Chiles Saliva-tion

Janos Wilder pays homage to all that's great and delicious about chiles rellenos

If I had to choose one kind of food to eat day in and day out for the rest of my life, it would be chiles rellenos. For me, they're the ultimate comfort food. I ate my first chiles rellenos in 1981 at a Mexican restaurant in Charleston, S.C., and I was instantly hooked. Since then, I've rarely ordered anything else off a Mexican menu.

The best rellenos I've ingested have been found, consistently, at Mi Nidito, on South Fourth Avenue. The worst would be a tie between a culinary monstrosity I had the misfortune to procure at a Food City deli, and a purported chile relleno I ordered at a Denny's-like dive in California. It was more like a dish sponge that had been left out on the back porch for several months and then soaked overnight in grease.

Other than some great chiles rellenos prepared by a friend, I had only dined on restaurant rellenos until recently, when I read The Great Chiles Rellenos Book by Tucson chef Janos Wilder. This book, an homage to one of the Southwest's "cultural culinary icons," is stuffed with mouth-watering photographs, little-known facts about chiles and, of course, recipes. It considerably expanded my chiles rellenos horizons and motivated me to try my hand at making some--but more on that later.

I must confess, for a rellenos-phile, that my knowledge of chiles rellenos--and about chiles in general--was scant. Now, however, thanks to Wilder, I know that Spanish settlers were the first to cultivate chiles in the Southwest; that Anaheim chiles are hybridized (and milder) descendants of New Mexico chiles; that you can tame the heat of jalapeños by poaching them in milk; and that Pearce, Ariz., is home to a company that breeds high-quality chiles and sells the seeds worldwide.

I also learned how chiles rellenos are made, a process I had only vague ideas about before. Wilder, who opened his first Tucson restaurant in 1983 and presently runs two upscale eateries at the Westin La Paloma, provides detailed instructions on how to prepare rellenos, from skinning the chiles and deseeding them--most of a chile's fire is kindled in the seeds and white membrane--to stuffing, battering and cooking them. (Traditional recipes, Wilder notes, often eschew battering and frying in favor of baking.)

What really surprised me, though, was the diversity of the recipes. I've tried the spinach and walnut relleno at Maya Quetzal on North Fourth, but, other than that, my relleno consumption has been mainly limited to the basic cheese-dominated rellenos that you find all over town.

Wilder sets forth a panoply of exotic recipes such as lobster and black-bean rellenos with champagne sauce; mango, apple and Roquefort rellenos; Oaxacan lamb barbacoa rellenos; a breakfast relleno in which chiles containing chorizo, eggs and cheese are encased and cooked in pancake batter; and Chiles en Nogado, a meat, vegetable and fruit relleno, covered with walnut sauce, that is said to have been created to celebrate Mexico's liberation from Spanish rule.

Wilder also includes recipes for chiles rellenos casseroles and poppers (bite-size rellenos); a variety of batters, breadings, salads and side dishes; and some sauces, salsas, relishes and dressings.

So, armed with cooking skills that would rank fairly low on the competence continuum, I set out to make some chiles rellenos of my own. Choosing a recipe for goat-cheese and sun-dried tomatoes rellenos--primarily because it seemed pretty simple--I informed my wife that I was going to make dinner.

It wasn't long, however, before she took pity on me and came to my rescue. As I mixed the stuffing, which also contained cilantro and scallions, Sharon heated the chiles on the gas stove. The procedure took longer than I expected, but once the chiles had blackened and cooled, the skins slipped off as easily as ego off the Buddha. This process, though, left them fairly thin and torn (Wilder writes that heating chiles with a propane torch will leave them the firmest) and not very amenable to stuffing. After deseeding them, we laid them on the cutting board like a row of little canoes, loaded them with the mix, slathered on some batter and plopped them in the frying pan.

They ended up looking more like slender stuffed peppers than chiles rellenos, but they were delicious--tangy, sweet and robust--and the leftovers, having blended flavors overnight, were even better.

Whether you're a master chef like Wilder or, like me, barely capable of scrambling eggs, if you're a chiles rellenos lover, this book will certainly beguile your taste buds and, most likely, send you salivating toward the kitchen.

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