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Each September Mexico celebrates its independence from Spain and its national pride during Fiestas Patrias, with lots of fireworks, mariachis, tequila, and, of course, chiles en nogada, Mexico’s most ‘patriotic’ dish.
A true mestizo food, the origins of this rich concoction are enshrouded in legend. The story goes that Agustín de Iturbide, 'emperor' of Mexico, arrived in Puebla on August 28th, 1821, having signed the Treaty of Córdoba affirming Mexico’s independence from Spain. He was offered an elaborate comida in honor of his saint’s day, prepared by the nuns of the Convent of Santa Mónica. Don Agustín refused all the tempting platters offered him, fearful of being poisoned (either by the Spanish, who considered him a traitor, or the insurgents who suspected him of planning yet another monarchy; they were right). He feigned stomach trouble, but when the exquisite chile en nogada was served, he couldn’t resist. Records show that versions of this dish existed long before these events, but it’s a good story, and the dish has been associated with Mexico’s independence ever since (August and September also happen to be the months when the star ingredients, walnuts and pomegranates, are in season). Chef, culinary historian and restaurateur Ricardo Muñoz Zurita admonishes that nogada made with dried, packaged nuts, is “vastly inferior” and “should not be taken seriously”. Restaurants offering the dish year-round are automatically suspect.
Chile en nogada is a green poblano chili, filled with ground seasoned meat, bathed in cream and walnut sauce, then sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and parsley. The red, white, and green of the dish are the colors of the Mexican flag, symbolizing Las Tres Garantías (the three guarantees) of the Constitution: union, religion, and independence.
There are as many recipes for chile en nogada as there are cooks, and most Mexican families have a jealously guarded one. The controversy of whether to capear (fry in batter), or leave it natural is a perennial dilemma. For me, that extra turn in oil is gilding an already fattening lily, so all of the chiles en nogada mentioned in this article are sin capear. I’ve sampled many over the years – at the tables of Mexican friends, in humble market fondas, and at high end gastronomic temples, both here and abroad, and I’ve come to a conclusion: this classic dish should not be tampered with. A “deconstructed” version I once had at a trendy New York eatery, posed a naked chili atop its sauce instead of underneath, deeply offending my visiting Mexican friends.
It seems that all the best recipes come from somebody’s grandmother, but getting someone to share that carefully guarded secret is another matter. Regina Gómez Dantés, language teacher and native capitalina hosts an annual chiles en nogada party, continuing a tradition started by her mother in the 1950’s. She reluctantly agreed to share her mother’s recipe –only because I have known her for 20 years!
Los Chiles en Nogada de Doña María Esther Dantés Arce
For the picadillo:
1 k. (2lb) tomatoes
1 medium onion
4 cloves garlic
4 slices bacon
4 slices Serrano ham
¼ k. (1/2lb) each ground beef and loin of pork
2 slices pineapple in syrup
1 slice biznaga (candied fruit)
100g (3.5oz) each chopped almond and pecan
50g (2oz) chopped black olives
30g (1TB) chopped capers
4 tart apples, peeled and chopped
2 pears, peeled and chopped
2 peaches, chopped
8 medium poblano chilies
Salt and pepper to taste
For the Nogada
1 package (1/2lb) Philadelphia Cream Cheese
1 cup whipping cream
½k (l lb) fresh nuez de castilla (walnuts)
Prepare the chilies: Roast over an open flame or under the broiler until the skin blackens, turning frequently – place in a paper bag for 20 minutes. Remove blackened skin by rubbing, but do not
run under water; it doesn’t matter if a little bit of skin is left.
Make the picadillo: Sauté the ingredients up to the meat in a little oil until well seasoned; add nuts and biznaga, and lastly the fresh fruit, diced to 1/4”. Season with salt and pepper.
Prepare the nogada: put all ingredients in the blender; add sugar to taste.
Stuff prepared chilies with meat filling, pour sauce over chilies and dot with pomegranate seeds and parsely. Serve with white rice, nothing else.
If you don´t have the energy to make your own, many restaurants are offering chiles en nogada this month. The best we sampled were carefully and lovingly prepared, with attention paid to the creaminess of the sauce, the contrasting texture of the filling, and a delicate balance of sugar, spice and salt. So here are some of my favorite places to enjoy that rare combination of pleasure and patriotism, chiles en nogada.
Fonda Mi Lupita
Buen tono 22, at Delicias, near the San Juan market, Centro histórico
Open Monday-Saturday 1pm-6 pm
Excellent, perhaps the best chiles en nogada (and, at 80 pesos, the cheapest) are only occasionally served in this funky hole-in-the-wall fonda, best known for its mole poblano. Prepared with attention to detail, the picadillo is chock full of fruit, spiced with cinnamon, clove and nutmeg; the meat is hand chopped, not machine ground, making for a more rustic texture. The nogada, thick and creamy (and not sparing of the expensive walnuts), is fragrant with cinnamon. The waitress explained that the recipe came from the grandmother of the owner, Don Rosendo. Four Star.
La Ki-K (formerly La Fonda de Don José)
Fernando Montes de Oca 42, corner of Atlixco, Condesa
Open Sunday-Tuesday 9AM-6PM, Wednesday-Saturday 9AM- 11PM
This pleasant, unpretentious Condesa eatery features a sidewalk terrace and an extensive menu of Mexican and international dishes. Chef Federico Ramirez, son of the original owner, explained that his recipe for chiles en nogada comes from his maternal grandmother, Doña Simona Cantú – no surprise. The meat here is shredded, flavorful, and a bit picante; the nogada is only slightly sweet--a blue ribbon example.
513 Mazaryk, Polanco
Open Monday-Saturday 1pm-1am, Sunday 1pm-6pm
A friend’s mother thinks Patricia Quintana’s version is the best in town, so I had to check it out—I always listen to mothers about food. Izote is one of the best-known restaurants in Mexico, and chef Quintana has a high reputation for her refined classic Mexican dishes. She does not disappoint with her chile en nogada. The flavors are well balanced (if a bit milder than those mentioned above) and beautifully presented, but at $350 pesos (“is that for one or two?”) is outrageously over-priced.
Palma 23, (between 5 de Mayo & Madrero) centro
Juárez 70 (inside the Sheraton, facing the Alameda)
Paseo de las Palmas 215 (Colonia Lomas de Chaputepec)
This 60 year old highly successful institution had languished for years in its dusty original location like a Chekovian widow until someone decided to re-fashion it as a purveyor of Nueva Cocina Mexicana - something it does with mixed success. I Always eat something good here, however, and return from time to time; I still prefer the now spruced up original location on Palma. And the chiles en nogada we sampled recently were superior.
Sanborn’s (La Casa de Los Azulejos)
Calle Madero 4 corner of Eje Central, Centro
Open daily 7am–1am
Everybody in Mexico knows this venerable institution with its branches all over the country. It’s the old standby for a late-night bowl of soup or the ‘clean’ breakfast for your visiting relatives, but not generally recognized as a culinary Mecca. I thought I’d see how a chain, the oldest in the country, might do this classic dish. I went to the source, the original 18th century Casa de Azulejos in the Centro, to sample the fare. Predictably, Sanborn’s version is less carefully fashioned: the chile was undercooked, the filling bland and the sauce runny. But, not bad for corporate cooking, and for $115 pesos you also get a soup, salad, dessert and drink, all traditional Mexican recipes and all very good. Goes to prove that even our institutions still produce 'real food'.
Text and Photos © 2009/2012 Nicholas Gilman - all rights reserved