Chiles rellenos—a pillar of the Lenten table in Mexico—belong to a culinary category of their own: the deep-fried soufflé. The dish's crowd appeal stems from the delightful tension between the ethereality of the egg batter and the funk of chili heat and drooling cheese.
Fiesta Grill, the characteristically packed tin-shack eatery on the western outskirts of Chapel Hill (3307 Hwy. 54 West, 928-9002, www.fiestagrill.us), serves a textbook version: Anaheims, jalapeños or poblanos stuffed with cheese, coated in a yolk-enriched batter of whipped egg whites, fried until golden and nestled in a pool of piquant ranchero sauce. The poblanos look frighteningly large by the standards of deep-fried food, but they depress into a few airy bites.
The key is the batter. A good batter becomes a pillowy cocoon; a careless or clueless batter becomes an oil-sodden weight that should be scraped off and piled at the side of the plate as a derisive editorial statement for the benefit of the waiter and dishwasher.
Fiesta Grill has been doing line-out-the-door business since it opened in 2002. The owners, Jesus Bravo, Jesus Carrasco and Fernando Rodriguez, met while making their livings in the restaurant trenches of the West Coast.
"We used to cook together in California," says Bravo, "Jesus [Carrasco] would call his mom whenever he needed recipes. 'Mom, how do you make this? Mom, how do you make that?' Whatever he cooks is Mama's recipe. Our recipes are truly home cooking."
"Most moms in Mexico—I don't know about now, but before, when we were young— were very good cooks. All they did was cook, cook, cook. So we received good advice."
In Mexico, says Bravo, poblanos are the classic stuffing chili, but they can be inconsistent: sometimes mellow, sometimes fiery. To ensure that customers are not unpleasantly surprised, Fiesta Grill offers a choice of mild Anaheims and searing jalapeños.
During the Lenten season, however, the restaurant reverts to the classic poblanos: gnarled, dark green hulks that look like green peppers in a surly mood. Bravo says that chiles rellenos are standard fare on Good Friday in particular.
"Chiles rellenos are very traditional on that day. We don't eat meat on Thursday, Friday and Saturday [of Easter week], so the chiles rellenos fill in. Mostly poblanos."
Fiesta Grill serves its chiles rellenos in a tomato-based ranchero sauce prepared in industrial quantities. I have adapted the sauce for the home kitchen, taking a few liberties— specifying, for example, the more expensive but unfailingly flavorful Muir Glen tomatoes.
Thoroughly purée the tomatoes and juices in a blender. Fry the minced garlic and onion in 3 tbs. olive oil until lightly browned, about five minutes. Add the puréed tomatoes and stock, followed by the spices. Simmer on medium-low heat until the sauce has thickened and cohered, about 30 minutes. Add the final tablespoon of olive oil for sheen. The sauce should have the consistency of a loose coulis. It should not be tomato-pasty or chunky. If it thickens unduly, add more stock.
Bake the chiles at 450 degrees for 20 minutes or until the skin has blistered and loosened slightly from the flesh, flipping occasionally to ensure an even effect. The finished chiles should be soft but not mushy or fragile. Sweat the hot chiles for 10 minutes in an airtight freezer bag or plastic container (this further loosens the skin). Let the chiles cool and peel the skin. Make a small lengthwise incision and remove the seeds. Cut the cheese into rectangular blocks and insert.
Heat the oil to 350 degrees. While the oil heats, separate the eggs. Beat the egg whites until voluminous and stiff, as for a soufflé. Add the quarter cup of flour, lightly beating until incorporated. Add the egg yolks, again lightly beating until incorporated. Dredge the chiles in flour and dip them in the batter, coating thoroughly (be sure to coat the incision so the cheese does not leech into the oil). Deep-fry, flipping once, until the chiles are uniformly golden. Generously ladle the sauce over the chiles and sprinkle with crumbled queso fresco. Serve hot.
Notes: There's no consensus on the best way to flay a poblano. Some bake them in the oven; some grill them under the broiler; some toast them over the open flame of the gas range. These methods are presumably equally effective. Baking, however, has two advantages: You can prepare as many as a dozen chiles simultaneously and you can entirely ignore them while they cook. Fiesta Grill takes, and I second, this approach.
The batter recipe neatly scales up and down: calculate one egg and one tablespoon of flour per poblano.
The critical variable is cheese. Supermarket-grade Monterrey Jack becomes a puddle of pus-like semitranslucent goo. Ask your local cheesemonger to recommend a more refined Mexican-compatible melting cheese, either Monterrey Jack or—in a pinch—cheddar.
A single chili makes a light entrée or hefty appetizer. A dinner portion of two poblanos is not outrageous, but some belt loosening may be required.
Chiles rellenos can be prepared in stages. The sauce can be made hours or even days in advance. The poblanos can be baked, peeled and stuffed hours ahead of time. The fried poblanos can be kept warm for 10 or 15 minutes in a 200-degree oven.