How to Master Flavorful Chiles Rellenos

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Whether traditional or smothered, chiles rellenos are a crowd-pleaser. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Why are chiles rellenos an afterthought in Tex- and Cal-Mex restaurants? They're always folded in among the "other things to put on a combination platter" section of the menu. It's a shame, because they're consistently among my favorite things to order. I get it from my parents, who would always order chiles rellenos and frozen margaritas when we'd head out to El Torito, the California-based chain that at one point had branches stretching from coast to coast. (I never learned to love frozen margaritas.) Chiles rellenos, mind you, are not just a Tex-Mex thing. They have a real presence south of the border, though in Mexico you probably won't find them smothered in neon orange cheese, as you often do in the US.

They were also one of the very first dishes I learned how to cook, using the method that my dad taught me: Open up a can of Ortega roasted whole chilies, carefully unroll them onto paper towels, and slip a slice of Jack cheese inside each. Those chilies came without tops (or a hint of roasted flavor), which meant you had to be very careful when battering them if you wanted to ensure that molten cheese didn't come pouring out of the opening as they fried. Once the chilies were fried, we'd eat them with a pop-top can of Herdez salsa ranchera, letting the spicy salsa soak into the fluffy, golden egg batter.

I'm pretty sure that the only reason we used canned chilies back then is that it wasn't possible to get good fresh Poblano peppers in New York in the early '80s. That's not a problem anymore (and certainly not an issue near my current home in the Bay Area), and both my recipe and my technique have improved since those early can-based days. I've experimented with various chili-roasting methods and dozens of batter recipes and techniques, and I've finally nailed that salsa. Here's what I've learned.

Roasting Chilies

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The first step for any chiles rellenos is to roast the chilies, which not only adds flavor and softens them but also allows you to peel off their papery skins. There are a number of ways you can go about this. The best method is over an open flame, either on a hot grill outdoors or directly over a gas flame on an indoor burner. (I've seen people try to roast chilies directly on an electric coil burner, but it doesn't work so well.) If you've got a torch, that also works great. These methods rapidly char the skin, making it easy to peel the chilies without softening them too much, which allows you to retain brighter chili flavor.

But there are other things to consider. Most importantly, we're also going to be making a salsa ranchera for this recipe, with charred tomatoes, serrano chilies, onion, and garlic. With so many vegetables to char, I find it easiest to just throw them all on a foil-lined baking sheet and toss them under a broiler, turning the chilies until they're blistered all over.

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It takes about 15 minutes total, by which point the salsa ranchera vegetables are also ready to go.

As soon as everything comes out of the broiler, I toss the salsa ingredients into a food processor and process them into a chunky purée, along with some cilantro. Meanwhile, I wrap up the chilies in the same foil from the baking sheet, which helps them to steam and gets their skins to release more easily. You could season the salsa at this stage and call it a day, but I like to subject it to a searing step to really deepen its flavor.

The idea of searing liquids is not common in, say, most European cuisines, but it's a crucial step in many Mexican recipes. To do it, I heat up some lard or vegetable oil in a saucepan until it's just starting to smoke. I then immediately dump all of the salsa into the pot, giving it a violent sizzle before letting it reduce a bit to further concentrate its flavor.

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Some chicken stock ensures that it has the right consistency. You're looking for something between a soup and a commercial jarred salsa here. There's going to be plenty of fluffy coating on the chilies to absorb this sauce down the line.

The Filling

You can keep things really simple here and go for straight-up grated Jack cheese in the filling—I often do enjoy the simplicity and clean flavors of a straight cheese filling—but, to make it a little heartier and provide extra texture, some chorizo makes a good addition. Of course, the filling is entirely up to you. I've seen Rick Bayless make a cheese and shrimp version; I've had fillings with no cheese at all, instead using a picadillo of ground pork seasoned with warm spices, raisins, and olives. Chicken tinga would also taste good. But chorizo is a nice, simple add-in.

