Trays of chile rellenos for Christmas eve and later entertaining. Photo by Lydia Chávez.

Much has changed since this article was first published on Dec. 14, 2010. Ashwin has gone on to work at The New York Times, Lydia’s gone white-haired and Geraldine and Evelyn have passed on. How to make chile rellenos, however, has not changed one bit.

In this video, Mission Local’s editor-in-chief, Lydia Chavez, explains how to make cocktail-sized chiles 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.

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.

Any damn fool knows that an egg has seven bites

An essay to help you successfully execute what appears to be a very easy recipe.

Long before it was fashionable, and through the 1950s, when others embraced the convenience of packaged food, my mother and her first cousin and best friend, Evelyn, cooked and baked everything from scratch. During the holidays in Albuquerque, that meant trays of biscochitos, sweet empanadas, pozole, turco and cocktail-sized chiles rellenos.  

Evelyn Alarid and my mother Geraldine Chavez visiting in New Mexico

We left Albuquerque my senior year of high school, but mom and Evelyn stayed close. It was a friendship that also included a shared perspective that many endeavors called for only one right solution. I was reminded of this when my parents moved to Miami and Evelyn arrived to help mom settle in. The three of us were relaxing on the patio when Evelyn and Mom sat up in terror at the sound of the dryer running.  

“She (that would be me) 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 out yards of wet white cotton sheets.  Anyone, they muttered to themselves, knows that sheets dry best in the fresh air.

Chiles rellenos too. 

The recipe for the cocktail version is simple enough: Two pounds of ground meat, sautéed with an equal amount of green chile, 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 all of us. (At the time, I thought about asking her for a copy to give to 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 chiles rellenos at home, they broke apart, and the whole house smelled like oil.

One Thanksgiving, Evelyn said she would demonstrate. “So we’ll go in the morning to buy the ground meat,” I suggested, anxious to take up her offer.

“Oh no,” Evelyn said.

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

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

And the coriander is crushed 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 said in a tone of voice that demanded I start over.

I volunteered to start whipping egg whites.

 “No, no, no,” Evelyn said. “It’s way too early.”

Also, it became clear that we were not going to separate the dozen eggs that we purchased for the occasion.  Instead, we separated only 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 first batch.)

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

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

Later, we sat outside in front of a table full of cooling chiles rellenos — 13 and a half dozen — and Evelyn conceded, “We kind of got a little system there at the end, didn’t we?”

And then she told me a story that offered a glimmer into the past. Their favorite aunt and my favorite great aunt (my youngest daughter is named after her) was Aunt Lola. She was a woman who stayed single into her mid-40s and 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 explained. If she didn’t like something I selected, 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.

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Ashwin Seshagiri

Life-long Bay Area resident Ashwin Seshagiri moved to the Mission last year to pursue journalism professionally. Though at times cynical about the familiar haunts, he manages to uncover delightful surprises in the neighborhood’s interiors. When he’s not exploring, Seshagiri might be found playing bocce ball at Precita Park or making the devilish drive down Route 1 to Half Moon Bay.

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8 Comments

  1. I couldn’t find another place to put this comment, so I’ll post it here. First, can’t wait to try this recipe. Second I love this new recipe/cocktail articles. Third, I was confused at first glance of the site, it wasn’t what i was used to seeing. I’ll have to say it’s a better reading experience. Kudos on your new look, simple but elegant.

    -hl

  2. Hi Helene,

    Thanks so much for your comment! Glad you like the series, and that you like the site’s redesign. Let us know how the chile rellenos turn out!

    Cheers,
    Ashwin

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