Story by Lindsay Sterling
Photography by Cindy Giovagnoli
Last Thursday I was delighted to find gorgeous poblano peppers at Andrew’s Farm stand at the Yarmouth Farmers’ Market. Shining with earthly energy, they reminded me something that a Mexican chef once taught me: September through November is the best time of year to cook chiles en nogada. It’s a Mexican classic: deep fried poblano chili peppers stuffed with pork, thyme, apple, and plantains, and topped with walnut cream sauce, fresh parsley, and pomegranate.
I learned how to make this dish from Yazmin Saraya, the pastry chef of Five Fifty-Five, one of Portland Maine's finest restaurants. She grew up and went to cooking school in Mexico City, before getting the itch to explore other cultures. She worked in Spain, Colorado, and Mexico before joining the vibrant food scene in Maine. She said that chiles en nogada is up there with her favorite foods from Mexico, along with fried plantains with sour cream and sugar, and candied mango with chili. Mexicans look forward to cooking and eating chiles en nogada in the fall when pomegranates come in season.
In her apartment kitchen, she and her roommate Kyle Robinson, the chef de cuisine of Five Fifty-Five, showed me how the dish goes. Kyle, a Maine native, had never tasted it before so he followed through with Yazmin’s prep requests and she pulled all the components together. As she whipped egg whites into stiff peaks and folded back in the egg yolks, she said: “This is the same batter you would use to make chiles rellenos.” Chiles rellenos are poblano peppers stuffed with cheese, deep fried, and served with a tomato sauce.
Both dishes appear to have originated in what is today the Mexican state of Puebla, in east-central Mexico. This is where indigenous people cultivated a variety of pepper that the Spanish called “poblano,” signifying that it came from Puebla. Yazmin explained that as she learned it, chiles en nogada originated in a convent. “The Spanish nuns and the native servants all mixed together in the kitchen. And that’s how this dish was born.” The Spanish would have brought to the table walnuts, apples, plantains, cinnamon and pomegranates, and the natives would have brought these handsome poblano chili peppers with broad shoulders and mild heat. Over time chiles en nogada has become a beloved national dish of Mexico. The colors of the sauce and garnishes (white, green, and red) are the colors of the Mexican flag.
As Yazmin dipped the stuffed peppers into the batter and fried them, they bloomed into tantalizing golden packages. After Kyle’s first taste of this dish, he described his impression: “It’s delicious. It’s a great combination. It’s kind of sweet and savory. There’s a little bit of spice from the poblanos, and you get nice acidity from the pomegranates.” When I made this dish for my family they described it as “gorgeous” and “rich.” Yazmin said some people like the dish without frying the peppers, but she prefers the fried version. I’ve tried it both ways and love both. I ate the fried version for dinner, and then the next day had the un-fried version for lunch. I love the diversity of flavors and textures in each bite.