Deep Fried Cheese. Are there three better words in the English language? It’s so tidy, yet so infinite. Five years ago I moved to Mexico not really interested in Mexican food. All I had really known was the New England version of TexMex as served at Margaritas and Su Casa on the Post Road in Branford, CT: a large plate, ostensibly filled with chicken-, pork-, or beef-type food, glaringly smothered in cheese, dollop of sour cream and unripe guacamole optional, typically ending in belly ache. I didn’t really have a plan for what I would eat, but I hadn’t planned or thought much about this life-changing adventure to a country I had never seen. I diligently sold, stored, and packed my few belongings, boarded the plane to Merida, and hoped for something exciting to happen. Hijinks, they did ensue. It was all grand and unusual, thrilling and exotic and replete with meaning and mystery. I walked. I photographed. I wrote. I drank. And despite the heat, the language barrier, and the deep confusion we were operating under at all times, I did manage to eat. My first great culinary discovery was green mole, unlike anything I had yet seen, or tasted. More on this later, I promise.
The next instance of immediate gastronomic kinship was with a chile relleno served on a Sunday in the town square. Food vendors with coca cola branded everything were backed up against the oldest cathedral in the Americas, built (at the behest of the Catholic conquerors ) by the Mayans, from the ruins of their sacked city of T’ho. It is a swirling chaos of dancers in traditional dress, craft sellers, street performers, European tourists with their funny little packs and black socks, horse-drawn cabs, shoe shiners, and locals out to enjoy the day. I was still in a “getting to know you” phase with meat and not yet ready to dive head first into the labyrinth of tortas and tacos, pastor and pibil, salbutes and panuchos. Queso, I knew. I had a long relationship with cheese in all its forms and thought it was a safe, satisfying choice. Chile Relleno can be vegetarian – as superficially vegetarian as a culture that adds lard to most dishes can get – but it is often served with pork in Yucatan, smothered in a thin tomato sauce.
I wanted to keep this, my first attempt at home-cooking a great dish of Mexican cuisine basic, simple, pared down to its most essential components: Pepper. Cheese. Oil. What I learned, or am learning, is that real Mexican cooking is always layered, so that even the most base and benign composition is more than the some of its parts. Perhaps that’s why many of us regard peasant foods like beans, cheap tough cuts of meats to braise, and the almighty corn as simplistic. And ruin it. Sap all its strength. Assume it’s just as well to pull “ingredients” from a cheerful box with a familiar name. I know that’s what my mother did. Our “homemade” tacos featured Old El Paso shells, black olives, and mozzarella cheese. I vow to do a little better. To try and recall what I love about Mexican cooking and do it what justice I can. This dish requires delicacy. It isn’t difficult, but it’s not exactly easy either. Suerte y Buen Provecho.
adapted from Sunset magazine
- 2 poblano peppers
- 1/2 cup shredded jack cheese
- 1/4 cup minced yellow or white onion
- 2 eggs, separated
- 1/4 cup flour
- enough oil to deep fry (I used a combination of peanut and canola)
- salt and cumin
- enchilada sauce*
The first thing to do is broil the peppers and remove their skins: blacken under the broiler 3-4 minutes per side until bubbling, then cover with plastic and wait 10 minutes. Gently pull away the skin and discard. Carefully cut away the top (stem) of the pepper and remove seeds. Don’t worry if your pepper tears a little, you can use toothpicks to hold it all together later. Meanwhile, combine onion and cheese, then divide the mixture in half; form into two tubes, sized for the peppers you have. Stuff the peppers. To make the breading: whip egg whites with a mixer until stiff peaks are formed. Egg yolks are blended with a little flour, salt, and cumin, then folded into the egg white mixture. To coat: first pat the stuffed pepper dry, dust it with remaining flour, submerge in the egg batter. When your oil is sizzling hot, slide in peppers and cook for three minutes per side, until golden brown. Drain on a paper towel, drizzle with sauce and serve with a weird salad. (Weird salad not included.)
* For all my boasting of authenticity and chefiness, I was weary and broken by the time I finished frying, and resorted to opening a can of OEP enchilada sauce.