Friday, February 11, 2011

Chili Rellenos = Zen

Chili Rellenos make a special meal
     Today is that last day of Evil Dictator of Taste’s Citrus Week. But I’m closing it out with a bang. The recipe I’m sharing today, Chili Rellenos with Pink Grapefruit Salsa and Cilantro Cream, creates a really unique combination of flavors. The spicy pablano chilies stuffed with mild, yet slightly salty queso fresco balance the tart and sweet pink grapefruit, while avocado and cilantro add a little richness and harmony to all components. The black beans serve as the antagonist to the light pink grapefruit, complementing its acidity with their earthiness.

     And this is really what I tried to do during this week: showcase new combinations of flavor using citrus. I wanted to really push myself to experiment and create unusual recipes to complement the featued ingredient, citrus. Unexpectedly, there are a wide variety of very different citrus flavors. Many recipes combine several fruits to create the perfect taste. A little squeeze of lime, in combination oranges or other milder varieties of citrus, really adds that bite we think of as quintessentially citrusy. Not all ideas I came up with for Citrus Week reached fruition, leaving the door open to more experiments in citrus in the future.

Chili Rellenos with Pink Grapefruit Salsa and Cilantro Cream:
Difficulty: Ant Icon 32x32pxAnt Icon 32x32pxAnt Icon 32x32pxAnt Icon 32x32px
Time: 2 hours
Makes: 3-4 servings


8 pablano peppers, fresh
1 package queso fresco
5 eggs whites
2 cups vegetable oil
½ red onion
1 8oz can black beans
2 avocado
2 pink grapefruits, fresh
1-2 cups cilantro, fresh
1 lime
1 teaspoon honey
Spices: Salt, black pepper, paprika, chipotle, cayenne, Tapatio hot sauce, spicy chipotle hot sauce


     Begin with the peppers. Rinse and place them directly under the hot broiler in the oven. They should cook for around 7-10 minutes, but possibly longer depending on your oven. Once again, there is no exact science to this. You can tell they are done when you hear a popping sound coming from the oven. Their skins actually swell, bubble up and burst. You should hear a lot of consecutive popping. The skins also turn black in patches. When peppers are broiled, remove from the oven and place in a sealed plastic bag. If you only have grocery bags, use two of them, as they are not usually airtight. Set aside for twenty minutes or so.

     While the peppers steam inside their bag, prep the other ingredients. Slice queso fresco in long segments about ½ - ¾ inch thick and set aside. Beat egg whites in a medium bowl until stiff. Peaks should form easily. Set aside.

 Grapefruit Salsa:

     Keeping grapefruit in mind, I tried to come up with a recipe that is satisfying in both flavor and texture. I settled, as a base, on pico de gayo (meaning “rooster’s beak,” it’s chunky fresh tomato salsa). The grapefruit really serves the same purpose as tomatoes do in a salsa. They are sweet, tart and very acidic. I tried to make a traditional pico de gayo but treat the grapefruit as tomatoes.

     Prepare the black beans as directed on the can. I add a little black pepper, paprika and chipotle to mine while they heat. When hot, strain and place in a medium sized bowl.

     Peel 1 grapefruit, rind and individual sections. The skin separating grapefruit sections can be too tough and has a bitter taste. Remove it, leaving only the grapefruit “meat.” Gently slice the grapefruit meat into small, ¼ - ½ inch squares (they don’t need to look clean or perfect). Add to your black beans.

     Add red onion and 1 avocado chopped into ¼ - ½ inch sections to bowl with black beans and grapefruit. Add 1 tablespoon lime juice (about ¼ of your lime), a pinch paprika, a tablespoon of Tapatio (about 5-6 dashes) and/or chipotle hot sauce, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir gently with a fork or large spoon and set aside.
Cilantro Cream:

     Add the last avocado and cilantro to food processor. (If you don’t have a food processor, don’t make a cream, but instead leave everything a little chunky, blend with a fork and make a chunky guacamole instead.) Add juice of ½ lime and juice of ½ grapefruit, honey, and salt and pepper to taste and blend. I kept this sauce very light and citrusy, not adding any spices. I was thinking of this cream as the tonic to the spicy peppers. For a little extra creaminess, add a little yogurt or sour cream to this sauce. Or if you prefer a more avocado-centric flavor, leave mixture without. Either way it makes a creamy, rich sauce. Set aside.

