Mexico has a traditional Independence Day dish that is worthy of intense celebration. The Mexican flag colors of chiles en nogada (stuffed poblano chiles with walnut cream sauce and pomegranate seeds) make the entrée beautiful enough for fireworks and parades--but there's a lot more to this patriotically-colored entrée than meets the eye.
Not many dishes can equal the historic origin of chiles en nogada. Shortly after Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico's new Emperor Agustín de Iturbide unexpectedly arrived in Puebla to celebrate his September 28 birthday and the feast day of his patron saint, San Agustín, in the convent which housed the Augustinian nuns.
Just imagine the flurry of excitement in the Santa Monica convent kitchen when the shocked nuns discovered that the Emperor -- the former general who had received Spain's surrender and based the draft of the constitution on his plans for equality and freedom of religion -- was coming to dinner. Driven by the patriotic fervor sweeping the republic and a tight budget, the good sisters scurried from garden to pantries combining the colors and textures of central Mexico's seasonal foods with complex spices to create a culinary masterpiece--a work of art which transformed the colors of the new flag into sensational tastes—a dish fit to honor the Emperor of Mexico.
At dinner, the nuns presented platters of poblano chiles stuffed with picadillo (chopped meats, nuts, and fruits). The deep green chiles signified the flag's green stripe—the symbol of independence and hope.
A creamy white sauce made from freshly harvested nogales (walnuts) represented the unity, purity and honesty of the white center section of the flag and the garnish of red pomegranate seeds embodied the patriotism and the blood of Mexico's heroes in the flag's red band.
Today September's favorite dish still often includes 30 or more ingredients. The carefully cooked and blended beef, pork and ham, onions, garlic and tomatoes, six or eight dried and fresh fruits mixed with a half dozen spices and herbs are stuffed into the mild chiles which, at room temperature, are topped with a sauce of blended nuts, cream, cheese, cinnamon and sherry, and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. In the old days the dish could only be made when the prime ingredients, the just-mature walnuts, fresh pears, apples and papaya and red, ripe pomegranates were in season.
Chef Lorraine Russo explains, "The very scarcity of this dish is part of its great attraction—along with the delicate balance of contrasting temperatures, flavors and textures. When you eat really good chiles en nogada, each bite is an endless surprise." She added another suggestion for fully appreciating this special Mexican dish.
"If you want to understand the glorious intrigue and remarkable effect of this dish, take another look at Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel—either the book or the movie. Chiles en nogadas play a vital role in the unforgettable wedding feast scene. The guests are so overwhelmed with waves of passion evoked by the beauty, taste, and essence of the chiles en nogada that they abruptly leave the celebration in a fever of urgent clandestine mating. There's no question, those nuns in Puebla knew their way around a kitchen. This is surely one of the most elegant and exciting of all Mexican entrees."
Maybe a legend adds an extra dollop of sazon (seasoning and flavors) to homemade Mexican holiday dishes—especially when the recipe has a historical setting, a backdrop of Colonial buildings, and is topped off with the intrigue of a surprise visit from the new country's Emperor.
Want to Know More About Mexico’s Emperor Agustín de Iturbide?
Don’t miss the opportunity to read C. M. Mayo’s book, The Last Prince of The Mexican Empire. It’s a fascinating story of how Mexico’s last emperors – Emperor Maximillian from Austria and his wife Empress Carlotta of Spain became the foster parents of Augustin de Iturbide’s grandson – to prepare him for Mexico’s throne. The very young rulers, both members of Europe’s famed Hapsburgs, came to Mexico’s throne in the mid-1850s when they were in their early 20s. To add another layer of interest and intrigue, after the death of Carlotta’s mother, the young girl was raised by cousins – England’s Queen Victoria and her consort, Germany’s Prince Albert – still more Hapsburg relatives.
C.M. Mayo spends part of her year in San Miguel Allende.