Mexico: Chiles en Nogada
Welcome back to another #GentGoesGlobal post, and we aren’t heading too far from my home country of the USA for this one. Just south of us, Mexico is a land of various and delicious foods. It could be bias from growing up in a neighboring country, but Mexican food is one of the most legit cuisines. My European and Asian friends can’t understand why I always say that the lack of good Mexican restaurants is a barrier to my moving there. I spent most of my summer in Japan just begging for a taco, any taco. So I’m thrilled to have gotten the opportunity to look into a Mexican dish that I hadn’t tried yet: chiles en nogada.
I knew I wanted to do chiles en nogada around the holidays because it’s a popular holiday dish in Mexico. The colors are perfect: aside from representing the Mexican flag, the green chiles, white nogada sauce, and red pomegranate seeds are also hues of Christmas. I also found the filling to be so comforting; it really is the perfect winter meal. I wrote this recipe to have extra filling – use the leftovers as taco filling. You’ll thank me later.
Normally in a Gent Goes Global post I’ll go into the history of the dish. However, with chiles en nogada, I had to make so many substitutions, I’ll spend the majority of the time talking about what I did and why I did it. Let’s start with the most obvious substitution: meat. This is originally a beef-and-pork recipe, but I’m vegetarian. I thought I was going to be fine with beans, when a Mexican friend of mine and his girlfriend suggested that it just wouldn’t work. It would be too far from chiles en nogada at that point. So they suggested that I try meatless crumbles (or ground soy protein, whatever your grocery store calls it). I try to write recipes without relying on meat substitutes like this, but I’m glad that I listened to them. It was so satisfying to have the texture of the soy protein, and beans really would have made the dish too mushy.
My next substitution I was disappointed to make, but I realize it was for the best. The filling is traditionally sweetened with the biznaga cactus, a barrel cactus that is often made into candy in Mexico. It’s native to the Chihuahuan Desert of central Mexico, and is so popular that it is now threatened. I read that it was hard to find outside of Mexico and I was DETERMINED to do it, but when I found out it was endangered, I decided to drop the hunt. Instead I got a mixed pack of candied fruit from my local Mexican grocery and used the fig and pineapple out of it to sweeten my mixture. It turned out delicious, but I’m still wondering what biznaga tastes like. Maybe one day I’ll get the chance to try!
The final substitution came in the nogada sauce itself. Nogada meats “nut,” and this is usually a walnut sauce made by blending walnuts, Mexican crema, cinnamon, and brown sugar together. My husband is allergic to walnuts, so I had to improvise. The same friend that suggested the soy protein suggested pepitas, and I thought it was a genius substitution. I went for dried white pepitas to try and keep as much white color as possible, but you could also use green ones if you’re not trying to keep true to the color. As it is, my sauce ended up a little on the brown side. I also learned that the pepitas may not dissolve perfectly into the sauce. I explain in the recipe, but if that happens to you, just strain the sauce to remove as much pepita pulp as possible, then simmer it to thicken it. I appreciate running into snags like that; it helps me keep my improvisation skills sharp! So since this version of the recipe is nut free, it’s not a true chiles en “nogada.” But if you aren’t allergic to nuts, I recommend going for the original!
So with all of the substitutions I had to make, is what I made really chiles en nogada? I run into conversations about authenticity often when researching food from cultures around the world. At what point have you changed something too much to be considered original? I like to think this counts as a variety of chiles en nogada, since there are no nuts in the sauce, though I would like to try a fully authentic version one day. Walnuts, biznaga, the whole nine yards. What do you think? At what point have you changed things too far? Let me know in the comments! I’m looking forward to more Gent Goes Global posts, and some involve more substitutions. For me that’s part of the fun! Stay tuned for more of that, but in the meantime: here’s to good drinking, great eating, and even better living.
Chiles en Nogada
For the chiles and filling
- 4 large poblano chiles (or 7-8 small ones)
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1/2 sweet onion
- 6 oz baby carrots (sliced thinly)
- 1 medium russet potato (diced small)
- 1 lb meatless crumbles (ground soy protein, etc)
- 1 15 oz can roasted diced tomatoes
- 4 oz mixed dried fruit (diced)
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- salt (to taste)
- pomegranate seeds, for garnish
For the nogada
- 1/2 cup pepitas
- 1 1/4 cup Mexican crema
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 Tbsp brown sugar
- 1/4 cup water (if needed)
- Preheat the oven to 450°F. Lay the chiles on a sheet pan and roast, turning occasionally, until the skins are black, about 20 minutes. Alternatively, roast them on a grill or over a gas burner, watching carefully to make sure they don't burn. Set them aside in a plastic bag or a bowl with a cover to sweat, so you can more easily remove the skins. When they are cool, gently peel the skin, then cut a small slit into one side and remove as many seeds and ribs as you can. Set aside.
- While those are roasting, get started on your filing. Heat the olive oil over medium high heat and add the onion, potato, and carrot. Cook for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Add the meatless crumbles, roasted tomatoes, dried fruit, cinnamon, and salt. Continue to cook until the crumbles are cooked through and the mixture has thickened. If it is too dry, add a tablespoon of water and stir through.
- To make the sauce, blitz the pepitas in the food processor until they are a fine powder. Add the Mexican crema, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Blitz together to combine. If the pepitas don't dissolve into the sauce, that's fine – just strain it into a bowl through a fine mesh strainer. If the sauce is thin at this point, thicken it by simmering in a saucepan over medium-low heat for a few minutes. The sauce should be thick enough to cover the chiles with no gaps in coverage.
- To assemble, stuff the chiles with the filling. Spoon the sauce to cover the chiles well. Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds, and enjoy!
- This recipe is adapted from the one at Mexican Food Journal. Check out the original to see how to make a more traditional version with meat and walnuts.
- Store leftover filling in the fridge for up to 5 days, and use as taco filling. It’s so delicious even without chiles or nogada to go with it!