“A chile relleno doesn’t have to be heavy,” says Arnaldo Richards, the owner of Pico’s in Houston (1427 Lomitas, near Kirby and Southwest Freeway). That’s why he has composed a luscious vegetarian version of Mexico’s traditional pork-stuffed pepper. He eschews the usual egg batter and deep frying in favor of fire roasting and marinating. In place of the normal meat filling, he uses nutty-flavored wild rice sparked with raisins, slivered almonds, tart green olives, and jewellike dried cranberries. The only thing he hasn’t tinkered with is the sybaritic walnut sauce—a blend of cream, queso fresco, and sherry. Some customs are too sacred to change.
1/4 cup walnut pieces
1/2 cup boiling water (or enough to cover)
1/4 cup milk
1 1/2 cups crème fraîche or crema mexicana
1/4 cup cream sherry
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 ounces queso fresco or mild feta cheese
Place walnuts in a bowl and cover with water. Let soak for 5 minutes. Drain the walnuts and soak in milk, refrigerated, for at least 2 hours. Drain and remove the thickest, darkest parts of the skins, then purée in a blender with 1/2 cup of crème fraîche, sherry, sugar, salt, and queso fresco. Pour mixture into a bowl and fold in remaining crème fraîche. Refrigerate.
8 medium poblano chiles
1/2 medium yellow onion, halved
6 garlic cloves
1 1/2 cups olive oil
2 cups water
1 cup tarragon vinegar
Roast chiles over a medium flame, turning to char slightly (too much charring will make them bitter). Let chiles sweat in a plastic bag for 5 to 10 minutes. Remove skin. Cut chiles lengthwise and remove seeds and veins.
Cook onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until soft. Remove and drain onion mixture, reserving the oil. Reduce heat to low, then cook chiles in same oil for 20 seconds each. Remove and drain chiles; reserve oil. In a nonreactive pan, bring water and vinegar to a simmer; remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes. Pour mixture over chiles in a glass bowl and soak for 30 minutes. Drain chiles, cover and refrigerate.
1/4 cup raw peanuts
2 medium tomatoes, roasted, peeled, and seeded (or canned tomatoes, seeded and peeled but not roasted)
1 1/2 quarts vegetable stock (approximately)
2 tablespoons tarragon vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of ground white pepper
1 bay leaf
1/3 cup slivered almonds
3/4 cup long-grain white rice
3/4 cup wild rice (or use all wild rice)
2 tablespoons raisins
1/4 cup pimiento-stuffed green olives, sliced
Seeds from 1 fresh pomegranate (or 1/2 cup dried cranberries, soaked in small amount of cream sherry) for garnish
Sprigs of flat parsley for garnish
Cook peanuts in reserved oil from previous recipe until golden brown. Remove from heat, let cool, and take skins off; reserve oil. Combine peanuts, tomatoes, and onion-garlic mixture in a blender and purée. Combine peanut mixture, 1/2 cup of reserved oil, and enough vegetable stock to make 2 quarts in an ovenproof stock pot. Add vinegar, sugar, white pepper, and bay leaf and cook over medium heat until reduced by half, about 1 or 2 hours. Remove bay leaf.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Dry-roast almonds for 15 to 20 minutes and set aside. Add rice to stock pot and bring to a boil, stirring to keep rice from sticking. Cover tightly and bake for 30 minutes or until liquid has been absorbed. Remove from oven and stir in almonds, raisins, and olives. Cover and keep warm.
To serve, fluff rice mixture and fill chiles; do not overstuff. Warm in oven if desired, or serve chilled or at room temperature. Put about a 1/4 cup of walnut sauce on each plate and arrange 2 peppers on top of sauce. Garnish with pomegranate seeds or cranberries and parsley. Serves 4.
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