A true Mexican aristocrat

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

If there were such a thing as an upscale chile, it would have to be the poblano. Dark green and elegantly flavored, the poblano chile turns up in Mexico in everything from rice and rajas to pozole and polenta. Its bold, distinctive pepper flavor stands up to intense seasonings, while its plump shape makes it ideal for stuffing. All of which should put the poblano high on any heat-loving cook’s shopping list.

In California, the poblano’s most visible guise is as the chile relleno. Although Anaheim chiles were long the standard for the dish (they’re still used by old-time restaurants such as Casa Vega in Sherman Oaks and the El Cholo chain), the poblano is taking over. No longer limited to restaurants that delve more deeply into authentic Mexican ingredients, such as the Border Grill and Lula in Santa Monica and La Serenata Gourmet in West Los Angeles, they’re now used for rellenos by establishments as middlebrow as the El Torito chain.

Once difficult to find, poblanos now are as abundant as all-purpose Anaheim chiles always have been, especially in markets where Latinos shop. Yet unlike the Anaheim, which usually is mild, poblanos vary in heat, from moderate to something approaching jalapeno fire. You can’t tell by looking at them; you have to taste them, best done after they have been roasted and peeled. One way to lessen the heat is to soak the chiles in salted water, but this leaches out some of the flavor.


When shopping for fresh poblanos, don’t be put off if they are labeled pasilla. Who knows how the misnomer started, but somehow it caught on, and poblanos are routinely mislabled as pasilla in supermarkets throughout Southern California. In fact, a dried poblano, wrinkly and a deep red-brown, is called an ancho chile (sometimes ancho pasilla). Ancho means “wide” in Spanish and refers to the chile’s broad girth. Pasilla, slim and almost black, actually is a dried chilaca chile.

The poblano happens to be the foundation of Mexico’s most patriotic dish, chiles en nogada. A far cry from everyday cheese-stuffed rellenos, these chiles are filled with meat, nuts and fruit and topped with a luxurious nut sauce. Parsley and pomegranate seeds scattered over the pale sauce represent the red, white and green of the Mexican flag. And that makes chiles en nogada a favorite for next week’s Mexican independence celebration. (Tuesday is the anniversary of the day in 1810 when the fight for independence from Spain broke out.)

Chile poblano means the chile from Puebla, a city that has played a key role in Mexican history and cuisine. Mole poblano, considered the national dish, was invented in a convent kitchen there. Chiles en nogada was devised to honor Gen. Agustin Iturbide when he passed through Puebla on his way back from signing independence documents in 1821. The new flag had just been adopted, and the creators of the dish, probably nuns, thought of an appropriate garnish -- bands of pomegranate seeds and parsley with the white sauce showing in between.

Complex and aristocratic, chiles en nogada well suits the holiday. In September, Puebla’s restaurants put their best efforts into this dish. One of the few restaurants to serve it in Los Angeles is the Spanish Kitchen on La Cienega Boulevard. Chef Hugo Molina’s version ranks with any I have tasted in Puebla or other parts of Mexico. The ornate picadillo filling combines pork and beef with dried cranberries, apricots, prunes and tomatoes. Molina sweetens it with honey, pours in a cup of sherry and adds fresh oregano along with cinnamon and cloves.

Talk about richness -- the sauce, or nogada, blends goat cheese, whipping cream, sour cream and milk with almonds, walnuts and even more sherry.

Poblanos shine in a silky cream soup from Cien Anos in Tijuana. This restaurant in the Rio district is known for innovative, high-end Mexican food. Accordingly, its crema poblana blends in ground almonds and shows off large Baja shrimp.

In Ensenada, Benito Molina Dubost of Manzanilla restaurant makes green polenta with pureed poblanos. However, be sure to test the poblanos for heat before adding them to the polenta. If they are very hot, reduce the quantity, or top the polenta with sour cream or thick Mexican crema to mitigate the heat. Molina says this is a fine side dish for carne asada, barbecued lamb, grilled quail or chicken.

But I would rather eat a big bowl of it all by itself, without anything to distract from that heavenly pure poblano flavor.


Chiles en nogada

TTotal time: 2 hours

Servings: 10

Note: Adapted from Hugo Molina of the Spanish Kitchen. Manchego cheese can be found at Latino markets (do not use Spanish Manchego).

Picadillo filling

1 pound top sirloin beef, fat trimmed

2 pounds boneless pork loin, fat trimmed

6 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 cups finely chopped white onions

2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic

1 cup dry sherry

1 1/2 cups chopped tomatoes

1/2 cup prunes, thinly sliced

1/2 cup dried apricots, thinly sliced

1/2 cup dried cranberries

2 tablespoons fresh oregano, finely chopped

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

3 tablespoons honey

3/4 teaspoon salt

1. Place the beef and pork in a food processor and pulse until the meat is coarsely ground. (Or finely chop it by hand with a sharp knife.)

2. Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the onions and garlic and cook until light brown, about 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and add the sherry. Raise the heat to medium-high, return the pan to the heat, and simmer for 3 minutes, or until reduced by three-fourths. Add the beef and pork and cook until almost cooked through, about 7 minutes. Add the tomatoes, prunes, apricots, cranberries, oregano, cinnamon, cloves, honey and salt and cook for 5 minutes.

WWalnut sauce

4 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup chopped white onion

6 tablespoons minced garlic

1/2 cup sherry

1 cup walnuts, toasted

1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted

2 ounces goat cheese

2 tablespoons sour cream

3 cups heavy whipping cream

1 1/2 cups milk

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

1. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Add the onion and garlic and saute until tender, about 2 minutes. Add the sherry and cook for 3 to 4 minutes to reduce slightly. Add the walnuts, almonds, goat cheese, sour cream, whipping cream, milk, cinnamon and salt and cook for 30 minutes over low heat, stirring often.

2. Puree the sauce in a blender (in batches, if necessary), then strain through a fine sieve, discarding the solids. Taste and adjust the seasoning. The sauce should be the consistency of thick cream.


10 large poblano chiles

Picadillo filling

2 1/4 cups shredded Manchego cheese

Walnut sauce

1 cup pomegranate seeds

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Roast the chiles, then peel them, but leave the stems attached. Make a small cut in each chile and remove the seeds. Fill each chile with about three-fourths of a cup of the picadillo filling and one-fourth cup of the shredded cheese. Place the filled chiles on a baking sheet and warm in the oven for about 7 minutes.

2. Spoon about a half-cup of the walnut sauce onto each plate. Place one chile in the center of the plate and pour a little more sauce over the top. Garnish with the pomegranate seeds. Serve hot.

Each serving: 985 calories; 44 grams protein; 40 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams fiber; 73 grams fat; 32 grams saturated fat; 218 mg. cholesterol; 686 mg. sodium.


CCrema poblana (poblano cream soup)

Total time: 40 minutes

Servings: 8

Note: The recipe is from Cien Anos, a restaurant in Tijuana known for its upscale approach to classic Mexican cuisine. Raw shrimp with heads on may be found at Asian markets.

8 poblano chiles

1 cup slivered almonds plus

1/3 cup for garnish

2 cups chicken broth

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup carrots, peeled and chopped

1 cup celery, chopped

1 cup onion, chopped

2 tablespoons flour

4 cups milk

1 chicken bouillon cube

16 large shrimp, boiled and peeled with heads left on

1. Roast the chiles over a gas flame on the stove top until they are blistered. Place in a plastic bag and let stand 10 minutes. Peel the chiles, remove the stems and seeds and wash. Place the chiles in a blender, add the almonds and the chicken broth and blend until pureed. Set aside.

2. Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the carrots, celery and onion and cook for 5 minutes to soften the vegetables. Gradually stir in the flour, and continue to stir about 2 to 3 minutes to lightly brown the flour coating the vegetables. Slowly pour in the milk, stirring as it comes to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for five minutes to blend the flavors. Strain and discard the vegetables.

3. Combine the chile and milk mixtures in a large saucepan. Add the bouillon and stir to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly, until thickened, 2 to 3 minutes. Check for seasoning and add more salt if desired.

4. Ladle the soup into broad, shallow soup bowls. Add two shrimp to each bowl and garnish with a few slivered almonds.

Each serving: 303 calories; 15 grams protein; 24 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams fiber; 18 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 46 mg. cholesterol; 488 mg. sodium.


Chile poblano polenta

Total time: 30 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: Adapted from Benito Molina Dubost at Manzanilla restaurant in Ensenada. Mexican crema is available at Latino markets and many supermarkets. Serve this as an accompaniment to grilled quail, roasted chicken or roasted or grilled meat.

4 poblano chiles, roasted and peeled

1/2 cup whipping cream

2 cups water

3 tablespoons butter

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper

1 1/2 cups instant polenta

1/2 cup Mexican crema

1. Remove the stems, seeds and veins from the chiles. Cut them into thick slices. Place the slices in a blender and add the whipping cream and water. Blend until smooth.

2. Pour the mixture into a saucepan. Bring it to a boil and add the butter, salt and pepper. Slowly stir in the polenta. Turn the heat to low and continue cooking and stirring for 3 minutes until the polenta grains have softened. Serve with a dollop of the Mexican crema as garnish.

Each serving: 319 calories; 5 grams protein; 34 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber; 19 grams fat; 11 grams saturated fat; 51 mg. cholesterol; 800 mg. sodium.