¿A quién no le gusta el chile?
by Sally Wilson
To crack open a walnut you should assemble an armoury of kitchen utensils: knife sharpeners, hand-held citrus juicers, nutcrackers, a mallet.
With sufficient pressure, an aggressive hit or two, the shell will start to split and you’ll be able to lever it piece by piece away from the walnut flesh. The walnut is not as tough a nut to crack as the macadamia or Brazil nut, say. But it’s still an exercise requiring patience, a meditative and partly risky undertaking that you have to be aware of in Mexico at this time of the year. After all, it’s the season for chiles en nogada.
Everyone in Mexico is doing it. Chiles en nogada feature on tables here from late August through September. Generous plates full of them pop up like shining food versions of the Mexican flag on family tables for Sunday lunches. Signs in markets and tianguis scream: chiles en nogada! Armies of waiters deliver sky-high stacks, hoisted aloft, to expectant diners at restaurants across the city. Think of Contramar, where they’re stuffed atypically with octopus, soft shell crab and tiny prawns, or Arroyo, where they’re the seasonal special along with salty, fried gusano de maguey and escamoles.
I’m new to Mexico, and the concept of an iconic, national dish that’s served seasonally is endlessly appealing and novel. In Australia meat pies, lamingtons and Vegemite toast are amongst our food icons. Chiles en nogada are for me a revelation, all colour and excitement, a flock of ingredients rioting delicately together on a plate. With this enthusiasm powering me along, I decided to end August and begin September with a crash course in all things about chiles en nogada.
Recipes were my first point of reference. I read Diana Kennedy’s collected wisdom on chiles en nogada from The Cuisines of Mexico. I’d heard hushed rumours that Nicos Restaurante is the place to eat them in Mexico City and tracked down (probably unauthorized and approximate) lists of their method and ingredients online. I was put in touch with Señora Olga Ayala, the mother of a friend, who owns a plot of land in Hidalgo where she keeps a pomegranate orchard and harvests them for sale during September. Her son told me that Olga also makes a mean, annual feast using the family pomegranates.
Hours of research and talking about chiles en nogada had left me with a hole in the stomach and a strong wish to eat. The truth is I’d only ever admired pictures of the dish inside cookbooks and had never before sat down and tasted one. But this small hurdle was nothing that an afternoon visit to the corner of Calle Claveria and Cuitláhuac couldn’t fix.
Sitting in front of me at Nicos, in colonia Cuitláhuac, was a deseeded chile poblano, blissfully floating in a pool of nogada. It was stuffed, with a sweet and slightly warm filling of chopped pork and beef, slivered almonds, peach and pine nuts. Also in my line of sight was the master behind all this barrio elegance, Chef Gerardo Vázquez Lugo. He was chatting at a table, surrounded by friends. “Captain”, I said to the head waiter, “would the Chef mind if I asked him one small question about chiles en nogada? I’m after some recipe advice”.
He’d probably heard it a hundred times before. But sportingly, Chef Vázquez headed off to the kitchen after a word with the Captain and emerged minutes later with bowls full of ingredients: a shiny, over-sized chile and a tomato that looked like it had plucked from the veggie patch of someone’s grandmother only hours before. There were white walnut pieces and two types of dried xoconostle. “You can use any recipe”, said Chef Vázquez, arranging the plates profoundly on the table. “What’s important though are the ingredients. You need fresh, quality ingredients”.
The Chef uses a recipe handed down to him by his mother, with a few minor tweaks. He’s swapped acitrón for xoconostle, for instance. Dried xoconostle is easy enough to source here. But acitrón –the candied flesh of the biznaga cactus, which is more traditionally specified in recipes– is near extinction from heavy harvesting. Using xoconostle in its place changes the flavour of the chile stuffing, but not in a way that’s fatal to traditions, according to Chef Vázquez. “The taste of xoconostle is simply different, and in this case has an ethical purpose”, he says.
It’s a shock when you see your first nude walnut. The walnut is a cerebral little nut and once extracted from its shell is clearly composed of right and left lobes, wrapped up in papery skin. Unfortunately the shell and the skin stand in the way of a good nogada sauce and have to be gotten rid of for the purpose of cooking. To do it, you need a bundle of patience, a bucket and, as previously mentioned, a weapon of your choice. For me it was a large, hand held lemon juicer, which could adequately crush open a walnut in one step.
For Señor Raul Hernández at Mercado Medellín, the weapon is a long, metallic stick. He operates a stall on the Campeche side of the market and at this time of the year his is a one-stop shop for pomegranates, walnuts and technical advice relating to the preparation of chiles en nogada.
His walnut shelling is a lesson in beauty and deftness. He has the ability to hold a walnut in one hand, tap it three or four times using the metal stick, open up the shell, extract the nut whole and then cast it into a bucket of water to soak. The process takes only seven or eight seconds, but multiply that by a hundred thousand during the high season and you have before you a master. The work leaves Señor Hernández’s fingertips black with walnut soot by the end of the day, colourfully indicating the onset of September. Another indicator is fingertip wrinkling.
The walnuts are left to soak in water to loosen up their skins for anywhere between twelve to twenty-four hours. The hours spent in water make skinning the nuts easier, but still not quick. The skin of a walnut hugs the flesh underneath like an aerobics outfit made from spandex, and when peeling it off you’re battling that and the characteristic peaks and ravines that shape the nut. Cookbooks will tell you it’s simple, but it’s not that simple. You need a meditative mind and waterproof fingers to peel the 400 grams of walnuts needed to make a nogada sauce for four.
Chiles poblanos cost around twelve to eighteen pesos a kilo at Central de Abasto. They’re arranged in green pyramids, topped off with fluoro signs which ask, “A quién no le gusta el chile?” (wink, wink). I buy six, for a family lunch. In the neighbouring hall a jubilant squad of nopaleros vie for attention, but I’m after granadas so there’s no chance for them today. A lady selling avocados points me in the direction of the fruit. “The best stall is this way”, she says, with an air of certainty. “Walk to the Virgin and then take a left”. I get the feeling that any granadas under the constant watch of the Virgin must indeed be the best. They’re ripe, and when opened up a few days later, run red with pomegranate juice.
The recipe I decide to use for my first homemade batch is a very relaxed combination of what I remember from Nicos and The Cuisines of Mexico. Queso de cabra, queso fresco, nuez de castilla and a dash of leche go in the blender for the sauce. At the last minute I add in a few whole cloves. The chiles poblanos sit atop live flames and their skins char and retreat. I cook a stuffing with equal parts of pork and beef, and sweeten it with xoconostle, pear, apple, raisins and peach. There are leftovers after dividing it between the chiles, and I snack hungrily while they warm in the oven. Making chiles en nogada, I realise, is a culinary marathon logically saved for once a year.
Assembling the dish –chile, sauce and decoration– is the fun part. Great spoonfuls of nogada avalanche down the sides of the chile. The pomegranate seeds fly wildly in their wake, mimicking bright pink downhill skiers. Broad, flat leaves of parsley descend from the sky like snowflakes. The walnuts finish off the dish and what occurs to me is this: white walnuts, banded together with pomegranates and chiles, are well worth celebrating.