The Hungry Engineer

Chiles in Walnut Sauce

06 Oct 2008

For the September issue of my movie food project, I decided to cook a dish from Like Water for Chocolate. Yeah, I know it’s actually October, but I have at least a dozen good excuses for being late. We’ll settle on my quest for candied citron to explain my tardiness. Turns out that candied citron is seasonal (Christmas time – fruitcake season). This point was driven home by the fact that not a single store I checked around town had them, and each store seemed to point me to one of the others I had already visited. Fortunately I had oranges and sugar, and with oranges and sugar, you can candy citrus peels. (Now you see why I’m late with my post.)

Like Water for Chocolate is the beautiful and heartbreaking story of a young Mexican girl named Tita. She lives on a ranch with her mother and two older sisters in turn-of-the-century Mexico. Because Tita is the youngest daughter of the family, according to family custom, she must stay with her mother to care for her until the day her mother dies. The custom is outdated, but Tita’s domineering mother insists on adhering to it, forbidding Tita to marry the love of her life. Tita finds solace in the kitchen, which she eventually grows to be in charge of. She pours all of her considerable passion and emotion into her cooking, often with incredible, unbelievable results. Throughout the film, her meals, in addition to being exquisitely prepared, often highlight her emotional state at the time.

This dish, Chiles in Walnut Sauce, was one part of a magnificent wedding feast. Telling you who gets married or explaining the circumstances surrounding that marriage would ruin the film, so I’ll leave it alone. Suffice to say that Tita fills her chiles not just with an intriguingly fruity, crunchy meat filling, she also fills them with love.

Chiles in Walnut Sauce (aka Chiles en Nogada)
_adapted from Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel_
The chiles:
6-10 large fresh poblanos
The garnish:
the seeds of 1 pomegranate
The sauce:
4 oz queso fresco, crumbled
4 oz walnuts
¾ cup heavy cream
¾ cup milk
The filling:
2-3 T canola oil (or lard if you’re feeling sassy)
1 onion, chopped
4 oz almonds, finely chopped
1 lb ground sirloin
2 t cumin
1 T sugar
2 oz raisins
½ lb tomatoes, chopped
1 oz candied orange peel (should be candied citron, but I evidently cannot find that in Austin in October), finely chopped
½ peach, peeled, cored, and chopped
½ apple, peeled, seeded, and chopped
Add the walnuts, cheese, cream, and milk to a blender, and puree till completely combined. Ta-da, your sauce is finished. (Note: most recipes I’ve found call for removing the skins from the walnuts, but I didn’t bother with that step and didn’t detect any real bitterness in the sauce.)
I don’t get to use [my normal method for roasting the chiles]( here since they need to remain whole so they can be stuffed. In this case, oil the chiles and roast under a broiler, turning frequently to fully blister the outside. Allow the chiles to sit in a sealed plastic bag for 15-20 minutes to let the skins loosen. After the time has elapsed, carefully peel the chiles, then split them open and remove (the majority of) their seeds.
Saute the onions in oil till soft and translucent. Add the almonds and continue to saute until the nuts begin to color slightly. Add the ground sirloin, cumin, and sugar and let the meat brown. After the meat has cooked completely, stir in the peach, apple, raisins, tomatoes, and candied orange peel or citron. Continue to cook till the fruits have softened and given off their juices and those juices have largely cooked away. Season with salt to taste.
Allow the filling to cool slightly. Once cooled, carefully stuff the chile cavity with the filling, arranging the stuffed peppers on a serving tray as you go. Once all the chiles have been stuffed and arranged, drizzle the walnut sauce over the top of them. Sprinkle your hard-won pomegranate seeds all over the top of that for a beautiful presentation.

I watched Like Water for Chocolate in its original spoken Mexican with English subtitles and found it quite enjoyable. The book of the same title, on which the movie is based, is also available as an English translation. In the English version of the book at least, the ingredient list for this dish didn’t quite seem to match up with the recipe (I’d be interested to know if the Spanish version of the book does a better job), but in the end it’s meant to be a story, not a cookbook, so I guess it’s forgivable. At any rate, if you happen to have the book in front of you, you’ll notice that I took a few liberties with the recipe.

Even with the modern conveniences of pre-shelled nuts and a high-powered blender, this dish is still a bit on the labor-intensive side. In the end though, after all that work it turned out really well. The flavors were really fantastic. Poblanos vary in their heat – some are very mild, almost like bell peppers. Others are fairly spicy (maybe they were grown near jalapenos and were subject to cross-pollination). Ours turned out to be on the spicy end of the spectrum, which actually worked pretty well here. The sweet meat filling and its mildly piquant roasted chile casing were nice counterpoints to the rich creamy sauce and the tart and crunchy pomegranate seeds. It is the perfect metaphor for a richly flavored, many textured feast of a movie (well, maybe if it ended up burning in the end).

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