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Hot stuff: Make chiles rellenos to celebrate a Mexican hero's birthday

By Brandy Welvaert, bwelvaert@qconline.com


Gary Krambeck
Cleo Pompa of East Moline shows off some of the chiles rellenos she makes at home.
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Making the perfect chiles rellenos Cleo Pompa serves her family on cold March evenings would be impossible if she didn't spend whole summer days roasting hot Hungarian wax peppers in her East Moline kitchen.

``If you were going to make it all in one day, it would be too time-intensive,'' Mrs. Pompa says.

She buys the peppers vine-ripened in July or August -- she can tell if it's too early -- and roasts them on a 6-inch round, cast-iron plate placed over a burner on her kitchen stove. The plate actually came from an old fire-breathing stove.

She heats the iron plate, then roasts the peppers on top, folding the finished ones into damp towels to loosen their skins. She says ``toasts,'' which is closer to the truth, because the peppers' skins get burned and blistered.

It can take days to fill her freezers -- she has three -- with enough peppers for a year's worth of rellenos, the stuffed, breaded and lightly fried peppers she describes as an anomaly of authentic Mexican food.

On a trip to Juarez, Mexico, to visit her mother- and father-in-law, she noticed that nothing she ate was fried.

``I never saw them fry anything, to tell you the truth,'' Mrs. Pompa says, but that's often not the case with Americanized Mexican dishes.

``It is different (in Mexico). They do cook differently. We Americanize things so much, and we fry everything,'' she says.

Mrs. Pompa's mother was born and raised in Texas, while her father grew up in Juarez, Mexico.

Juarez, once known as The Pass of the North or Paso Del Norte, was renamed in 1888 to honor Don Benito Juarez, former president of Mexico. He was a national hero who championed a number of reforms, including reducing the Roman Catholic Church's civil power.

Juarez remains one of the greatest heroes in Mexican history. His birthday, a national holiday in Mexico, is Monday.

While many rellenos recipes call for poblano chilies, Mrs. Pompa says her family prefers the Hungarians for their added heat. She even leaves the seeds inside them when she stuffs them with sliced longhorn cheese.

``Everybody knows that when they eat Cleo's peppers, they're eating hot,'' she says.

Cooks prepare chiles rellenos in many ways, and the thousands of recipes online and in cookbooks prove it. Even area restaurants serve them differently.

They can be stuffed with anything from white Mexican cheese to longhorn (``To me, it has a stronger flavor,'' Mrs. Pompa says), from potatoes to savory meats.

Sometimes they're virtually drenched in sauce. Other times, they're paired with less sauce or salsa. It depends on who makes the dish.

For the Pompa family, chiles rellenos is a main dish, many times eaten on its own.

Mrs. Pompa says her husband, Frank, loves to wrap a chile relleno in a warm flour tortilla and eat it plain.

If the family wants sauce, she sautees onions with a little hot sauce, tomato and a small amount of flour to thicken the mixture.

In her freezers, she has roasted, skinned peppers in baggies ready for stuffing. She also has a supply of premade rellenos she can ``zap when the kids come over.''

Though it's true that chiles rellenos can be prepared at any time of year with less work than Mrs. Pompa puts into them, the flavor isn't comparable, she says.

Once she tried cooking the wax peppers on a gas grill instead of roasting them on her iron griddle. The heat burned the skins quickly, leaving little time for the peppers themselves to roast.

``They don't taste the same,'' she says.

Finding an old cast-iron plate like Mrs. Pompa's might be a nearly impossible task. Interested home cooks should try flea markets and antiques stores, she says.

As for recipes calling for canned chilies, well, that's just not going to happen in the Pompa kitchen.

Yet shortcut recipes that don't require months-ahead preparation can yield edible, and even tasty, results -- especially for taste buds that haven't grown up with the real thing, as the four Pompa children have.

``What I do, I do because my mother did it. I don't usually go by recipes. My mother was a good cook,'' Mrs. Pompa says.

Following are a few recipes for chiles rellenos, just in time for Benito Juarez's birthday.

Chiles Rellenos

Mrs. Pompa doesn't follow a recipe to cook chiles rellenos. Instead, here are her basic instructions for making the dish. For cooks who want exact measurements, another chiles rellenos recipe follows.

Vine-ripened Hungarian wax peppers (or other pepper of choice)

Longhorn cheese, cut into strips (``I put a lot. You can put as much or as little as you want.'')

