Faking Authenticity (And Loving It)

The boy and I cook differently. One is no better than the other (yada yada yada), but different strokes for different folks, right? For instance, when I try something new in the kitchen, I tend to research and pay attention to the process. When the boy helps, and he’s a GREAT helper, btw, he tends to get a bit…how should I say this…courageous. Yes, a big courageous man, that’s it.

Anyway, I decided last week that I should try to make a Mexican dish that I’ve ordered for years but never dared try at home. I love peppers, I love explosions of cheese, so it naturally follows that I love chili rellenos. I had no idea how to make the mysteriously delicious item, and I honestly didn’t even know what “rellenos” meant, but I was going to figure it out, and I was going to make an authentic, Mexican dish. Well, at least sorta.

To be fair, my recipe plan was never truly authentic. Since I knew I was going to be frying cheese-stuffed peppers in shortening, I wanted a side that was a bit healthier than the plate’s main attraction. The boy and I both like spanish rice, so I decided to make spanish quinoa, which we perfected last winter in another bout of Mexican experimentation (fajitas). For those who think “quinoa” doesn’t even look like a real word, pay attention, because it’s so very, very real. It tastes like rice, but it’s actually a gluten-free whole grain, and a protein powerhouse, which cooks in a mere 15 minutes. I personally think it may have super powers, but believe what you will.

In addition to the quinoa move that may bring shudders and head shakes from Mexican cooks worldwide, we ended up taking some creative (read: time-saving and frustration-lowering) allowances with this recipe. Why? Because as much as a refined cook as I like to pretend to be, sometimes a girl’s gotta find a shortcut, and that’s okay. It’s especially okay if the result is as crunchy, gooey, and delicious as this was, but perhaps I’m just making excuses. Let’s cut to the chase…

Chili Rellenos with Spanish Quinoa

Based on AllRecipes.com “Authentic Mexican Chili Rellenos” and my own personal recipe for Spanish Quinoa.

Serves 2-4

Chili Rellenos

  • 6 fresh Anaheim chile peppers
  • 8-ounces package queso campesino, aka Mexican quesadilla cheese, cut into 3/4-inch thick strips
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • Sprinkle of sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup vegetable shortening for frying

Spanish Quinoa

  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 2 cups vegetable broth
  • Half red onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped

Set your oven to broil, and put an oven rack on the highest ring so it’s around 6-inches away from the heat source. While it heats up, wash your peppers, and put them on a baking sheet lined with a silpat, aluminum foil, or whatever nonstick agent you prefer.

Let the peppers broil until they start to blister like crazy. Big, delicious, blisters. Use tongs to turn the peppers frequently so they get blackened on all sides. Enjoy the steam hitting your face with every open of the oven door. It’s good for your pores, but don’t get too close – you don’t want to end up like those poor peppers! When they’re evenly blistered, remove them from the oven, place in a bowl, and cover tightly with plastic wrap until they are cool enough to handle (around 20 minutes). During this time trapped steam will help loosen the skins. This is important if you want to follow the recipe correctly…which we didn’t end up doing, but more on that later.

As your peppers are steaming off their skins, get your spanish quinoa ready. Grease a pan with cooking spray, then sautée onions in the 2 tbsp of oil until soft. Add the dry quinoa and stir until browned, then pour in the broth and the tomatoes. Bring to a boil, throw in the cilantro, then cover and reduce to a simmer. It will take 15 minutes for the quinoa to cook and soak up all the broth-y, tomato-y goodness.

After the peppers are steamed and cooled, you should remove the skins…really, you should. This is where things got interesting for us. I picked up a pepper, grabbed a loose piece of skin, pulled, and ended up taking the entire pepper apart. #fail, am I right? Well, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And so I did, with that same pepper, and it just kept falling apart. The boy was having no more luck than me when he said, “You know what? Why do we even need to remove the skins?” I looked at him questioningly…”Because the recipe says so.” After an eye roll and a noncommittal (but maybe slightly judgmental) noise, he put down his pepper. Usually I would continue to try. Usually I would fight the good, correct fight, but this night I was tired. I was tired, I had a headache, and most importantly, I was hungry. So, we did the unthinkable, and the peppers kept their skins. More on the consequences later…

After you’ve de-skinned your peppers, or decided you’re smarter than the authentic Mexican recipe you’re using and ignored that step, cut a vertical slit about 3/4 of the way down the pepper. Take your cheese sticks, and stuff ‘em in. At this point the boy started laughing excitedly. Were we really going to stuff peppers with cheese and fry them? That seems over the top, doesn’t it? Over the top, yes, but by golly that’s just what we did.

Separate the egg yolks from the whites. Whisk the yolks with the baking powder and salt, and then use a mixer (/egg beater/whatever you happen to call it) to froth up the whites until they are fluffy. Use a spatula to gently fold the whites into the yolks.

Put the flour in a bowl, and create an assembly line of sorts: flour, egg, holding area before frying. Coat all the peppers in flour, tap off the excess, dip in the frothy eggs, and then set it aside while you do the rest. Melt the shortening in a large fry pan, and then carefully, ever-so-carefully (remember the pot sticker massacre of last week?) drop the peppers in the shortening. They will froth up beautifully, so let them do their thing for 5 minutes or so, then flip them so the other side gets some of the action. If your pan is too small to fit all the peppers (as mine was), don’t crowd them. You will be rewarded for your patience, so just do two or three rounds.

If you were like us and too overconfident/lazy/hungry to remove the skins, you’ll find that the flour didn’t stick well enough to the pepper skin to fully coat the outside evenly. This results in variations of fried-ness throughout the pepper. If the skins were removed, my suspicion is that the flour would have fully adhered, making the frothy egg attach as well, and fry up in that authentic, coated fashion which appears on your plate when you order chili rellenos at Mexican restaurants. Don’t fear, however, because in the second batch I cracked the code on how to cheat. If you don’t remove the skins, just do the flour and egg dipping dance twice. This creates a double coat on the pepper which sticks MUCH better. The more coating the more crispy goodness you’ll end up with, so take this guidance and run with it into crunchy pepper bliss.

Dress each plate with a heaping spoonful of spanish quinoa, playfully decorated with a couple leaves of cilantro, and a pepper or two (or three, if you’re the boy). While I may have made a misstep in my shortcut, I can’t say this didn’t register high on the love-o-meter (note: this is a term the boy came up with, not me). The coating was golden and crispy, and the peppers were slightly spicy and oozing with creamy melted cheese. The spanish quinoa tastes just like spanish rice, but packs some health into a meal that is otherwise filled with fried, stuffed indulgence.

If you’re looking to create an almost-authentic Mexican meal, know that you can cheat, and you can replace rice with quinoa, and even drink cheap wine with your meal instead of cerveza if you feel like it (and I did). It’s your home, it’s your world, and it’s our little secret.

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