March 2021: I spent the first two weeks of this new year in the state of Nayarit, Mexico, located on the Pacific coast, just north of Puerto Vallarta. Most people travel to Puerto Vallarta to enjoy the beaches and perfect weather, and I did my share of that. But, the main reason I went was to meet Chef Alondra Maldronado, a cookbook author who has lived her entire life in the state of Nayarit.
Alondra and I cooked for four days, where she taught me about the history of the ingredients and recipes that have been passed down since the Spanish conquest in the late 1500s. The Spanish brought spices, wheat, sugar and pork to Mexico, which are now a huge part of Mexican cuisine. Many Filipinos and Chinese traveled on Spanish ships as slaves, and made their homes in Mexico. The Chinese taught the fishermen how to dry shrimp for preservation, and today some of the best dried shrimp is from Nayarit. Alondra and I made dried shrimp tamales and ceviche, using recipes that have been shared for centuries.
One of the main ingredients in Mexican cooking is chiles, both fresh and dried. They are used in many different ways, and each variety adds a different element of flavor and heat. The most common way chiles are used is in salsa (sauce), which is prepared every day in Mexican kitchens, and used to accompany nearly every dish. Alondra and I made at least 10 different salsas, including fresh, smoked and fire-roasted. We also stuffed poblano chiles with local cheese, and dried ancho chiles with steamed shrimp.
After four days of cooking, Alondra took me on a drive up the coast to her hometown of Tepic. We spent the entire day stopping at beach cafes, eating ceviche, oysters, and redfish cooked over open fires in the sand. In Tepic we visited a small cheese factory where we sampled three different cheeses made from the milk of mountain cows. We spent another day cooking in Alondra’s apartment, preparing refried beans and homemade corn tortillas to dip in charred tomato salsa.
Cooking with Alondra filled me with so much knowledge and appreciation for the ingredients and efforts that go into making the traditional foods of Mexico. The importance of salsa, the simplicity of ingredients, and the stories behind Alondra’s recipes gives me a deeper appreciation for not only Mexican food in general, but particularly the food from the state of Nayarit. Like most countries in the world, the food and traditions change from corner to corner, making each place within special and unique. It is the same in Nayarit, but I not only gained knowledge in its food, I gained a new and dear friend named Alondra.
Stuffed Poblano with Red Chile Sauce
2 dried ancho chilesRed Chile Sauce:
- 4 dried guajillo chiles (or dried
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1/2 cup onion, chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 4 poblano chiles
- 8 ounces Chihuahua Cheese (or other good melting cheese, such as Monterrey Jack or Fontina), cut into four (or more) 1/2” slices
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 2 eggs
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup queso fresco (or other
crumbling cheese, such as Feta)
- 1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
To make red chiles sauce, remove the stems and seeds from the ancho chiles and guajillo chiles and discard. Place the chiles in a bowl and cover with 3 cups of hot water. Soak for 30 minutes. Put the chiles and the soaking water into the bowl of a blender. Add the garlic, onion, and salt. Blend until smooth. Pour into a saucepan and bring to a simmer for ten minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
To roast the poblanos, light a gas cooktop and place a chile directly on the grate over the flame. When the bottom of the chile has blackened, turn to blacken all sides. Repeat with three remaining chiles. Place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap until cooled. Alternatively, you can place the chiles on a broiler pan and cook in the broiler of your oven, turning the chiles after the tops have dried and blistered (they won’t turn as black as on the stove). When chiles are cooled, carefully peel off the skins, trying not to tear the chiles. Layout the chiles on a board or platter and carefully cut a slit down the center of each (like a pocket). Insert the cheese into the chiles, making sure the slit can still close so the cheese doesn’t ooze out. Use a toothpick to close the slit. Meanwhile, heat a skillet with the vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Put the flour onto a plate, and put the beaten eggs and 1/2 teaspoon of salt into a shallow bowl. Coat the outside of each chile with the flour, then coat in the eggs. Place two chiles into the hot oil and fry until the bottom is browned. Using tongs, carefully turn the chile to brown the other side. Remove to a plate lined with a paper towel and repeat with the remaining two chiles. To serve, place chiles on a plate and cover with warmed red sauce. Garnish with queso fresco and cilantro.
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