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.