Diana Kennedy’s Chilies Rellenos

Diana Kennedy introduced Mexican haute cuisine to American tables with her landmark 1972 cookbook, The Cuisines of Mexico, introduced by Craig Claiborne. Kennedy recommended viable substitutes in an era when Mexican produce was unavailable, and provided significant procedural details. I have substituted corn oil for lard, diced, dried fruit for candied fruit, and canned tomatoes for fresh.

There is always an exclamation of pleasure and surprise when a cazuela of golden, puffy chiles rellenos sitting in their tomato broth is presented at the table. If you have eaten those sad, flabby little things that usually turn up in so-called Mexican restaurants in the United States as authentic chiles rellenos, you have a great surprise in store.

Here is yet another prime example of the fine feeling the Mexicans have for texture in their food: you bite through the slightly crisp, rich chile poblano to experience the crunch of the almonds and little bits of crystallized fruits in the pork filling. Then there is the savory broth to cut the richness of the batter. Assembling the chilies may seem like a long laborious task, but it is no more complicated and time consuming than most worthwhile dishes, and this dish is certainly worthwhile.

Cut 3 lbs. lean boneless pork into large cubes. Put them into a sauce pan with one large white onion, chopped, and two minced cloves of garlic, a teaspoon or so of salt. Cover with cold water, bring to a boil, lower heat and cook until just barely tender, maybe 45 minutes. Let the meat cool in the broth. Strain the meat, reserving the broth, then shred or chop it finely and set it aside. Let the broth get completely cold and skim off the fat. Reserve the fat.

Cook about a cup of chopped onion with 3 minced cloves of garlic in about a half cup of corn oil without browning. Add meat and let it cook for a few minutes. Add a tablespoon of freshly-ground black pepper, a teaspoon of ground clove, and a teaspoon of cinnamon along with 2 tablespoons slivered blanched almonds, 2 tablespoons raisins, and three or sour finely-chopped dates. Add two cups crushed tomatoes and increase heat. Cook until meat mixture is almost dry.

In a blender or food processor, puree two cups diced tomatoes with a half a white onion, coarsely chopped, and two minced cloves of garlic until smooth. the juice extracted from their seeds, with the onion and garlic until smooth. Place the fat skimmed from the meat broth to a pan, add the tomato puree, two bay leaves, a teaspoon coarsely-ground black pepper, and a half teaspoon each ground cloves and dried thyme.

Add 3 cups of the reserved pork broth, continue cooking on high heat for 15 minutes, then lower heat and simmer until slightly thickened. You don’t want a thick sauce, you want it brothy. Add salt as necessary.

Roast 6 large poblanos on an open flame or under a broiler until the skin blisters and burn. Make sure they don’t get overcooked or burn right through. Wrap the chilies in a damp cloth or plastic bag and leave them for about 20 minutes. The burned skin will then flake off very easily and the flesh will become a little more cooked in the steam.

Make a slit in the side of each chili and carefully remove the seeds and veins. Be careful to leave the top of the chili, the part around the base of the stem, intact. Rinse the chilies and pat them dry. Stuff the chilies until they are well filled out. Set them aside on paper toweling while you make the batter.

Separate 4 eggs. Beat the whites until they are stiff, but not too dry. Add a few dashes of salt and mix in the four egg yolks one by one, beating well after each addition. Pat the chilies completely dry (or the batter will not adhere) and sprinkle them lightly with flour. Coat them with the batter. Fry the chilies in hot corn or safflower oil, turning them from time to time, until they are an even gold all over. Drain the chilies on the paper toweling, place them in the tomato broth-it should come about halfway up the chilies- and bring them up to heat on a low flame.

You can prepare the stuffing and the sauce the day before, and skin and clean the chilies. But do not put the stuffing into the chilies until about 2 hours before cooking. You can coat and fry them just before your guests arrive and leave them on paper toweling in a warm spot until the last moment, when they can be just warmed through in the tomato broth. In Mexico they are served by themselves, just before the main course. But they make a very good main course in which case you could serve two small chilies.

If you have any picadillo left over it will freeze very well; reheated, it makes a very good filling for tacos. The tomato broth, too, will freeze and can be used for other dishes.

An Essential Mexican Cookbook

Diana Kennedy was a Brit who married the NY Times correspondent for Latin America in the 1950s and early 1960s.

She fell in love with Mexican food, learning the cuisine literally from the ground up, visiting every state in Mexico on buses, donkeys and in her pre-power steering Nissan pickup, carrying a shovel to dig out of mud and sand.

