For some reason I loved tongue twisters when I was little kid, but Peter Piper always bugged me because I knew you had to pick peppers before they could be pickled, so how could he pick a peck of pickled peppers anyway? I never resolved the question to my satisfaction, but I’ll tell you this: although he would surely be tempted by Kara’s Quick Cucumber and Pepper Pickles, I bet Peter wouldn’t settle for plain old pickled peppers if he could sample these chiles rellenos instead.
A chile relleno is usually made with pasilla, poblano, or Anaheim peppers filled with Oaxacan or Monterey jack cheese or seasoned shredded beef, dipped in an egg-y coating and fried. I like all of those versions all right, but none of them measure up to the chiles rellenos a lady named Antonia used to make for church potlucks when we lived in a little town in central Washington. There were two things about Antonia’s chiles rellenos that made them superb – one was her filling, which was a perfectly seasoned spicy ground beef mixture like you might use to make tacos, and the other was the batter – it was golden brown and crispy rather than tasting like a fluffy scrambled egg coating.
I’ve come up with a recipe that matches my memory of Antonia’s chiles rellenos. I have made them a few times since I’ve lived in Germany, but the above-mentioned peppers are generally hard to come by and very expensive when they are available here. I was surprised when I went to Sprouts with Janessa in CO a few months ago and she bought poblanos for $1.99 a pound – the last time I found them in Germany they were about thirteen dollars a pound, imported from Uruguay or someplace like that. Fortunately I was in a little discount grocery store not long ago and saw some yellow spitzpaprika I recognized, priced at 1.29 euro for 500 grams, and I snatched up a kilo (about 2 ¼ pounds). I know these chiles as güeros (blond peppers), but I believe they are also called Santa Fe Grande. I do love a chile with a nice bite and would still opt for poblanos if I had them, but these little blondies are an acceptable substitute. Güeros are lower on the Scoville scale than poblanos; they have a nice peppery flavor with very mild heat and would be an especially good choice for people who don’t like spicy chiles.
This was my second time making chiles rellenos with güeros. On the first try, I stuck with the normal procedure of blistering the peppers and then wrapping them tightly so the steam would loosen the skins before pulling off the skins and removing the seeds and ribs. The güero has a tough enough skin that I wouldn’t recommend skipping the skinning step, but the flesh is thinner than a poblano, so it is hard to get the seeds out without tearing the pepper to pieces. I tried another approach this time and cut slits to remove the seeds before blistering, and that worked much better. As for the blistering, you can do it on a comal or cast iron skillet, a gas or charcoal grill, or over a gas flame; I generally put the peppers on a foil-lined baking sheet in a hot (450 F) oven for 15-20 minutes, turning them about halfway through. They are done when the skin is blistered with brown spots all over. Then it is a matter of sealing them in foil or a heavy plastic food bag for 10 minutes or so, and the skins will slip right off. Note: if you are using a hotter pepper, wear gloves to prevent a lingering burn, and even with the güeros be careful not to touch your eyes. Once the peppers are prepared, this recipe goes together pretty quickly.
The meat filling is very adaptable. I start with well-browned lean ground beef, generously seasoned with a couple of different commercial spice blends. I don’t list specific quantities here because it really depends on individual taste and one’s definition of what constitutes “spicy.” I like to add some kind of vegetable for a bit of extra flavor – my favorite is shredded sweet potato, but corn, leftover sopa de arroz, chopped tomatoes, minced zucchini, pinto beans, or a little shredded cheese are all good additions, so let what you have and what you like be your guide. The filling and batter quantities below were enough for the 13 chiles in the kilo I purchased. These freeze very well and reheat beautifully in the oven (uncovered), so they are a good make-ahead dish for a Mexican dinner party – plan on one or two chiles rellenos per serving depending on what else you have on the menu.
If you prefer a cheese filling, cut the cheese in an elongated triangle shape (smaller than the chiles), about a half inch thick. Many recipes say to use shredded cheese, but a solid piece works much better because it will anchor the toothpicks that you use to hold the chiles closed (poke into the cheese).
Chiles, prepared according to above directions
Ground Beef Filling
- 1 pound lean ground beef (I used 93% lean)
- Finely chopped onion
- ½ cup or so shredded sweet potato, cooked corn, shredded cooked potato, leftover rice, etc.
Brown the meat with the onion, crumbling the meat finely as it cooks. Drain off any excess fat if you are not using extra-lean meat, and mix in whatever additional vegetable, etc. that you like. Season to taste. I use Don Enrique brand Pico de Gallo and Goya brand Adobo seasoning (both are powdered spice blends; they are labeled hot but they aren’t really super-spicy), freshly ground black pepper and coriander, dried Mexican oregano, and sometimes some extra salt (there is salt in the spice blends). Knowing I would be encasing this mixture in the extra-mild güeros, I also added some crushed red pepper flakes for a bit of fire power.
- 2 eggs, separated
- ½ cup buttermilk – can substitute regular milk mixed with a tablespoon of lemon juice
- ½ cup flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 2 tablespoons yellow cornmeal
Mix the egg yolks and buttermilk in a mixing bowl. Stir the dry ingredients together and add to the buttermilk mixture. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff and gently fold them into the batter.
When you are ready to fry, heat a half inch of vegetable oil in a frying pan (I use a small-ish pan and work in batches). Line a plate or tray with paper towels. Drop a spoonful of the batter into the oil to check the temperature – it should brown fairly quickly.
With your hands, dip one floured chile at a time in the batter. Hold it gently and use your fingers to smooth the batter over any parts that aren’t coated or to skim away a little of the batter if it is too heavily coated. Very carefully place it in the hot oil; depending on the size of the pan and the peppers you can probably do 4-6 at a time. When the first side is brown, carefully turn with two forks so as to not pull the batter off. There will be a little spattering when you turn them if pepper juice leaks out. You might need to turn once more to cook a third side a little. When they are nice and brown, lift with tongs onto the paper-towel lined plate or tray. You should be able to do at least two batches before needing to add a little more oil. As you get nearer to the bottom of the batter, it is easier to spread it on the chiles on a plate rather than dip them.
These chiles rellenos are great just as they come out of the pan or you can keep them in a warm oven if you are working in batches. The method isn’t really complicated, and you can always try it out with just a half batch of the batter, a few chiles, and some leftover taco meat or a couple of slices of cheese to see how you like it.
Serve with your favorite salsa or a seasoned fresh tomato puree. My side dish is the rest of the sweet potato and a fresh beet, peeled and chunked, tossed together in a little melted butter mixed with cayenne, cumin, and salt. Roast on foil-covered baking sheet for about 20 minutes at 400 F. (turn halfway through roasting time, and note: the oven times and temperatures I give are always approximate; I am using a Celsius-scale convection oven).
If you have leftover batter – once when that happened, I put about half a head’s worth of cauliflower florets into the batter and then lifted them out with tongs one at a time into the frying pan to brown. Ay, ¡qué rico!