Rajas con Crema
Poblano Chiles in Cream
Last November, I spent three weeks traveling (and eating!!!) in Mexico. I started in Mexico City, then spent 8 days in Oaxaca (said to have the best food in Mexico—and I certainly wouldn’t disagree with that assessment), and finished with a tour of the Yucatan. The foods in each region were quite different, but all were wonderful.
Mexico and vicinity was home to turkey, corn, chocolate, vanilla, and squash/pumpkin. The region also acquired, through trade and travel, avocado, tomato, and chilies from South America. In addition, there are indigenous foods that have remained fairly localized, such as tomatillo, chayote, nopales (cactus pads), and tunas (cactus pears). Combine all those dandy foods with a few introduced items and techniques from Europe, and golly, the food was good.
Oaxaca is famous for its seven moles (sauces), and I managed to sample all seven while I was there. Walking down the street, you could smell the chocolate grinders for blocks before you reached their shops. In each shop, half the grinders would be processing cacao beans with chilies, for mole, and the other half would be grinding cacao beans with cinnamon and sugar, for “table chocolate,” used primarily for hot chocolate. The food markets were glorious, with mountains of cheese, fresh-baked bread, chilies, sugar cane, vegetables, chocolate, and fresh fruit.
Yucatan presented food that was closer than most to its roots. Turkey was ubiquitous, though always in interesting forms, from sliced in “pipian verde,” a green pumpkin-seed sauce, to chilmole: stuffed and cooked in a black sauce. Many things were cooked wrapped in leaves, and proximity to the ocean made seafood readily available.
Food wasn’t the only thing I was there for. I saw all the pyramids and ruins, the cathedrals and haciendas, the artwork and the antiquities (including the actual headdress worn by Moctezuma when he met Cortés!). And in the Yucatan, we prowled through cenotes (underground river caverns) and rode the ancient pony-drawn carts through the old sisal plantations. Celestún Bioreserve was a highlight; this great swath of rainforest along the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula is home to hundreds of bird species, but is most spectacularly famous as the home of almost all of North America’s flamingoes. One hires a boat and driver, and after a few minutes of winding down the glassy inlet, one turns a corner and is suddenly confronted with thousands of flamingoes, a broad pink slash in the midst of the greenery. Wow.
Mexico City is famous for smog and crowding, but was still absolutely worth seeing, with a wonderful historic district, Diego Rivera murals, and great museums (especially the Museum of Anthropology). My first morning there, I was served rajas con crema for breakfast. That night, I found rajas con crema served with my steak tampiqueña. Rajas con crema is so popular in Mexico City that there are rajas con crema-flavored potato chips. Rajas means “strips,” but by general consensus in Mexico City, it virtually always means strips of green chilies.
There is a lot more I could say about Mexico. The people are gracious and warm. There is music everywhere. Life is slower, and it is a great place to relax and simply enjoy life, sitting in the zocalo (town square) with a cup of chocolate caliente, enjoying the evening breeze. Just lovely.
Many of the dishes I encountered are hugely complex, and take a whole day or longer to prepare, but rajas con crema is quite easy to make. It is a fabulous dish, with big, rich flavor. Makes a great side dish for a steak right off the grill. Enjoy.
Rajas con Crema
(Poblano Chiles in Cream)
3 Tbs. butter
1 onion, sliced
6 large poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded (instructions below), and cut into 1-inch wide strips
½ cup thick cream (see note)
½ tsp. salt
Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add the onion and sauté until transparent. Reduce heat, add chiles, and cook over low heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the salt and cream and stir to coat chiles and onion. When the cream begins to bubble, remove pan from the heat and stir.
Serves 6 as a side dish, 4 as a light lunch with tortillas.
The thick cream specified in Mexican recipes refers to a rich, cultured cream similar to crème fraîche. If you have access to a Hispanic grocer, try to get the Mexican thick cream. If this is not available, crème fraîche is a good substitute, and you could even use sour cream thinned with a little whipping cream. The consistency should be barely pourable.
Roasting, Peeling, and Seeding Chiles:
The most traditional way of roasting chiles is to hold them one at a time over an open flame, slowly turning the chile until each side is blistered and blackened. My preferred method when I’m dealing with several chiles, as in this recipe, is to roast them under the broiler. Brush the poblano chiles lightly with vegetable oil and place them on a baking sheet. Put them in the preheated broiler as close to the heat as your oven permits. Turn the chiles as they blister until they are blistered and darkened on all sides. Place the chilies in a plastic bag for a few minutes (this helps loosen the skin). Then just rub off the charred skin under a gentle stream of cool water. (The water helps reduce the amount of capsaicin-laced steam you will be breathing.) Peel all the chiles before you move on to seeding (they continue to cook while they are in the plastic bag, so you don’t want to leave them there too long).
To seed the chiles and cut them for this recipe, cut off the stem, then cut the chile in half. Remove the clump of seeds in the center and scrape out any scattered seeds. If there are white veins (ridges along the inside of the chile), cut them off. Then slice the chile lengthwise into the 1-inch wide strips for this dish.