In this video, Mission Local’s editor-in-chief, Lydia Chavez, explains how to make cocktail size chili rellenos. The recipe has been in our  family for years — invented by Evelyn and my mother to entertain New Mexican style over the holidays.

It’s customary to make up a big batch, stick them in the freezer and have them for guests throughout the holidays and through the winter.  The essay below describes the perils of making these without paying attention to the details. Please note the epilogue before starting on your batch.

For years it was hard to buy New Mexican green chili in San Francisco and we would return home in the fall to stock up.  Nowadays, you can buy frozen green chili — the very same you would get in New Mexico from the Green Chili Kitchen at 1801 McAllister, 415-440-9411.

Recipe:

  • 2 pounds of ground meat
  • 2 pounds of roasted green chili
  • 1 large onion
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 2 tbs ground coriander
  • 1 bag ground Saltine crackers
  • 3 eggs
  • 2-4 quarts of oil for frying
  • salt to taste
1. Saute and mince meat, making sure all the moisture is gone.
2. Chop chilies, onion and garlic into fine bits.
3. Mix chopped ingredients into the cooked meat. Wait for the mixture to cool, then shape into small bullets with ground up saltines.
4. Stiffen egg whites, mix in yolks and dredge bullets in egg mixture.
5. Fry rellenos for one minute.
6. Serve immediately or freeze for later.

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The following is an essay written by Chavez in 2002.

“Any Damn Fool Knows that an Egg has Seven Bites”

We were in Albuquerque for Thanksgiving and Evelyn had already made up 24 dozen cocktail-size chili rellenos for the season.

Evelyn is mom’s first cousin and best friend; and the relative who called me in early November my first year in Berkeley to invite my daughters and I back to New Mexico for Thanksgiving.   We left Albuquerque my senior year of high school, but mom and Evelyn have stayed close; traveling together, trading recipes and every year we were away, Evelyn shipped out the ingredients needed for Christmas fare of tamales, chili rellenos,  pozole and turco.

Mom and Evelyn are different than many women of my generation.  It’s not only that they cook from scratch – long before it was fashionable and through the 1950s when others embraced the convenience of boxed and canned goods –  they also live in a world where there is a right and a wrong way to do almost everything. I was reminded of this many years after we left New Mexico when my parents moved into a house in Miami and Evelyn arrived to help. The three of us were relaxing on the patio, talking about god-knows-what when Evelyn and Mom sat up in terror.  “She put them in the dryer,” they said in unison and bolted for the laundry room.  I followed, sure to find flames coming from the machine.  Instead, I found Evelyn and mom pulling yards of wet white cotton sheets from the dryer.  Anyone, they muttered to themselves, knows that sheets dry best in the fresh air.

Evelyn Alarid and my mother Geraldine Chavez visiting recently in New Mexico

Chili rellenos too. The recipe is simple enough. Two pounds of ground meat sautéed with an equal amount of green chili, one onion, three cloves of garlic, and two tablespoons of ground coriander.  This mixture is cooled and then shaped, with the help of ground up saltines (saltless tops) into small bullets. Then they are fried after being dipped into stiffened egg whites mixed with yolks and a few tablespoons of ground saltines.

Evelyn compiled this and other recipes in a book a couple of years ago that she sent to us. (At the time, I thought about asking her for a copy to give a friend, but before I got around to it, she told me the story of one of her nieces who had done just that. “The nerve,” she said not at all flattered. “These are family recipes.”)

Family recipes, yes; simple no.   When I attempted to make chili rellenos they broke apart, the whole house smelled like oil and the rellenos tasted like grease balls.

But this Thanksgiving, Evelyn says she will demonstrate. “So we’ll go in the morning to buy the ground meat,” I suggest, anxious to take up her offer.

“Oh no,” Evelyn says.

It’s not hamburger meat, I discover, but round steak, ground at home.

The meat, chili, onion and garlic are then sautéed until all the moisture is gone. Really gone.

And the coriander is crushed at home from seed.

The meat is spread over a cookie sheet and put outside to cool. Really cool.

And, you don’t just shape the meat and chili into teaspoon-sized ovals.  You take a small scoop of the mixture at a time, work in some of the pulverized saltines and shape them into an oval no larger than a kumquat.

“I don’t like the size of those,” Evelyn says in a tone of voice that demands I start over.

I volunteer to start whipping egg whites. “No, no, no,” Evelyn says. “It’s way too early.”

Also, we’re not going to separate the dozen eggs that we’ve purchased for the occasion.  We’re going to do three at a time—otherwise the batter gets runny and ruins the rellenos.  (She would have died if she had seen how I made my last batch.)

We also won’t fry them inside.  Instead Evelyn calls up her son Joe to deliver the large electric frying pan. This is outside work, she explains.

“We’ll get a system going” Evelyn says hopefully.  While the oil heats up, she whips up the first three egg whites to demonstrate her definition of stiff. Very.

Later, when we’re sitting outside in front of a table full of cooling chili rellenos—13 and a half dozen – Evelyn concedes, “We kind of got a little system there at the end, didn’t we?”

And then she tells me a story that offers a glimmer into the past; into who shaped my mother and Evelyn.  Their favorite aunt, and my favorite great aunt—my youngest daughter is named after her–was Aunt Lola.   A woman who stayed single into her mid-40s, Aunt Lola worked as a bookkeeper even after she went blind.

She loved eating sweets and she loved clothes. When I was young, Aunt Lola arrived at our house about once a month on Saturday mornings.   “Yoohoo, “ she would say, walking in the door with a bag of donuts, candy and cakes.  And, at least once a year, she would pick me up to go shopping at the very best stores—good clothes last, she would say.  If she didn’t like something I picked out, she shook her head and advised “I wouldn’t wear that to a dog fight unless I thought it was going to win.”

Evelyn remembered this story:  Feeding Aunt Lola an egg in the hospital the week before she died. Aunt Lola, unhappy with exactly how Evelyn parsed the egg, turned to her and said, in a tone not unlike the one used for the careless young woman who put sheets in the dryer, “Any damn fool knows that an egg has seven bites.’”

My Great Aunt Lola

—Lydia Chávez
December 2002

Epilogue:  In the video above, I tried to replace the electric fryer with a deep fryer thinking it would work better.  It didn’t. I ended up doing the last batch inside on the stove top with olive oil.  They came out perfect, but Evelyn’s right — the house smelled like oil.  Next year I’ll buy an electric pan to finish them outside.  And, it’s good to remember that olive oil is fine, but expensive. Evelyn uses Canola oil.