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On The Range: Chiles Rellenos

Poblano peppers or Anaheim?

When making chiles rellenos, the chef must first consider which pepper might better serve his or her vision of the completed dish. Indeed, they are similar and both are widely used, but tasting reveals subtle but noticeable differences. The leaner Anaheim pepper is actually American in origin, specifically New Mexico by way of California, and its flavor is often more delicate--which some might argue serves as a better canvas for the stuffing and sauce. The slightly more robust Poblano is truly Mexican, having borrowed its name from the state of Puebla, where it originated.

When dried the Poblano is called an 'Ancho' and can no longer be stuffed, but is useful in making moles. Needless to say, Ancho-based moles are the pride of Pueblan or Oaxacan cuisine.

In The Cuisines of Mexico, Diana Kennedy describes a lengthy traditional preparation which includes roasting Poblanos in a broiler until the skin blisters, stuffing with pork tomatillo, coating the pepper in an egg-white batter, then frying it before finally serving in a tomato-based broth. If queso de Oazaca is used in place of the tomatillo, the resulting dish is called Chiles Rellenos de Queso.

Not surprisingly, the more pragmatic Robb Walsh notes that since the egg-white batter is tedious to make, his recipe borrowed from Austin Tex-Mex joint Darios has the chef instead wrapping the chile in a thin omelet. He has also changed the Darios recipe to employ Poblanos rather than Anaheims because they are easier to work with.

As usual, Rick Bayless, author of Mexico: One Plate at a Time, warbles positively poetic about the joys of the not-so-simple relleno:

"The Ideal Chile Relleno....champions a heavenly whipped-egg softness, giving way to a roasted-pepper juiciness encasing rich pork mincemeat bejeweled with nuts (almonds or pecans) and dried fruit (raisins or seasonal Pueblan fruits). One bite and all distractions cease. While most Americans think 'fried' equates to 'crunchy,' that's not part of the picture here--classic chile relleno batter is a souffle batter, tender and comforting. And, to underscore that texture, the most classic preparation calls for dousing the chile with tangy tomato broth, which soaks into the golden envelope and gives it an even more voluptuous texture."

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Talk about food porn. And try telling all that to Iron Chef Bobby Flay, who coats his chile with crunchy cornmeal batter and deftly weaves roasted eggplant, manchego cheese, sweet red pepper sauce, and balsamic vinegar into an upscale Southwestern tapestry at his Mesa Grill in Las Vegas.

Locally, chile relleno as transcendent experience can be enjoyed courtesy of the late, great Matt Martinez, whose culinary skills have wowed celebrities as diverse as Lady Bird Johnson, John Denver (not that they necessarily know good food) and Julia Child (who did). At Lakewood's Matt's Rancho Martinez, they still make the dish his exacting standards, employing hand-battered Anaheim peppers, stuffed with beef, chicken or cheese, and topped with spicy tomatillo or mild ranchero sauce, sour cream, and mixed cheeses. Texas pecans add just enough crunch, and raisins provide just a whisper of sweetness--all of which leads to a surprisingly restrained yet complex flavor profile.

How's that for food porn?

The resulting dish is good enough to suggest that Anaheim peppers be given the nod. But as with all Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking, further research is always fun.

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