There is a New Mexican respect for the chile that you don’t find so much in other regions. It is more a religion than a food- more important if you take red or green or Christmas on your huevos than if you vote republican or democrat. I am a New Englander by blood, and I can’t claim to have the chile in my blood. But after four years in Santa Fe, it is certainly tattooed there as certainly as the tree goddess that a man who looked like Braveheart imprinted on my back when I was in Prague before I was old enough to vote.
There are many chiles of note in New Mexico, but the queen of the bunch is the green chile. It only grows in New Mexico in August, and the air fills with the smell of green chiles roasting in their huge cylindrical contraptions, and that smell mixed with burning pinion as the frost comes on is enough to, well the first thing that comes to my mind is fairly illicit here, but let’s just say, enough to bring you great pleasure that one can usually only find with a loved one. I’m serious- it’s that good. And I’m not even talking about the taste.
You can’t get green chiles in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, unless you find them in a can, sterilized and drained of their heat, $3.99 for a portion so small that it just will not do. But Joey and I have each been back to New Mexico on our own at various times to help friends out, and we have come back with green chile gifts. Joey, smart as he is, brought his gifts in jars, but I sat on the plane with a paper bag full of August green chiles cradled in my lap. Arriving home, I had my first chile roasting experience of my life, and it made me miss New Mexico even more. In New Mexico, you don’t ever have to roast them yourself- they’re everywhere- ready for eating. Roasting those green chiles, I showed myself the true New Englander that I am, butchering those poor chiles as I tried to rid them of their skins and seeds. But sad as they looked, the smell was worth it.
The other day when I was working at the market, we had a few small boxes of poblano chiles. Our stand is diagonally across from that of my most favorite cheese farm, and I became obsessed with the idea of a chile relleno stuffed with brebis blanche, the delicate and creamy sheep cheese of which I continue to write about here. I got distracted, and started messing up my math with the customers, and realized that I had to claim one of those little boxes for my own and give it a go again with the chile roasting.
And I made a mess of it again! Peppers like this are about as sexy as it gets. I blistered them perfectly, and then ruminated on the sensual curves of the pepper as I started to remove the skin and seeds. I wrote poetry to the pepper, and I inhaled the perfume. Then I struggled, and then I cursed, and the skins fought against me. But it was still really good- and the brebis blanche was perfect. If you don’t live around here and are anti-mail ordering cheese, you could substitute a mellow goat cheese or even a mild feta. Don’t be concerned if you can’t get all of the seeds out; it will all be okay.
Chile Rellenos with Brebis Blanche and Tomatillo Salsa
6 chile peppers, Poblano, Green Chile, or whatever you can find, as long as it’s sizable
4 ounces brebis blanche, or mild goat cheese or feta
1/4 cup flour
6 eggs, separated
1 cup canola oil or shortening, for frying
juice of one lime
To roast the peppers: preheat your broiler. Place the chiles on an oiled tray, and place directly under the broiler. Close the door and hang around to watch. They should start to pop and blister, and when they’re black and blistered, turn them over. This process will take anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes depending on your oven, which is why watching is essential. When the chiles are blackened all over, take them out of the oven and transfer to a bowl.
Cover in plastic wrap and let them sweat for about twenty minutes. The idea here is to make is so that the skins come off easily, and depending on your chiles and your luck in the kitchen today, hopefully they will. After twenty minutes, give it a shot. Also do your best to take the seeds out, leaving as much of the chile intact as possible. But don’t stress if your chiles look like this. Frying will save all.
To make the rellenos:
When your chiles are de-seeded and de-skinned (ish) put 1-2 tablespoons of cheese inside each one . Use the neat opening (yeah right!) that you made to remove the seeds, then close the chile back up.
Whip the egg whites at high speed in a mixer until peaks form. In a large skillet, start heating the oil. You want to get it hot enough so that water sizzles when it hits the pan. Beat the egg yolks with one tablespoon of flour and salt. Fold this mixture into the egg whites, and incorporate until it creates something of a paste. You will lose some of the air in the egg whites- that’s okay.
When your oil is hot enough, dredge one of the chiles in the flour, then dip in the egg batter. This is a messy business. The batter won’t quite want to stick to the chile, and then as you toss it into the oil, running away to avoid the splattering oil, it might separate from the chile. But run back to that pan and push the batter back together with the chile- it will be okay!
Do not crowd the pan. You’ll want to do two or three at a time, depending on how big your skillet is. Have a plate ready with a paper towel to ease the oil a bit. Cook the rellenos until golden, about a minute and a half on each side. Once again, watching is essential. Let sit for a few minutes (but not more!) before serving so that you don’t burn your mouth. While the rellenos are cooling, throw the tomatillos, lime and salt into a blender or food processor. Serve along side the relleno.