This magnificent dish of Stuffed Poblano Chiles in Walnut Sauce, was created in the city of Puebla by the nuns of the Santa Monica Convent in honour of the triumphant arrival of General Agustin de Iturbide, when independence from Spain was finally attained in 1821 after some not so easy negotiations with General Vicente Guerrero who was then at the head of the Insurgentes army.
Agustin de Iturbide (1782-1824), a criollo (born in Mexico of Spanish parents), having been fighting for a few years against the rebels of Insurgentes, first against José Maria Morelos y Pavon (another hero of the independence) who was captured and executed at the end of a ferocious battle, and then against General Guerrero.
Several years had passed before Iturbide realized that the royalists would never win this war and as a result, decided to present General Guerrero with a plan (Plan of Iguala) through which an independent Mexico with himself as Emperor, could be established. General Guerrero agreed to meet with him in Acatempan (The Embrace of Acatempan), in order to discuss the plan drawn out by General Iturbide.
The Plan of Iguala (March 1821) became very popular mainly due to the fact that it satisfied both parties, the Insurgentes by implementing Independence from Spain and the Peninsulares (Spaniards living in Mexico) for avoiding attacks on them and their properties.
On September 17, 1821 (Iturbide’s birthday), he marched triumphantly into Mexico City with his Ejército Trigarante (Army of the Three Guarantees). The following day Mexico was declared an independent empire and General Iturbide was crowned on July 21, 1822. He ruled as Agustin I (1822-1823), over a large territory which was bordered by Panama in the south, and by the Oregon territory in the north, including the present countries of Central America and the U.S. states of California, Texas, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. Less than a year later, Agustin de Iturbide was forced to abdicate his reign by a General Santa Ana who announced the birth of a Republic.
During his reign as Emperor of Mexico, he lived in what used to be known as the Palacio de Iturbide now Museo Palacio Cultural Banamex, a true jewel of Baroque architecture with marked Italian influence. This magnificent building was built by the Count of San Mateo Valparaiso as a wedding present for his daughter whose fiancé was of Italian descent. The building is currently a museum that holds the vast Mexican art collection of Banamex (the National Bank of Mexico) and is located in downtown Mexico City, or the Centro Histórico, just a few blocks from the Zócalo and the Cathedral where General Iturbide is buried.
During his brief Empire, Iturbide was responsible among other things, for the creation of the modern Mexican flag with its three colours, green, white and red. These colors representing the three guarantees and to honour the legacy of the Aztecs, the emblem of the cactus with the perching eagle.
The decoration of the Stuffed Poblano Chiles in Walnut Sauce (Chiles en Nogada) was clearly a political move. If there is something that gives a unique character to Mexican cuisine in my opinion, is most definitely all its sauces and moles with key ingredients such as peanuts, almonds, walnuts, and of course chiles. In fact, poblano chiles are sometimes identified outside of Mexico as the ‘stuffing’ chile, so the uniqueness of this particular dish is clearly due to its attractive decoration and the history behind it.
In Mexico, this wonderful dish is traditionally served in the fall, when the walnuts for the creamy nogada sauce are harvested in northern Mexico. The combination of the pulled pork, the sweetness of the raisins, almonds and candied fruit, with the spicy heat of the chiles, is bound to conquer refined palates anywhere.
For the filling
1 lb (500 g) pork loin
1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 large cloves garlic, chopped
½ cup chopped onion
3 large ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped
½ cup canned tomato sauce
Dash each of cinnamon, cumin, cloves
½ cup chopped cooked ham
¼ cup chopped almonds
¼ cup raisins, soaked in water
½ cup chopped, candied citron or
¼ cup each, peeled and chopped fresh apple, pear, and peach
Dash each of salt, sugar
Cook the pork loin in boiling salted water for 12 to 15 minutes or until tender. Drain and reserve the broth. When the pork is cool enough to handle, shred it with your fingers and set aside.
In a saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat and sauté the garlic and onion until the onion is transparent. Add the chopped tomatoes and tomato sauce, and continue cooking for a few minutes longer. Stir in the pork, ½ to 1 cup of the reserved broth, the cinnamon, cumin, cloves, ham, almonds, drained raisins, and citron. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 to 8 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened and the fruit is tender. Set aside to cool.
For the Sauce
1 slice of bread
½ cup milk
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 (4 oz/125 g) package cream cheese or
125 g. Mexican Queso Fresco
Dash each of cinnamon, sugar
1 teaspoon dry sherry
Soak the bread in the milk. In a blender or food processor, half an hour before serving the chiles, blend the walnuts with the cheese, soaked bread, sherry, cinnamon and sugar. The nogada sauce should be thick. Keep at room temperature until ready to serve.
Fill each chile with a spoonful of the pork mixture and carefully place each stuffed chile on a serving platter. Cover the chiles with the nogada sauce and garnish with pomegranate seeds and parsley.
Serve this festive dish at room temperature with good French bread on the side and celebrate the Mexican Independence.
Note: In later years, cooks wanting a smoother creamy sauce for the nogada, introduced cream cheese, but the original recipe called for queso fresco (fresh cheese), which fortunately, is now available anywhere in English North America where Mexican products are sold.
VIDEO: Chiles en Nogada with the World’s Premier Culinary College
Credit: Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, Texas
Here is another colourful dish that can be served as an appetizer with small corn tortillas or as a salad.
ENSALADA DE NOPALES (Cactus Leaves Salad)
Serves 4-6 as an appetizer
4-6 cactus leaves/pads, fresh or
1 (825g) jar Nopalitos or Tender Cactus,*
1 tsp. salt
4-6 tbsp. finely chopped onion
2-4 Serrano chiles, chopped
4 sprigs fresh cilantro, washed and chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
Salt & pepper
1 large fresh tomato, sliced
1/2 cup Feta cheese, crumbled
Peel cactus leaves and remove thorns, if any. Wash with running water and slice into strips. Transfer cactus strips to a dry saucepan and cook at very low temperature stirring occasionally, for approximately 6 to 8 minutes or until the sap is gone completely and nopalitos are tender. Depending on the altitude, they might need to be cooked in water beforehand. Drain and cool.
In a salad bowl, mix nopales with the onion, chile, cilantro, oregano and olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Top salad with the tomato slices and the cheese.
Serve with warm tortillas.
*Cooked nopalitos would still need to be placed on a dry saucepan for a few minutes to remove the sap completely. I recommend La Costeña brand.
I hope you’ve enjoyed a little more on history of Mexico, the history of the Mexican Independence, Chiles en Nogada, and a simple but delicious Nopalitos Salad recipe. Please comment below your thoughts, and what you’d like me to write about if you have any suggestions. I’d love to hear them!
Maria Elena Cuervo-Lorens is the author of Mexican Culinary Treasures cookbook. She takes you back to her childhood, spent around her grandmother’s table on a shopping expedition with her mother to Mercado La Merced, and for a merienda (snack) of café con leche and bizcochos (Mexican sweet rolls) at a bakery in downtown Mexico City. The authentic Mexican recipes she shares with us include tacos, quesadillas and enchiladas. The nouvelle cuisine of cosmopolitan Mexico City, such as cuitlacoche (huitlacohe) crepes, oysters with chipotle chile.