Cheap, Sustainable, Delicious: Chiles Rellenos

Celebrate the Fourth of July with a dish tied to Mexican independence.

chile rellenos
Make this iconic Mexican dish and you won't have to wait for Independence Day for fireworks. (Photo: Ian Knauer)
Ian Knauer worked for ‘Gourmet’ and is the author of the IACP Award–nominated cookbook ‘The Farm.’

I’ve been thinking a lot about independence, or lack thereof, as it pertains to what we eat in this country. Most of us (even those of us who read websites like this one) are extremely dependent on others for our food. To wit, when we celebrate our independence as a nation, we cook hot dogs that we depend on some huge corporation to make for us. That corporation in turn depends on industrialized farming, which depends on legislation (or lack thereof), which relies on lobbyists who depend on large corporations—well, you get the picture. That hot dog is attached to a long, heavy leash of dependency, and still we walk it over the coals time and time again.

To think, just a couple hundred years ago, we were so fed up with that sort of bureaucracy that we tossed tea into the harbor and became a nation of coffee drinkers. What has happened? More importantly, how do we fix it?

I don’t know. But here’s what I do know: This Fourth of July, instead of throwing my hard-earned American dollars the way of Hatfield, I’ll pay my local farmer for some of the peppers, spinach, and tomatoes he’s grown and take a culinary clue from our neighbors, the sovereign state of Mexico.

Of course, Mexico has its problems too, but one thing it’s got right is the dogma of its national dish of independence. It is an ode to locally grown produce, dependent on nothing but a farmer or two and a cook; the majestic incarnation of simple, inexpensive, and sustainable food: chiles rellenos.

This dish is intentionally the colors of the Mexican flag; red, green, and white. It takes simply grown produce (peppers, spinach, black beans, tomatoes) and adds a little cheese. The peppers are stuffed and covered with a rich tomato chile sauce. This version happens to be vegetarian, but it doesn’t have to be. If you care to, buy a local pig, make a hotdog stuffing, and place it inside the peppers for an independent American take on the classic. God Bless America.

Chiles Rellenos

Serves 4

For the peppers:

4 poblano peppers

3 tablespoons corn or olive oil

1/2 onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

10 ounces baby spinach

1 (14-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained

4 ounces goat cheese

For the sauce:

3 dried Mexican chiles (such as Ancho or Guajillo)

2 tablespoons corn or olive oil

1/2 onion, chopped

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 cups fresh or canned tomatoes, chopped

1 teaspoon ground cumin

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Make the stuffed peppers: Place the peppers on a grill over direct heat and blacken all over, turning occasionally, about 6 minutes. Place peppers in a bowl and cover bowl with a plate. Let peppers steam until cool, then discard skins, stems, and seeds.

Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium high heat until hot, then stir in onion and garlic along with 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper, cooking until onion is browned, about 6 minutes. Stir in spinach, a handful at a time and cook, turning with tongs until wilted. Add more spinach, turning with tongs, until all of the spinach is wilted and water from spinach has evaporated. Stir in beans and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Let filling cool, then crumble cheese into filling. Divide filling between peppers, closing peppers around filling. Place peppers in a baking dish.

Make the sauce: Discard the stems and seeds from chiles, then toast in a dry, heavy skillet over medium heat. Soak chiles in hot water until pliable, about 10 minutes.

Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat until hot, then saute onion and garlic with 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper until golden, about 6 minutes. Puree tomatoes, chiles, and cumin in a blender. Add tomatoes mixture to skillet and cook until thickened, about 10 minutes. Season sauce with salt and pepper to taste. Pour sauce over chiles in baking dish. Just before serving, heat chiles in a 350° F oven until hot.

What are you serving for your Fourth of July get-together?

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