Sunday, September 16, 2007

Heaven on a Plate

It's been a while since I've posted, but that's because we're still here at Manzano, having a grand time.

Staying in one place has been a real delight, with revelations we never expected. One of the best parts of this journey has been making new friends, particularly the family that resides full time here at Manzano. This includes Harold (the official New Mexico State Park Ranger), his wife Holly and their three year old son Hunter (with whom we have developed an amazing bond, but that's another story).

Having had enough time to get to know these fine folks has been a true gift, and one that we appreciate daily. Both Harold and Holly are New Mexico natives and they have been very patient in teaching us the ways of New Mexico. I am constantly being reminded that the plural of chili is chili, NOT chilies!

Both Terry and I love chili rellenos and have been eating them all over New Mexico, with decidedly mixed results. While the rellenos at a small restaurant in Santa Rosa were beyond belief, most have resembled nothing so much as a soggy corn dog! My idea of a perfect relleno is a lovely green chili stuffed with cheese in a light batter, gently fried to a brown crisp.

When you bite into it, there should be an ideal marriage of batter, chili and cheese. Alas, this perfect concoction has been few and far between in our travels.

I was discussing this with Holly and she offered to teach me to make chili rellenos the authentic New Mexican way. Since she has been cooking chili in its' various forms since she was a girl (taught by her Mother and Grandmother) how could I refuse?

We started with two large bags of fresh chili, Big Jims for us and a hotter variety for Harold and Holly. We fired up the gas grill and began charring the chili so we could peel them. The smell of this process is pure heaven! After they were sufficiently blistered, we removed them to a large terry cloth towel where they were wrapped for several minutes so the chili meat could continue to steam and loosen the skins.

Next was the peeling. This part was kind of delicate. I had previously helped Holly to peel a gunny sack full of chili, and these had been tricky, but since these would be chopped up for freezing not a lot of precision was involved.

For our chili relleno, we had to be a lot more careful. Ideally, you want to keep the stem intact while managing to get the skin off the chili without breaking the meat of the chili itself. Klutz that I am, it took me a while to get the hang of it, but after a while we were peeling right along.

I found this whole process to be quite a joyful task. Sitting outside with my new friend, talking about girl things and her life growing up in New Mexico, it felt for me what old time quilting bees must have been for the pioneer women. A shared task, accomplished with pleasure and fellowship.

After getting some three dozen chili roasted and peeled, we next had to prepare the cheese. Holly swears by Velveeta for this and I of course bow to her superior culinary experience. We proceeded to cut the cheese into sticks, about half to two thirds the length of the chili.

Now comes the tricky part. You have to take the peeled chili (which has become somewhat slimy and sticky at the same time) and make a slice into one side into which you insert the cheese. Then you VERY gently do your best to seal the slit with the cheese safely tucked inside. This is an important step!

Now that we had all the chili stuffed and sealed, they went into the freezer to firm up for about an hour. We used this time to clean up the mess we'd previously created. Those chili peels were everywhere! When they dry out they take on a papery texture and seem to fly all over the place, fitting themselves into every nook and cranny.

Then we began the last step, which is the all important batter and frying. For oil, we used a simple vegetable oil heated to just below smoking in a cast iron pan. The wash is simply a few eggs and some milk. After thoroughly coating the chili, we dredged them in a mixture of half flour and half breadcrumbs (Holly says corn meal will also work). For seasoning, make sure to salt this mixture generously. Next, we put them into the oil and off they go! When browned to a nice golden color, we placed them in a gas grill (heat on very low). Before we knew it, they were all cooked.

And there we had it, Heaven on a Plate, guaranteed.

The joy of serving this to friends and family was an added reward, knowing we had prepared this completely from scratch. I recommend you try the combination of preparation, friendship and food, it just can't be beat.

Life is good.