Flour for coating

Egg whites, beaten, for breading

Hot oil for frying

Flour tortillas (optional)

Prepare a place to drain and cool the cooked peppers. Depending on how many you will cook, cover a counter or table with newspapers and paper towels to absorb excess oil.

Slice Longhorn cheese into pieces small enough to fit inside the peppers.

Wash the peppers, then roast them until the skin is burned and blistered. Mrs. Pompa uses a heated cast-iron plate for roasting, but roasting can be done on a grill, over the unprotected burners of a gas stove or under a broiler.

When the skin is done, carefully remove peppers from heat using tongs and fold into damp towels. Allow one batch of peppers to cool in the towels, which will loosen the skins, as another batch roasts. Do this with as many peppers as you wish.

Once cool, remove the peppers from the towel(s) and peel away the skin.

Cut a slit in each pepper from top to bottom. For a spicy flavor, leave the seeds inside. For a milder taste, remove them. Then stuff with sliced Longhorn cheese and close the slit as best you can.

Roll the peppers in flour to coat and wait a few moments for the flour and the flesh of the pepper to really stick together. Then dredge peppers through egg whites and fry in a minimal amount of oil.

When brown and crisp, remove peppers from oil and drain on towels and newspapers you prepared. Serve plain inside a flour tortilla or with cheese, salsa or hot sauce.

Grapefruit and Black Bean Chiles Rellenos

8 poblano chilies, roasted and peeled

1 grapefruit, peeled and sectioned, peel and juice reserved

1 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained

8 ounces cotija cheese, shredded

8 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, shredded

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

4 eggs plus 2 egg yolks, beaten

4 1/2 cups flour, divided

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

2 egg whites, beaten until stiff but not dry

Canola oil for frying

1/2 cup water

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

Sliced fresh avocado, optional, for garnish

To roast chilies, place them on their sides directly on racks of gas burners. Turn the flame on high. Peppers also can be roasted under the broiler, about 2 inches from the heat. Roast, turning with tongs, until skins are blackened, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and steam for 10-15 minutes. Peel chilies, slit lengthwise once, and remove seeds. Set aside.

To make filling, put grapefruit sections, beans, cheeses, cumin, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Mix by hand until well-blended. Generously fill each chili with the mixture, securing opening with toothpick if desired.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine beaten eggs, 1/2 cup flour and baking powder. Mix well, then gently fold in egg whites. Dredge the chilies in remaining flour, then in the egg mixture and again in flour.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a 2-inch deep skillet filled with 1/2 cup canola oil, fry peppers until lightly browned on all sides. Drain on paper towels. Place on a cookie sheet and bake for 10 minutes.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine grapefruit peel, grapefruit juice and water. Simmer 10 minutes. Remove peel, add sugar and simmer 1 minute.

Lightly drizzle grapefruit sauce over peppers and serve with avocado slices if desired. Makes 8 servings.

--|Note: Cotija cheese is a sharp, dry cheese available in Hispanic markets.

Source: Texas Sweet Citrus.

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Chiles Anchos Capones (Stuffed Seedless Ancho Chilies)

Dried chilies such as anchos can be stuffed, but they must be softened in hot water first. They have an entirely different flavor than their greener relatives, but dried anchos are easier to find than fresh peppers in the winter.

10 ancho chilies

1 quart hot water

2 pounds queso anejo or Romano cheese, grated

8 cups chicken stock

3 cups small green onions, without the green ends

1 cup pork lard or vegetable oil

1/4 cup flour

Salt to taste

In a dry skillet, lightly toast the ancho chilies without burning them. Soak the chilies for 5 minutes in hot water to soften them, then drain and dry them. With a knife, make a slit in the side of each pod and deseed them. Stuff the chilies with the cheese and set aside. You can tie them to keep the stuffing from falling out if you wish.

Heat the chicken stock and boil the green onions in it for 3 minutes. Remove the onions from the stock and set both aside.

Heat the lard. Fry the chilies on both sides, starting on the open side. Remove the chilies from the oil and drain on paper towels. Fry the green onions in the lard. Remove and set aside. Add the flour to the lard and stir until completely mixed without letting the mixture turn brown. Pour the chicken stock in the pan and stir until no more lumps are seen.

Simmer the sauce to thicken for 5 minutes while stirring. Add the chilies and let simmer 2 more minutes. The sauce should be smooth but not too thick. Add stock if necessary.

Serve the chilies immediately with some green onions on the side. Serves 8 to 10.

Source: ``A Visit With the Chiles Rellenos Chef,'' by Jose Marmolejo (online at fiery-foods.com).





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