I will tell you straight out that this dish is hard to make.” So says Linda West Eckhardt in her Only Texas Cookbook, an exhaustive compendium of Texas comestibles that includes instructions for such easy weeknight meals as calf fries and chicken-fried rattlesnake. Indeed, the general consensus regarding the preparation of this Mexican delicacy is that, much like tree trimming and root canals, it’s a complex procedure best left to the professionals. And there are plenty of experts—H&H, in El Paso; Avila’s, in Dallas—happy to serve you a good one. But a home-cooked chile relleno (literally “stuffed chile”) is a challenge worth taking on, not only for the satisfaction of outmaneuvering recalcitrant chile peppers, fickle hot oil, and temperamental eggs but also (and especially) for the end result: a lusty, fire-sweetened poblano swaddled in a golden-brown cloud of soufflé-like batter, packed with fillings like savory raisin-studded pork picadillo or melty white cheese, and drizzled with a piquant tomato sauce that cuts through all that richness. If the first batch doesn’t go well, don’t throw up your batter-covered hands and sink to your knees on your grease-slicked kitchen floor. Practice really does make perfect. I’m telling you straight out.
6 tomatoes, quartered
1/4 white onion
1 clove garlic
pinch of Mexican cinnamon (canela)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup chicken broth
Combine first four ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Meanwhile, heat the vegetable oil in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in the tomato mixture (watch out for splatter) and bring to a gentle boil. Add the chicken broth, reduce heat, and allow to simmer for about 20 minutes. Add salt to taste and keep warm.
4 poblano peppers (and maybe a few extras, to replace the ones you mess up)
Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
4 cold eggs
Wash and dry the peppers. Roast over a gas flame, turning frequently, until the skin is blackened and blistered all over (you can also roast them in the broiler under high heat, turning them halfway through, but this method cooks the chiles a bit more, making them softer, so you’ll have to be careful not to tear them when stuffing). Put roasted chiles in a sealed plastic bag and allow them to steam for about 10 minutes. Using a clean dish towel or your fingers (wear gloves if you’re sensitive), gently scrape away the skin from the peppers. With a paring knife, make a slit in the chile from the stem end to the bottom, being careful not to cut all the way through. Remove the seed pod and as much of the seeds as you can. Season the inside of the peppers with a little salt, then stuff them with the shredded cheese. Don’t overstuff; the sides of the chiles should be able to come together.
Pour about 2 inches of vegetable oil into a deep, heavy skillet and heat to around 360 degrees (use a thermometer; if your oil isn’t hot enough, you’ll have a flabby, grease-sodden chile).
Meanwhile, separate your eggs, yolks in one bowl and whites in the other; be sure not to get any yolk in the whites. Beat the whites until stiff peaks form (it’s ready if you can turn the bowl over and nothing falls out). Whisk the yolks with a pinch of salt, then add to the whites and beat at low speed until incorporated, just a few seconds. Do this step when you’re ready to fry, so the batter doesn’t deflate.
Roll the stuffed chiles in flour, then roll them in the egg batter to coat (the batter will “seal” the cheese inside the chile when fried). Gently lower the chiles into the oil, one or two at a time (don’t crowd the skillet). Allow to fry for 3 to 4 minutes, spooning hot oil over the top of the chiles, then turn them over and repeat. When they’re golden-brown, remove from the skillet and drain on paper towels. Serve hot with tomato sauce and a couple of spoonfuls of rice.
(Recipe serves 4.)