For a Grub potluck with the theme of "back to school" (make something you have never made before), I contributed chiles en nogada, a fairly complicated combination of a roasted poblano chili, a vegetable or meat mixture, a creamy walnut sauce, and pomegranate seeds. These ingredients are found together at the farmers market only during the transition between summer and autumn, and so the window for making it with local ingredients is rather narrow. It’s a fleeting opportunity to experience some expansive flavors and textures.
A declaration of independence from pork
In Mexico, chiles en nogada is associated with Independence Day (September 16) because the colors of the finished dish are the colors of the Mexican flag: red, white, and green. (Note that Mexico’s Independence Day is not Cinco de Mayo. The annual May 5th outpouring of beer ads, festivals, and restaurant specials make that mistake easy to make, as they never explain what the holiday is about. For a fascinating explanation of Cinco de Mayo and the European influences on Mexico’s cuisine, listen to an interview with Professor Jeffrey Pilcher of the Citadel on an Eat Feed podcast.)
The classic filling is a picadillo of shredded pork, dried fruit, tomatoes, and spices (typically cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice), which was clearly unacceptable for my vegetarian diet. As an alternative, I turned to the farmers market and came up with a vegetarian picadillo that replaces the pork with vegetables (from various farmers at the market) and cheese curds (from Spring Hill Creamery in Petaluma). The dried fruit was mostly from Smit Ranch, with some raisins from a grape and raisin specialist who sells at the Berkeley market in the late summer.
I used two sources for advice and inspiration for the complete dish, Elise Bauer’s Simply Recipes and Epicurious. The walnut sauce was initially based on Elise’s, with a last minute of a handful of walnuts.
Red, green and white fireworks
I was somewhat apprehensive about the assembly for two reasons. First, I rarely use spices in my savory Mexican cooking, and so I almost omitted the spices from the vegetarian picadillo. Fortunately, I didn’t, as their addition made a far more interesting result. Second, I did not spend the entire afternoon peeling the walnuts, as is traditionally done. Walnut skins, the experts say, are bitter and leave flecks of brown in what should be a gleaming white sauce.
My worries were unwarranted. The preparation was a big hit at the potluck (as were other "back to school" projects like Bonnie’s beef tongue, post to follow). The roasted chili blended perfectly with the sweet, spice-infused filling, and the bits of cheese curd offered hits of cultured goodness. The creamy and non-spicy sauce provided a contrast to both the spicy filling and the reasonably hot roasted chili. The sauce was not perfect, because it lacked a distinct walnut flavor, but the large quantity of sour cream (organic Clover from Sonoma County) made up for any nut deficiencies. Although the red garnish of pomegranate seeds is just a sprinkling across a large, sauced chili, it makes a huge impact. Beside being beautiful to look at, the seeds were like celebratory fireworks in my mouth, bursting forth with a magical blend of sweet and sour. (Recipe after the jump.)
One onion, diced
Two cloves of garlic, minced
Four small zucchini, diced (preferably green skinned to fit into the red, white, green theme)
Three tomatoes, diced
1/2 t. cinnamon, preferably the Mexican variety
1/4 t. Ground cloves
1/8 t. Ground nutmeg
1 t. Salt
A few dried apricots, diced
1/2 c. raisins
A few dried peaches or nectarines, diced
One apple, peeled, cored and diced
3/4 c. cheese curd (see note below)
(Unit conversion page)
Place a wide skillet over medium heat. Add oil and cook the onion until it is soft. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more. Add the zucchini, cook for a few minutes, then the tomato, dried fruit, salt and spices. Let the mixture simmer for a few minutes to allow the flavors to blend.
Add the apple and cheese curds and cook until heated through.
Use as a stuffing for chiles en nogada, as a non-standard filling for a quesadilla or burrito, or as a vegetable dish to be served over rice. In the winter the zucchini could be replaced by a winter squash or potato, the fresh tomatoes with frozen or canned tomatoes.
Note: cheese curds are essentially cheese that has not been pressed or aged. They are made by stopping the cheese-making process soon after the enzymes and coagulant are added to the hot milk, then removing the curds for rinsing and packaging. They worked well for me in this preparation because they held their shape and also came in convenient sizes. If you can’t find curds, you could also subsitute a non-melting cheese like queso fresco or a very mild feta.