Pepping Up Peppers

A recent week in Mexico opened my eyes to a marked similarity in eating choices. In the ancient town of San Miguel de Allende, the first city in Mexico to declare independence from Spain, I found myself eating – no kidding – stuffed peppers.

They were so delicious that I ate them three out of six nights. These peppers were no peasant food, they were elegantly served, each with its own sauce, and one pepper was enough for a meal. Each time I veered to a different menu speciality, I tasted someone else’s stuffed pepper and regretted that I hadn’t ordered the same.

I realized, of course, that in warm climates such as theirs and ours, nothing grows better than the pepper, be it the bell pepper or the chile pepper. Of all the “crops” my husband grows in a corner of the backyard garden, peppers of all kinds are the easiest and most prolific. And, in the last few years, our grocery stores are filled with poblanos, Anaheims, serranos and jalapeños from Mexico and elsewhere.

The key to these Mexican stuffed peppers is that they not only contain delicious stuffings, but they also have tasty sauces drizzled over them. A poblano, the preferred stuffing pepper because of its large size, might be filled with various combinations of cheese, chicken, beef, pork and corn. They are topped with tomato sauce and also or either with a cream sauce. Often they’re battered and fried, a step that can be eliminated considering the extra work and cleanup, not to mention the calories. The fried and cheese-stuffed chiles rellenos is the version we know in our own Tex-Mex restaurants.

Another plus for the poblano is its very mild spiciness, maybe one step up in heat from the bell pepper. The smaller the pepper, the greater the heat, so stuffing a hot jalapeño is only for the cast iron tongue.

I love the color of the poblano, a dark winter-green, and its flatness makes it easy to roast. You don’t have to roast peppers when stuffing, but it adds an element of taste and there’s nothing like the smell of roasting peppers in your kitchen. If you have a gas stovetop, it’s a simple matter to place a pepper directly into the flames, turning, until the entire pepper is blackened. After roasting, I like to put them in a brown paper bag for a few minutes to steam. Then the skin just rolls off and the pepper is a pretty green again.

For our last night in San Miguel we hired a cook, who began early in the morning, shelling peas, roasting peppers and simmering pork. She made everything from scratch except for the fresh tortillas she had purchased in the market. Large pots bubbled all day and the result was a spread that included Spanish rice with fresh peas, chicken enchiladas, pork tacos in soft corn tortillas, slow-cooked pinto beans and a dark caramel flan that was two inches thick. It was our best meal in Mexico.

Once home, far from the narrow cobblestone streets and centuries-old architecture, I decided to try my hand at stuffing poblanos. I researched recipes from two cooks I consider to be the leading authorities on Mexican cooking: teacher and author Diana Kennedy and author, teacher and restaurateur Rick Bayless.

Corn-Stuffed Poblano Peppers With Cream
6     large poblano peppers, as
      flat as possible
4     ears fresh corn or 2 cups
2     Tablespoons butter
1     onion, chopped
2     cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
2/3     cup chopped fresh cilantro,
1/4     pound white farmer’s cheese
1 1/2     cups crème fraiche
1/2     cup shredded sharp cheddar

Rinse peppers and place over flames on your stovetop and rotate until totally blackened or charred. (If you don’t have a gas stove, peppers can be roasted 2 inches under a hot broiler, turning often until charred.) Place peppers in a couple of small paper bags fastened at the top to steam for about 15 minutes. Rub skins off with your fingers. When peppers are skinned, cut a slit about 3 inches long down one side and toward the top. Gently remove seeds and veins. Most of the seeds, which contain the heat, are around the base of the stem. Leave stem intact. Rinse carefully to remove seeds. Try not to make holes or tears in the peppers. Place peppers side-by-side in a baking dish, sprayed with vegetable spray, and set aside.

If using fresh corn, cut whole kernels off cobs, using a sharp knife.

In a medium skillet, melt butter and sauté onion and garlic until transparent. Add corn, salt and pepper, cover and cook over medium heat until corn is done – about 5 minutes. Add cilantro and adjust seasonings. Let corn mixture cool a little and spoon it into the peppers carefully. Slice the farmer’s cheese into 6 equal slices and place a slice in the center of the filling. Fold peppers so that the top and bottom closes over the filling. Use a toothpick to close the opening. Set aside.

About 30 minutes before serving, heat oven to 350 degrees and heat stuffed peppers for about 20 minutes. Spoon crème fraiche over the top and sprinkle with cheddar cheese. Continue baking until cheese is melted. Serve immediately.

Serves 6

Meat-Stuffed Poblano Peppers With Tomato Sauce
8     poblano peppers
3     pounds fresh tomatoes or 2 2    8-ounce cans plum tomatoes
      in juice, undrained
1/4     cup extra-virgin olive oil
      plus 2 Tablespoons, divided
1     onion, chopped
2     cloves garlic, minced
1/2     teaspoon cinnamon
1/4     teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4     teaspoon salt
1     cup beef broth
1     pound ground meat,
      preferably meatloaf mix
      including beef, pork and veal
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2     cup chopped fresh cilantro
1     cup white cheddar cheese,

Place peppers over flames on your stovetop and rotate until totally blackened or charred. (If you don’t have a gas stove, peppers can be roasted 2 inches under a hot broiler, turning often until charred.) Place peppers in small paper bags fastened at the top to steam for about 15 minutes. Rub skins off with your fingers. When peppers are skinned, cut a 3-inch slit down one side and towards the top and gently remove seeds. Most of the seeds will be attached under the stem. Try not to make holes or tears in the peppers, and leave stems intact. Place peppers in a greased baking dish close together and set aside.

If using fresh tomatoes, peel and remove stems. Coarsely purée tomatoes in a blender. Heat oil in a large skillet. Sauté onion and garlic until transparent. Add half the tomato sauce, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, beef broth and salt. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. You should have a thick tomato sauce.

Also in a large skillet, brown meat in remaining 2 Tablespoons oil. Add the other half of tomato sauce and seasonings and simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in cilantro. The mixture should be thick enough to hold its shape in a spoon. Adjust seasonings.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stuff each pepper with meat mixture so that slits will close. Pin sides together with toothpicks. Place stuffed peppers in baking dish, cover with tomato sauce, then cheese and bake for 15 minutes.

Serves 8

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