Friday, August 27, 2010

Polenta-cheese chiles rellenos

Traveling to the midwest and southwest this summer, we ate at quite a few Mexican restaurants, and I took to ordering not a few chile rellenos, on the theory that when eating in a restaurant, you should order things that you generally don't make at home. A few were amazing — CafĂ© Castro in Santa Fe and El Mezcal in Lawrence, Kansas — most were pretty good, and only one was awful, smothered with so much meat sauce (!) and melted cheese that there were pools of saturated fat everywhere on the plate.

Nonetheless, after getting a couple of local poblano peppers at the Intervale Community Farm this week, I decided I'd take a stab at actually making them at home.

I started with Rick Bayless's recipe from Mexico One Plate at a Time. One of the great things about stuffed dishes, of course, is that they lend themselves so well to variation, and especially to meatless variations (not that I'm vegetarian, I just don't cook with meat a lot). Mixing some cooked polenta in with the cheese helped cut the richness of the filling without losing the creaminess, and, because it is zucchini season, I cut one up and added it to the broth for variation.

This recipe has a lot of steps, but there are also a lot of opportunities for doing things ahead — the only thing that really needs to be done at the last minute are reheating the chiles in the oven, reheating the broth on the stove, and sautéing the zucchini.

Measurements for some of the ingredients here are pretty general, because poblanos vary pretty widely in size. I probably used about 1/2 cup each of polenta and cheese, and maybe a few tablespoons of sunflower seeds, to stuff 3 poblanos. Making the batter with 2 eggs gave me more than enough for the 3 poblanos; I could easily have coated a fourth. I used some leftover potato-cooking water for the broth, which was perfectly acceptable, but I'm sure it would taste richer with chicken stock (veggie or beef stock might overpower the tomatoes).

Poblano peppers
Lots of oil for frying

Cooked polenta (either leftover or store-bought), cut into small chunks
Jack cheese, shredded
Sunflower seeds

Tomato broth
Onion, chopped
Tomatoes, chopped or from a can
Water, stock or broth

Batter (for every 2 poblanos)
1 egg
1/8 tsp salt
1 tsp flour

Zucchini garnish
1 or more zucchinis, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
A few pinches of cumin seeds

1. Prepare the chiles by heating 1 inch of oil in a large pan to 350 degrees. I used a 12-inch Calphalon dutch oven, and probably about 1 1/2 quarts of oil. Drop the chiles in and cook for 1-2 minutes, until the skin is blistered all over. Remove, drain on a paper towel, and remove oil from heat.

2. Mix polenta, cheese and sunflower seeds together in a bowl. I used roughly equal amounts polenta and cheese, but proportions could be varied. I prepared the ingredients separately, mixed together as much as I thought I'd use, then when I ran out mixed together a little more. If the polenta is not well-salted (amy homemade polenta always is, but storebought — or yours — might not be), you might want to add a bit of salt here as well.

3. When chiles are cool enough to handle, rub off skins, cut a slit in the side and pull out all the seeds and membranes. Rinse out the insides gently, then stuff with filling. Secure chiles with a toothpick, place on a plate and flatten slightly, and put in freezer for 1-2 hours.

4. Meanwhile, make the broth. Sauté onions in a little oil until just beginning to turn golden, sprinkle with cinnamon and black pepper, and add tomatoes. Cook the tomatoes down for a few minutes, then add liquid and bring to simmer. Puree until smooth with an immersion blender and set aside.

5. Remove chiles from freezer and reheat oil. Separate egg(s) and beat whites with salt until they hold soft peaks but are not at all stiff. Add in yolk(s) and flour, and beat to combine. Once oil has come to 350 degrees, take however many chiles will fit into the oil at one time, dust with flour (shaking to remove excess), drop in batter to coat thoroughly, then lay* immediately in the hot oil. Rick Bayless says to spoon oil over the top, but I found this had the effect of washing the batter off the chiles, so I stopped doing it.

6. Cook chiles on one side for 3-5 minutes, until nicely browned, then flip over (2 metal spatulas was the easiest way to do it — the batter is so light that it's hard to grab the chiles with tongs without scraping the batter off) and cook on the other side the same amount of time. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels. If you have more chiles than will fit in the oil at once, repeat with remaining chiles.

7. Heat oven to 400 degrees. After all chiles have rested at least 5 minutes out of the oil, put them into the oven for 15 minutes on a baking sheet (lined with foil for easier clean-up if you're neat like that). This will crisp the coating a bit, render some oil, and heat the filling through.

8. While the chiles are in the oven, reheat the broth. Heat some oil in a large frypan over medium-high to high heat, add cumin seeds and cook until fragrant (30-60 seconds), then add zucchini cubes. Make sure each cube has one side flat along the surface of the frypan and then do not disturb for several minutes — you want to get a nice sear on at least one side of each piece of zucchini. Test a couple, and when they're nicely browned, stir the zucchini around a bit and continue cooking until nice and tender. Toss with salt and pepper.

To serve, for each chile place 1/2 cup of broth in a shallow bowl, nestle the chile in the middle, then spoon zucchinis around the chile.

* I almost wrote "lie" here, which would of course have been an instruction to the cook to lie down in the hot oil, rather than to lay the pepper in the oil.

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