One of the most common traits exhibited by Libras is, supposedly, “indecisiveness.” As a Libra myself, I don’t really mind that description. Well, maybe a little. But not really–it’s all in good humor, right? Then again, who likes to be called “indecisive”? Am I offended?! Yes. No. Definitely. . . . maybe.
Represented by the scales, Libras often vacillate between extremes. In my case, I tend to swing between wildly opposing behaviors: holiday sugar-binges eating chocolate fudge, chocolate cookies, chocolate cake, chocolate frosting, or just plain chocolate**, later balanced by the most ascetic of diets, the ACD, followed religiously for months, until homeostasis is achieved once again.
Similarly, I may one day vow to keep my desk immaculately clean, then allow the notes and bills and post-its to accumulate in irregular stacks like fallen autumn foliage on a forest floor; finally, in a fit of tidiness, I’ll organize the entire thing in one afternoon, filing each and every snippet of paper or invoice in its proper place, only so the cycle can begin again. Or I’ll work like a lunatic at some writing project (hmm, say, like a cookbook), tapping at the keyboard for 12-16 hours a day over the space of three months, then burn out, veg out and do absolutely no work for days while I sit comatose on the couch in my jammies and watch my soap opera.
Not surprisingly, this all-or-nothing mentality extends to my cooking as well. In order to perfect my soy-free vegan whipped cream recipe, for instance, I ended up making 50 batches in the space of a month, stopping only once I was satisfied with the result (and then didn’t touch the stuff again for six months).
Last week, my fixation turned to the Chiles en Nogada (stuffed peppers with walnut sauce) that I read about years ago in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. Now, I’m no expert on Mexican cuisine (I suppose having drinks at Hernando’s Hideway in 1994 doesn’t count), I’ve never eaten poblano chiles, and I’ve certainly never tasted Chiles en Nogada.
But when I browsed through the half-price produce at our local supermarket (where I buy slightly downtrodden apples for The Girls), I spied a bag of 8 cubanelle chiles. They appeared to be entirely fresh, and firm as new spring leaves; nary a blemish except for a tiny patch of brown no larger than an aglet (an aglet?? True, it has nothing to do with chiles, but it is the correct size. And besides, how often does one get to use the word “aglet”?).
“I suppose I could use these in a simple roasted pepper pasta,” I mused. “But wait–remember how great they looked at Esperanza and Alex’s wedding? And how 27 trays of them disappeared in no time at all? And how they were so delicious, so imbued with the aura of true love and exquisite care, that they filled anyone who ingested them with a slow, spreading sensation of ecstasy that overtook every inch of their being?”
All right, then! Chiles en Nogada it is!
Once I began to read other recipes for this dish, I discovered that (a) the chiles were actually poblanos, not cubanelles (but luckily, they can be used interchangeably); (b) they were stuffed with a picadillo, a mixture made of either pork or beef or both (neither of which I eat); (c) the filling featured fruits and dried candied peels (which, of course, I cannot eat); (d) the walnut sauce contains queso fresco, a soft, piquant cheese similar to goat cheese (which I don’t. . . etc.); and (e) a simple roasted pepper pasta was starting to sound really, really appealing.
Okay, this might take a little more work than intially anticipated. But I was a Libra with a mission!
Since I couldn’t undertake multiple trials as I did with the whipped cream (I had only one bag of 8 chiles, after all), I carefully considered my options and decided to go with tempeh in lieu of meat, orange zest in lieu of candied peel, and tofu sour cream in lieu of queso fresco. And you know what? The result was outrageously good.
In addition to a spectacular visual image, this dish offers a slightly smoky, soft and fleshy pepper encasing a thick and knobby filling, its sweet and savory notes in perfect harmony; there’s just the slightest hint of citrus underlying the spice. Slathered over top is a rich, extravagantly silky sauce, one that confers a zesty bite along with a whisper of cinnamon. Finally, a handful of intense, sparkling pomegranate seeds finishes the dish with an additional burst of both color and flavor.
I was entirely smitten and enjoyed stuffed peppers three times over the next three days. The HH , on the other hand, wasn’t quite as taken. “It’s interesting, but just too weird for me,” he commented. “Though I’m sure it would be delicious with meat.”
With its satin stole and garnet beads, Chiles en Nogada is perfectly dressed for a holiday celebration (in fact, it was originally created to celebrate Mexican Independence Day, with the red, white and green colors of the Mexican flag. . . though I have to admit my sauce was more mauve-tinged than white). It does take a bit of work, but is definitely worth it.
And now that I’ve exhausted my energies on this dish, I’ll shift to the opposite extreme and flake out on the couch for a few days. . . until the next culinary tornado hits.
“Mum, we think those peppers would be better with meat, too. But we’ll still take some of that satin walnut stole and garnet pomegranate beads, holidays or not.”
** though not this year, obviously.
[Chiles en Nogado (Stuffed Peppers with Walnut Sauce)
I’ve never tasted the original, so I have no idea how far this version strays from the authentic flavor, but the winning combination of hot peppers, sweet-and-savory stuffing and silky, tangy sauce is both enchanting and unusual enough to render any occasion special.
For the Peppers:
6-8 large cubanelle or poblano peppers
1 Tbsp (15 ml) extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup (240 ml) grated celery root or other firm root vegetable (parsnip or carrot would work nicely)
1 block tempeh (about 8 oz or 250 g), crumbled
1 medium tomato, chopped
1/4 tsp (1 ml) cumin
1/4 tsp (1 ml) cinnamon
1/4 tsp (1 ml) fine sea salt
2 Tbsp (30 ml) Bragg’s Liquid Aminos, tamari or soy sauce
1-1/2 cups (360 ml) vegetable broth or stock, divided
2 Tbsp (30 ml) tomato paste
1 large apple, cored and chopped
2 Tbsp (30 ml) raisins (omit for ACD-friendly version)
zest of one organic orange
For the Sauce:
3/4 cup (180 ml) of your favorite nondairy sour cream (I used the recipe in Joni Marie Newman’s Cozy Inside)
1/2 cup ( g) raw walnuts (I kept the skins on, which accounts for the strange color of my sauce)
1/4 tsp (1 ml) cinnamon
1 drop liquid stevia (optional)
Preheat oven to 425F (220C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place peppers on the tray and bake until just soft, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool while you prepare the filling.
Heat oil in a large frypan over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, celery root, tempeh, chopped tomato, spices and Bragg’s. Cook until onions are translucent and tempeh begins to brown, about 10 minutes. Pour in 1 cup (240 ml) of the broth, cover, and lower heat to simmer. Cook until all the liquid is absorbed, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the tomato paste and remaining 1/2 cup (120 ml) vegetable broth until smooth. Add to the tempeh mixture along with the remaining ingredients for the filling; stir well, cover, and simmer for another 5-10 minutes until most of the liquid is absorbed and sauce is very thick. Set aside.
Prepare the Sauce: Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until perfectly smooth.
Using a sharp knife, slit the peppers lengthwise between the stem and tip, cutting only through the top skin and leaving the bottom intact (leave the stems on as well). Gently pull the pepper open and scoop out the seeds and membrane. Stuff each pepper with filling, dividing it evenly. (Traditional instructions say to lie the peppers cut-side down, but I forgot; I actually like them better with a little filling peeking out). At this point, you may reheat the peppers until the filling is heated through, or just eat them at room temperature.
Spoon the sauce evenly over the peppers, and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds. Dig in! Makes 3-4 dinner or 6-8 appetizer servings. Peppers and filling (without sauce) freeze well.
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