Grapefruit Salsa and Cilantro Cream

     Slice the last 1/4 of lime and the last ½ grapefruit into pretty wedges, place in a small dish and set aside as garnish.

     Now return to the peppers. They should have steamed, from their own heat inside the plastic bag, to the point of slight softness and pliability. Remove their skins. The skin bubbled up during the broiling, leaving it disconnected from the pepper itself. Now it should be soft and easy to peel back. Some peppers are more difficult than others, and if needed, you can always use a paring knife.

     Cut a slice in the side of each pepper from end to end the long way. At the pepper’s top, near the stem, make another, small, horizontal cut, creating a T-shape with the first cut. Carefully remove all seeds, leaving each pepper hollow. Insert one slice of queso fresco into each pepper. The cheese slices should be about the length of the pepper. The fit should be about perfect, with the pepper not stuffed completely full of cheese but loosely filled. If you have a particularly large pepper, you may need to add more cheese or less with a particularly small pepper, but mostly the ratio of cheese to pepper should already be aligned.

Chili Rellenos sizzling
      Heat vegetable oil to medium high in medium frying pan. The two cups oil, once again, is not an exact measurement. What is needed is about an inch of very hot oil in the pan to cook the rellenos. Depending on the size of your pan, you may have to start with less and add more oil as you fry the rellenos.

     If you prefer a harder, more flavorful crust, you can add flour. To enact this modification, after coating the chilies in egg white, simple roll them in blue corn flour, and then fry them. While this modification is also delicious, I think it would overwhelm the delicate flavor of the grapefruit. Try this sometime with a spicy tomato salsa instead.

     Create an assembly line stretching across your counter to your stovetop. Begin with the stuffed chilies on a plate. Next the beaten egg whites, then the stovetop with the pan of hot oil, and last a plate for cooling, covered with paper towels to absorb extra grease. Take a pepper, coat it in egg white and place it in frying pan. The hot vegetable oil should come about halfway up the pepper. Be careful. It will sizzle immediately. If it doesn’t, your oil is not hot enough.

     Cook about 2-3 minutes, then flip and cook other side. When finished, the egg should be browned and a little puff or extra sizzle should come shooting out of the sliced side of the pepper. This little exhale is the caused by melted cheese escaping. Remove chili relleno and place on paper toweled plate. Repeat with each pepper (usually I can fit 2 or 3 in the frying pan at a time). You may need to replenish your oil during cooking.

     To serve, place two peppers on plate and top with a dollop of each salsa and cilantro cream, and a slice of lime or grapefruit. Serve with salad or rice. Due to the labor intensive nature of preparing this recipe and because the rellenos are fried in oil, I went for a simple green salad, mixing romaine hearts with spinach and topping with a homemade dressing ( olive oil, grapefruit juice, lime juice, salt, pepper, paprika and chipotle, whisked together).

    I recommend pairing this with a nice Albarino, but a Negro Modelo would also be delicious.

     I really enjoy my time in the kitchen, so a difficult recipe every once in a while, is fun for me. But it takes a time, commitment and requires focus. (Not to mention the splurge of frying something in oil, not just sautéing or steaming.) Chili rellenos are difficult to make. It’s not as simple as pasta or steak, but that’s part of what makes it so special.

     When I made these, I began tired and irritated from a long day. I laid all my ingredients out on the kitchen counter, poured a nice glass of wine, turned up the volume on my stereo and set to work. Suddenly I was smiling to myself, slicing the peppers. I had fun. Two hours later, I not only enjoyed an elaborate and tasty meal, but my mood had changed. I was relaxed and peaceful.

     Cooking is meditation. It’s not just about preparing food. It’s not a chore. It’s a choice to alter your focus. It’s an opportunity to use all your senses to create something. And you get back out of it what you put into it. Creating a truly harmonious meal far beyond compensates for the effort involved with the satisfaction gained, including but not limited to the end result. With this in mind, I urge you to go forth and create. Exert the extra effort and enjoy!


  1. I love this!!! Gorgeous photos, so appetizing, lovely descriptions and comments. We are also smiling by the time we are done reading this piece. One question I have is: How many ants are there for maximum difficulty? Evil Dictator of Taste - you keep outdoing yourself! Wonderfully.

  2. That's a great question. Five ants is most difficult. And thanks!