Saturday, October 2, 2010

There’s a country song in here somewhere

I had a notion I was going to get my heart broken when I walked up to him in the lunchroom.

“John,” I said, twirling the kitchen knife in my hand, “would you help me out with something?”

John looked up and smiled—not at the knife, but at the two large apples I held in my other hand. When John’s not at work, he’s an epicure with a well-trained palate. He was exactly the person I needed. I sat down, arranging the objects on the table between us. “We’re going to do a little experiment,” I said.

“As you know, this is the second year of SweeTango—the controversial new apple from the University of Minnesota. It’s touted as even better than my beloved favorite, Honeycrisp.”

“I have here two apples,” I continued. “One is a Honeycrisp. One is a SweeTango. We’re going to try them, talk about what we taste, and decide which one is better. Then I’ll tell you which is which. I’m too biased to be objective, so I’m interested to hear your opinion.”

John was in.

We started by looking at the apples. They were lovely, their rosy red skins striated with yellowish green. The only way to tell them apart was by size. “Not much difference,” John said.

I cut each in half. One of the apples had yellower flesh than the other. The second apple had a hurt spot in the center, but we dismissed that as unimportant. Texture appeared otherwise identical.

We tasted the first apple. Good crunch! We both found it very sweet, but it also had a contrasting acidic kick. “Nice tang,” John remarked. The flavors were high, sharp, and bright, with a cidery undertone. John gave his approval, and I agreed.

On to apple number two. Upon biting in, John exclaimed, “This has a grapey flavor to it.” He was right. Though sweet and equally crunchy as the first apple, the flavor was more muted and rounded. It was a softer, fruitier taste. Another very good apple, we concluded.

“So,” I asked, “which is better?”

John guessed that the first apple was Honeycrisp and declared that he liked it better.

I smiled sadly. I agreed with John’s judgment. The bright, tangy apple was indeed the tastier of the two. But he guessed wrong: it wasn’t the Honeycrisp.

Cue the music:

Dang you, SweeTango, I hate you
Like I hate the sun in the sky.
I hate you so bad, I hate your mom and your dad,
I hate you so much I could cry.

Dang you, SweeTango, I hate you
Like I hate the stars up above.
They don’t have to flaunt you, I hate you ‘cause I want you
Even more than the one that I love.

Monday, September 27, 2010

¡Vivan Chiles Rellenos!

If you’re all wondering what to do with a poblano pepper, then you should go stuff it.

Har har har! No, really. And then you should batter it and fry it and serve it with a bunch of its friends.

Perhaps once a year I make chiles rellenos (say “ray-YAY-nohs.” Do not call them “reh-lennowz” unless you are still eating tor-til-ah chips.) from Diana Kennedy’s The Art of Mexican Cooking. To me, they epitomize the complexity of Mexican food. Even the most seemingly simple Mexican dish can involve multiple cooking methods and several iterations of processing. Making rellenos is like making four different dishes: roasting, peeling, and seeding the chiles; making the stuffing; making the sauce; and, finally, battering and frying the chiles. Add some side dishes to the meal, and you could be cooking all day a la Like Water for Chocolate.

This time, though, I tried to keep things simple. I used a good brand of canned refried black beans, and I used cheese for the filling. I made a very quick and easy tomatillo salsa for an appetizer and an even quicker and easier red tomato sauce to nap on the chiles. I rounded out the meal with a pot of white rice and a simple stewed zucchini with yellow cherry tomatoes and oregano. I forgot to set out the corn tortillas I’d bought, but nobody missed them. Dessert was vanilla ice cream or muskmelon, a cup of coffee, and a sliver of chocolate spiced with cinnamon and cayenne.

Chiles Rellenos
There are four stages: the chiles, the sauce, the filling, and the frying. Finally, we eat!

The Chiles
You can stuff any pepper, but traditional cooks use the poblano. These dark green, glossy triangles are relatively mild and about the size of a fist. Start with more chiles than you’re planning to serve; I promise at least one of them will end up in shreds while you are preparing it. Roast them on a grill or under a broiler, then peel them (here’s how). Find the weakest part of the chile, slit it open lengthwise, and sweep out the seeds and veins, being careful not to tear the flesh. You may need to wipe off your fingers, or your chile, with a towel as you work. Put the cleaned chile on a plate or cookie rack. You can do this a day ahead.

The Sauce
According to Kennedy, rellenos are traditionally heated up in a sauce—essentially, a very simple tomato reduction thinned with chicken broth. I opted to skip the broth and ended up with a tangy and fresh-tasting tomato sauce. You can make this ahead of time.

2 or 3 tomatoes
2 T chopped onion
1 clove garlic, chopped
1-2 T oil
Salt to taste

Put the tomatoes, onion, and garlic in a blender and liquefy. Heat the oil in a well-seasoned skillet. Dump in the tomato mixture and fry until reduced, maybe 5 or 10 minutes. (At this point Kennedy has you add 2 ¼ cups of chicken broth and cook 5 minutes more.) Salt to taste.

The Filling
Recipes abound for the relleno, or stuffing, part of chiles rellenos. You can use seasoned meat, or maybe potatoes and chorizo. I found queso Chihuahua, the quintessential Mexican melting cheese, at the Wedge. Muenster would be the next best choice. I cut it in strips about the size of my index finger. A large poblano will take two or three of these pieces; for a tiny chile, I cut one in half.

Put cheese inside the chile, being careful not to tear it. The chile should be nice and full, but the sides of the hole should overlap a bit. If you opt to close the slit with a toothpick, be sure to warn your guests.

The Frying
Cover a plate with several layers of paper towels and put it in the oven at 200° F. Get out a big frying pan and pour in about an inch of oil. Canola is nice. Put the pan on a medium-high burner.

Now make the batter. For every four to six big chiles, get these things:

3 eggs
¼ t salt
⅓ c flour

Separate the eggs. Beat the whites until they are stiff and turning dry. Beat in the yolks, one by one, and the salt.

OK, here we go. It’s showtime. I always get very scared at this point. I’m convinced that the chiles will come apart, stick to the pan, catch on fire, splatter everywhere, or burn black. But not one of those things has ever happened. They always fry up like magic.

Plan to work with one or two chiles at a time. Dredge a chile in flour...

then hold it by its stem and dunk it in the batter.

Gently lay the chile in the hot oil and let it cook golden brown. Use two spatulas to turn it on its side (or flip it right over if it is very small). Fry each chile on all sides...

then remove to the plate to drain.

Hey, look at that! It worked!

Let’s eat!

If you did the broth thing, you can put the rellenos in the sauce and heat them up for five minutes or so. Otherwise, plate ‘em up! Serve each guest one big chile or two smaller ones. You can pool the sauce under them or nap it on top.

¡Buen provecho!