Oh, what joy! Restaurants at Lake Chapala are now serving chiles en nogada – stuffed mild poblano chiles in walnut sauce – for several months in late summer and early fall, not just on Mexico’s September 16th Independence Day.
How this entrée, created in a bit of culinary panic, came to be traditional holiday fare includes a bit of fun Mexican history. Mexico’s first head of state after the 11-year war for independence that began September 16, 1810, was an emperor. General Agustin de Iturbide had no links to royalty. He did receive Spain’s surrender and he helped draft the constitution based on his plan for equality and freedom of religion. Mexico was founded as an independent constitutional monarchy, with an emperor, not the presidential republic, it is now.
Emperor Iturbide paid a surprise visit to Puebla on August 28th, the feast day of Saint Agustin, so he could celebrate the feast of his patron saint with the Augustinian nuns at the convent of Santa Monica, named for the patron saint’s mother. Inspired by the patriotic fervor sweeping Mexico, the nuns created a culinary masterpiece of flavors and textures with the dried and preserved foods on hand and the seasonal produce they grew. Imagine the flurry in the convent kitchen when shocked nuns discovered who was unexpectedly coming to dinner.
Platters of poblano chiles stuffed with chopped meats, nuts and fruits stunned the emperor and his dinner guests. The new flag’s green stripe and the chiles symbolize independence and hope. The red stripe and the pomegranate seed garnish are an emblem of patriotism and of the blood of Mexico’s national heroes. The creamy white sauce, made from freshly harvested nogales (walnuts), embodies the unity, purity and honesty of the flag’s center section.
Every bite of truly good chiles en nogada is an endless surprise and a source of delight, as movie goers noted when the iconic dish hit the big time in Laura Esquivel’s book “Like Water for Chocolate” and the movie by the same name. Wedding guests, so overwhelmed with waves of passion from the chiles en nogada, rushed from the table to clandestine mating under stairs, in closets and on the riverbank.
There’s no question that the nuns in Puebla knew their way around those kitchens. The sisters at the Convent of Santa Clara created rompope, that delightful Mexican liqueur that reminds tasters of eggnog. Indeed, it adds a holiday flair and a bit of zip to desserts, cinnamon tea or coffee.
The most viable of several legends tied to the origin of mole poblano, the famous dark, complex, chocolate-tinged sauce, is attributed to the nuns at the Convent of Santa Rosa. An angel appeared to guide the flustered 17th century nuns as they prepared the special meal for their surprise guest, the archbishop. While the freshly butchered turkey simmered, the good sisters blanched, steeped, boiled, ground, chopped and blended ingredients for a sauce that was a lasting hit.
Maybe a legend adds an extra dollop of sazon (seasoning and flavor) to traditional dishes, especially when the recipe and legend have a historical Mexican convent setting and solve the problem of what to feed an important surprise guest.
Did you know? The full name of Puebla (the town, not the state) is Puebla de los Angeles (the city of angels). Mole is a two-syllable word for savory sauces with 25 or more ingredients. Unsweetened chocolate is just one ingredient in mole poblano; that doesn’t make it “chocolate sauce” or even “chocolate flavored,” as the uninitiated often proclaim. And, the word poblano, as in poblano chiles or mole poblano announces the origin of the item is Puebla, the city or the state.