To make chiles en nogada (chiles in walnut sauce), a hallmark of Puebla and widely considered to be Mexico’s national dish, you start by blistering the poblanos. The idea is to char and loosen the skins so that they can be peeled away, leaving the bottle-green flesh tender but firm enough to be stuffed full of the dish’s signature late-summer picadillo.
The Month of Our Country
Sources disagree about the origins of chiles en nogada: Some say it was first prepared in 1821 by Augustine nuns at Puebla’s Santa Mónica convent. Others point to a cookbook recipe from a century earlier. Either way, the dish is widely prepared every September—Mexico’s El Mes de la Patria (The Month of Our Country)—to honor the day, September 16th, when Mexico declared its War of Independence against Spanish colonization.
That filling is seasoned with not just a typical picadillo’s savory-sweet mix of garlic, raisins, olives, and warm spices but also with tomato and a bounty of seasonal fruits and nuts. You stuff the picadillo into each chile so that they brim like little cornucopias and then blanket them with velvety nogada—an ivory, delicately sweet walnut sauce that’s further enriched with tangy Mexican crema and maybe some fresh cheese. The stuffed, sauced chiles, which are served at room temperature to ease the assembly process, get a last-minute scatter of pomegranate arils and whole parsley leaves over the top so that each bite includes a burst of freshness and so the red, white, and green facade echoes the Mexican flag.
A poblano’s fruity, mellow heat; sturdy walls; and bulbous shape make it ideal for stuffing, but it’s important to be precise about the cooking: You want them to soften so that they’re malleable but not so much that they fall apart.
I broil the chiles on a rimmed baking sheet until their skins blister and then let them cool uncovered before peeling. (Wrapping them in foil makes peeling easier but also causes them to oversoften and tear.) To hollow out the center for stuffing, I slit one side lengthwise with a paring knife, cut out the seed bulb, and scoop out any remaining seeds.
Myriad versions of picadillo exist, but for chiles en nogada it contains tomato (often a salsa); minced pork and/or beef; and seasonal fruit and nuts such as peaches, pears, and pine nuts.
The tomato component can be chopped or pureed fresh or canned fruit, but I wanted some smoky complexity to capture the essence of a charred salsa that some cooks make. So I broiled plum tomatoes (as well as tomatillos for brightness) and onion, jalapeño, and garlic on the same baking sheet as I did the poblanos and then buzzed them in a blender with fresh oregano, chipotle chile en adobo, and warm spices until the sauce was smooth. Then I sautéed ground pork, deglazed the pan with dry sherry, poured in the salsa, and gently simmered the picadillo until it thickened. Cooks often simmer the fruit and nuts with the meat, but I found that letting them merely warm through off heat led to more vibrant flavors and texture. Each bite was a riot of sweet, savory, and tangy, and residual heat melded the flavors while allowing the items to retain juiciness, chew, and crunch.
Making a pristine nogada involves soaking or boiling the walnuts to loosen their skins and then scraping each one clean with a knife. But if you leave the skins on as I do, there’s nothing to do but blitz everything together in a blender—and I’d argue that the flecks of skin add subtle toastiness to the rich sauce. My sauce contains equal parts walnuts and Mexican crema plus chèvre—a distinctly European addition—for more complexity and honey, sherry, and nutmeg for sweet warmth. The sauce envelops each chile and grasps the gemlike pomegranate seeds and parsley leaves scattered over top.
It’s a patriotic feast and a project fit for the country’s Independence Day festivities, commemorating the nation’s freedom from Spanish colonization roughly 200 years ago. At the same time, chiles en nogada is a fusion of native Mexican ingredients and those brought by Spanish colonists, adding up to one of the most culturally and culinarily complex dishes in the Mexican canon.
“Cultural exchange of course comes through food,” said Vanessa Jami, a Mexico City native and San Francisco–based chef who grew up celebrating el Día de la Independencia each September with her grandmother’s chiles en nogada. “A lot of these ingredients were not available in the country before colonization,” she said, referring to components such as peaches, pomegranates, and dairy from animals such as cows and goats. “The one positive outcome (of colonization) was their introduction.”
Here’s my take, including a breakdown of the three main components with tips for preparing each one.