I was reading a story on the digital publication Milenio recently. It said that there are more than 1500 different species of chile peppers in Mexico. One five zero zero! That means that I have about 1488 types of chiles to still experience before I die. But I’m betting one thing. I’m giving odds that I’ll never find one I’ll treasure more than the poblano.
Chiles are like dates. When you’re young, you think you want a hot one. Show everyone how bravado you are…how you can handle the heat. But when we mature (presuming men eventually do), we want our chiles warm, not hot, and the ideal temperature is very, very hard to find. Poblano peppers are the perfect date. You’ll always get a cozy glow but you’ll never get burned.
Though they never sizzle, the heat of poblanos is still a little unpredictable. Even two peppers from the same plant can differ in their Scofield level (the scientific heat scale that the commited chiliheads use). As they mature and their flavor changes slightly from a vegetative green to a fruitier red, they also send the Scofield numbers up the scale a little.
I was thinking about the poblano because I’d been exchanging emails with Magda Pablos. If you’re a San Miguelense, you might know Magda. For three years she was the chef of the San Miguel bistro, El Vergel, and cooked some of the best traditional French dishes you’d find south of the Rio Grande. I have very fond memories of her vichysoisse, her soupe à l’oignon, her salade niçoise and her trout amandine. I have fond memories too of a woman with a passion for her profession.
These days, Magda Pablos is the chef at a bed and breakfast called Casa de Las Leones and, in addition to preparing healthy and hearty ways to start off the guests’ day, she also does the occasional special lunches or dinners.
We talked a little about my favorite chile pepper, where she sources them, how she preps them, and what she likes to do with poblanos.
If you’re as avid (OK, change that to fanatical) a reader of the food press as I am, you may have recently heard about the WWF’s Dale Chamba campaign. It came as an enormous surprise to me that 60% of the chiles consumed in Mexico are now grown in China and, possibly, more than 90% of all the poblanos we eat in Mexico may start with a boat cruise from Shanghai. As I pick my selections (I try to find ones with a touch of warm red glow) at the fruit and veg stands at San Miguel’s Tuesday market, I want to know which ones are local or how I might recognize them. As much as I hate the little stickers that they put on Amalfo mangos, perhaps that’s the only way we’ll know which poblanos might come from the fields of Guanajuato or neighboring states.
I asked Magda Pablos if, with her sources as a chef, she has discovered a reliable, reasonably local supplier for poblanos.
Magda told me, “I find organic poblanos at Bodega Organica in Mercado Sano. They get them from Cooperativa La Rústica which is run by Luis Chacón in Michoacán. They are certified organic!”
Unless they’re going into a soup or sauce, after you find the right poblanos, you have to treat them right. You have to do something to poblanos that isn’t necessary with any other chile that I know of. You have to burn and blister their waxy skins. Over the years I’ve seen housekeepers, cooks, chefs and wives do it in a multitude of ways. I asked Magda Pablos what is the best way to remove the skin. How do you do it?
“I toast them in direct fire and, once they blister, I place them in a plastic bag, close it tight and let them sweat for a little while…about ten minutes”, said the chef. “Then, I skin them under running water, carefully open them on one side and remove the seeds”.
“When doing more than a hundred, you can also fry them and place them in a plastic bag or Tupperware container and then proceed to skin them”, continued the chef.
After they’re prepped, there are two Mexican classics that can be made from the chiles. The prince of poblano dishes is chiles rellenos. The emperor of poblano dishes is chiles en nogada, which is fitting because it may have been first created for Agustín de Iturbide, the general who gets a lot of the credit for winning the Mexican War of Independence and briefly, becoming the country’s emperor.
The story has a few twists and turns but my version goes like this: It was 1821 and the emperor was traveling through Puebla. The Augustinian sisters of Santa Monica, who not only sacrificed sex but sugar and salt from their diet, decided to pay tribute to de Iturbide by serving a dish in red, green and white, the colors of Mexico’s new flag.
In case chiles en nogada have never kissed your lips I was going to describe the dish but instead decided to let Freda Moon do it because, even though she went a bit over the top with her prose, she still described it beautifully in something she wrote in The Daily a few years back: “as baroque and symbolic as it is sensual and gluttonous: a green poblano chile, blackened by fire, skinned and filled with picadillo (a mix of meat, seasonal fruit and nuts), dipped in a meringue-like egg batter and fried, then slathered in a silky white walnut-cream sauce, ornamented with jewel-like pomegranate seeds and topped by parsley the color of a perfect, suburban lawn.”
So, does Magda Pablos make chiles en nogada? I think you know the answer.
“I like doing chiles en nogada at this time of year because September is the mes patrio and it’s very easy to get ripe pomegranates”, said Magda. “They really used to be served as dessert, stuffed with just fruits and smothered in nogada sauce; I always have to decide whether to do it as a main course or with fruits as dessert”.
Whichever way she chooses to serve them, Magda Pablos adds an extra step between cleaning and stuffing her chiles en nogada, an extra step that’s done by no other chef I know of.
“Once I’ve cleaned the chiles, I like to fry them in a little oil, with onion and garlic, until the onion starts to take color”, said Magda. “I then add water, white vinegar, hierbas de olor, black whole pepper and salt, let them boil for three or four minutes and then take the chiles out.”
As I write this, I’m in Toronto, counting the days until I return to the land of chiles. What do you think the chance is that a poblano will be the first chile on my plate? What do you think the chance is it was grown in Mexico?
You will find Mexican poblano chiles at Bodega Organica, Mercado Sano, Ancha de San Antonio 123, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.