You want to seek out raw, Mexican-style chorizo, not the dry-cured Spanish-style or precooked varieties. If you can't find fresh chorizo, you can either make it yourself or just use plain ground pork. (There's plenty of other interesting stuff going on here.)

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I sauté an onion in a little vegetable oil, add a big pinch of Mexican oregano, then add the pork, breaking it up with a wooden spoon and cooking it until it's heated through before adding it to my bowl of grated cheese. The hot pork helps the cheese melt just a bit, which makes the filling denser, stickier, and easier to place inside the chilies without falling apart.

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There are a couple of tricky steps coming up. The first is peeling the chilies without tearing them. The skins should come off quite easily, but sometimes they like to stick and end up tearing holes into the chilies' flesh below. Just peel carefully, be patient, and you'll be rewarded. If you have a torch (a crème brûlée torch or a larger butane or propane torch will work), you can briefly torch areas where the skin seems to be sticking to burn it off. Don't worry if you have a few stray scraps of stubborn skin—so long as you get the bulk of it, nobody will complain.*

* And if they do complain, I would suggest that you not invite them to dinner next time.

Once the skins are off, make a single slit down one side of each chili and carefully remove the seeds. Again, you don't need to get every last seed; just most of them is fine. This should leave plenty of room for the stuffing. You want the chilies to be quite plump by the time you're done here.

Battered and Fried

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Chile relleno batter is as simple as it gets: eggs and a little flour. How you treat those simple ingredients, though, can have an impact on the texture of the fried batter. Whisk the eggs and flour together and you get something thin and eggy. Beat the whites to stiff peaks and gently fold them into whisked yolks, and you get something gigantically poofy. I like mine somewhere in the middle, which means whipping up the whites until they're stiff, then whisking in the yolks one at a time, finishing by whisking in just a touch of flour. (One tablespoon per egg is the ratio I use.)

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The last tricky step is coating the chilies and getting them into the oil. If your chilies are nice and firm, you're in luck: The easiest method is to hold them by the stems and dip them into the batter. (A couple of toothpicks to hold the seam closed can help during this phase as well.) Most of the time, however, the stem will be too weak to hold up the stuffed chili without falling off, which means going in and getting your hands messy. Start by rolling the chilies in a plate of flour to get the exteriors dry and help the batter cling better. Next, place them one at a time into the bowl of batter and turn them until they're coated, or you can spoon extra batter over the top.

To fry them, I find it easiest to just use my hands, though a slotted metal fish spatula will also work. I very carefully slip the coated chilies into a pan filled with about half an inch of oil heated to 375°F, the right temperature to get the chilies golden brown without turning them too greasy or soggy in the process. If there are any bare spots on top, you can patch them up by dolloping a little batter onto them. After browning the first side, I carefully roll them over to brown the second.

That said, chiles rellenos, by their nature, are a little greasy and soggy. Most fried foods come out crisp and light. Not these. The fried batter should be tender and fluffy, almost like a poofy omelette (which is essentially what it is). Just like Japanese tempura served in broth, the beauty of chiles rellenos is the way that soft batter soaks up the soupy salsa.

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This is good news if all of this deep-frying and battering has stressed you out. Of all the fried foods in the world, chiles rellenos hold up the best to a reheat. Bake them in the oven on a rack and they'll even crisp up slightly more than they did straight out of the fryer.

At the Cal-Mex and Tex-Mex restaurants where I grew up eating these, they'd come smothered in sauce, with a ton of bright orange shredded cheese. Traditionally, you'll find a much more demure presentation, with just a bit of salsa on top, the cheese all hiding inside.

That said, I'm not always in a demure mood. You want to get down and dirty with your chiles rellenos? Here's what I suggest: Completely smother them in extra stuffing mixture before baking.

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Why is it that every time I make chiles rellenos, I end up with a me relleno instead?