt
• 1 small white onion, quartered
• 2 large cloves garlic
• about 1 Tablespoon sea salt

Biznaga cristalizada (candied barrel cactus).
Biznaga cristalizada (candied barrel cactus).

For the picadillo

• 4 Tablespoons freshly rendered pork lard or canola oil
• 1/3 cup chopped white onion
• 3 large cloves garlic, minced
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
• 3 heaping Tablespoons raisins
• 1 or 2 chiles serrano, finely minced
• 2 Tablespoons chopped walnuts or pecans
• 2 Tablespoons chopped candied biznaga (cactus)
• 2 fresh peaches, skinned and diced
• 1 fresh pear, peeled and chopped
• 1 apple, peeled and chopped
• 1 extremely ripe platano macho (plantain)
• 1 large potato, peeled and diced
• 3 large, ripe tomatoes, roasted, peeled and chopped
• sea salt to taste

Chiles poblano.  Choose the largest chiles with the smoothest sides for easy roasting.
Chiles poblano. Choose the largest chiles with the smoothest sides for easy roasting.

For the Chiles

6 fresh chiles poblano, roasted, peeled, and seeded, leaving the stem intact

Newly harvested, freshly peeled walnuts.  All of the shell and the thin brown skin must be removed to make smooth, creamy-white nogada (walnut sauce). Photo courtesy Gabriela.
Newly harvested, freshly peeled walnuts. All of the shell and the thin brown skin must be removed to make smooth, creamy-white nogada (walnut sauce). Photo courtesy Gabriela.

For the Walnut Sauce

• 1 cup fresh walnuts
• 6 ounces doble crema or full-fat cream cheese at room temperature
• 1-1/2 cups crema mexicana or 1-1/4 cups sour cream thinned with milk
• about 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
• 1 Tablespoon sugar
• 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 cup dry sherry

Fresh, seasonal pomegranates, available now in Mexico's markets.
Fresh, seasonal pomegranates, available now in Mexico’s markets.

For the Garnish

• 1 Tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
• 1/2 cup fresh pomegranate seeds

Method

Cut the meat into large chunks, removing any excess fat. Place the meat into a large Dutch oven with the onion, garlic, and salt. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Skim off any foam that collects on the surface. Lower the heat and allow the water to simmer about 45 minutes, until the meat is just tender. Take the pot off the stove and let the meat cool in the broth. Remove the pieces of meat and finely shred them.

Warm the oil in a large, heavy skillet and sauté the onion and garlic over medium heat until they turn a pale gold. Stir in the shredded meat and cook for 5 minutes. Add the cinnamon, pepper, and cloves, then, stir in the raisins, the 2 Tablespoons chopped walnuts. Add the chopped pear, apple, and potato, and mix well. Add the tomatoes and salt to taste, and continue cooking over medium-high heat until most of the moisture has evaporated. Stir often so that the mixture doesn’t stick. Let cool, cover, and set aside. The picadillo may be made 1 day in advance.

Make a slit down the side of each chile, just long enough to remove the seeds and veins. Keep the stem end intact. Drain the chiles on absorbent paper until completely dry. Cover and set aside. The chiles may be prepared a day in advance.

At least 3 hours in advance, place the 1 cup walnuts in a small pan of boiling water. Remove from the heat and let them sit for 5 minutes. Drain the nuts and, when cool, rub off as much of the dark skin as possible. Chop into small pieces. Place the nuts, cream cheese, crema, and salt in a blender and purée thoroughly. Stir in the optional sugar, cinnamon, and sherry, if using, until thoroughly combined.  Reserve at room temperature.

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The stuffed chiles pictured above were dipped into an egg coating and fried prior to finishing with walnut sauce and garnishes. In Mexico, passionate diners argue the pros and cons of coating the chiles; many insist that coating and frying is not traditional, and many insist that it is.  Mexico Cooks! prefers chiles en nogada with no coating.

Preheat the oven to 250ºF. When ready to serve, reheat the meat filling and stuff the chiles until plump and just barely closed. Place the chiles on a serving platter or on individual plates, cover with the walnut sauce, and sprinkle with parsley and pomegranate seeds

Chiles en nogada as presented at Restaurante Azul/Histórico, Mexico City. This beautiful service is only surpassed by the flavors of the chiles.
Chiles en nogada as presented at Restaurante Azul/Histórico, Mexico City. This beautiful service is only surpassed by the flavors of the chiles.

This dish may be served at room temperature, or it may be served chilled.

Note: Many people in today’s busy world prefer to make this recipe using a mixture of ground rather than shredded beef and pork.  Using this quick method, simply brown the ground meats and add the rest of the picadillo ingredients once the meats are browned.  The results will be excellent!

To read more from Cristina, visit Mexico Cooks!
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