Kennedy’s explorations resulted in an authoritative body of work that provides a thorough, extensive survey of the many cuisines of Mexico from Chiapas to Baja, but her most essential work is The Cuisines of Mexico (Harper & Row, 1972). If you are at all interested in food and cooking, and you have a taste for books that are well-written, well-researched, and ring with authority and  conviction, then you must have this within reach.

Kennedy’s introduction, “A Culinary Education” certainly ranks among the most notable essays about coming to know food as more than mere nourishment (see below). The first section, “Ingredients and Procedures” gives the initiate a thorough grounding in such arcana as herbs, kitchen equipment, and chilies. You’ll find no better introduction to the basics of the Mexican kitchen.

As to the recipes, bear in mind that Kennedy was writing for a somewhat less sophisticated audience, and these were selected for simplicity and ease of preparation; still you will find surprises. You might be, as I was those many years ago on first reading, delighted by the seafood recipes (“There is an awful lot of coast to Mexico …”), which includes perhaps one of the first recipes for “cebiche” included in an American cookbook.

The inclusion of many Gulf species among these recipes is poignant indeed in this post-BP Gulf world. My personal favorite among them is the snapper Vera Cruz, which we served at the Warehouse during my tenure.

Kennedy’s writing is strong and serviceable, rarely lyrical but savory when so. Her most powerful gift is an excruciating, attention to detail in every respect, evidence of her intelligence and commitment to authenticity. She wanted you to know what she loved.

Kennedy died on July 24, 2022, at the age of 99.

A Culinary Education

Although I have always loved good food, it was in Wales during the war years, when I was doing my service in the Women’s Timber Corps, that I first savored food I can still remember today.

In the Forest of Dean we would toast our very dull sandwiches over the smoldering wood fires and roast potatoes and onions in the ashes to help eke out our rations on those frosty, raw mornings. Later, in the Usk Valley, as we cycled for pleasure through the country lanes and walked the Brecken Beacons, we would stop for the farmhouse teas: thick cream and fresh scones, wedges of homemade bread spread thickly with freshly churned butter, wild damson jam, buttery cakes that had been beaten with the bare hand. From there I moved to an even more remote village in Carmarthenshire.

After the war there were occasional trips to France, and memories flood back of the first belons, and moules along the Côtes du Nord; rice cooked with minute crabs that had to be sucked noisily to extract their sweet juice; the ratatouille, and refreshing Provençal wines in a Saint-Tropez bistro. I can’t forget the lunchtime smell of olive oil in northern Spain as we walked up through the oleander bushes from the beach, and the never ending meals in the Ramblas restaurants in Barcelona, or beef à la tartare after a day’s skiing in the Austrian Alps. It was then that I really learned to cook, to reproduce what had been eaten with such pleasure.

I met Paul Kennedy in Haiti, where he was covering one of the many revolutions for The New York Times. We fell in love and I joined him in Mexico later that year.

And so life in Mexico began. Everything was new, exciting, and exotic. Luz, our first maid, loved to cook. One day she brought her corn grinder to the house and we made tamales: first soaking the dried corn in a solution of unslaked lime, washing the skin of each kernel, and then grinding it to just the right texture. It seemed to take forever, and our backs ached from the effort. But I shall never forget those tamales. She introduced us both to the markets and told us how to use the fruits and vegetables that were strange to us.

Finally Luz had to go, and Rufina came from Oaxaca; it was her first job. She was young and moody, but she was a really good cook and my apprenticeship continued as she taught me how to make her rather special albóndigas, rabbit in adobo, and how to draw and truss a hen.

But I suppose it is Godileva to whom I am most indebted. I always loved the evenings she would stay to do the ironing; we would chat about her life when she was a young girl on her father’s small ranch in a remote area of Guerrero. They had lived well, and she loved good food. She would pat out our tortillas, and before lunch would make us gorditas with the fat of marrow bones to enrich them, and as we came in the door would hand us, straight from the comal, sopes smothered with green sauce and sour cream. We would take turns grinding the chilies and spices on the metate, and it is her recipe for chiles rellenos that I have included in this book.

I had other influences as well. My friend Chabela, on several trips into the interior, taught me almost all I know about the handicrafts of Mexico; together we visited craftsmen in remote areas and on those journeys we would try all the local fruits and foods. It was she who spent many hours in my kitchen showing me, accompanied by meticulous instructions, the specialties of her mother’s renowned kitchen in Talisco.

At last our stay had to come to an end. Paul had been fighting cancer courageously for two years, and it was time to return to New York. By then we had traveled extensively together, and on my own I had driven practically all over the country, seeing, eating, and asking questions. I started to collect old cookbooks and delve into the gastronomic past to learn more for the cookbook that I hoped some day to write.

Paul died early in 1967, and later that same year Craig Claiborne suggested that I start a Mexican cooking school. I suppose I wasn’t ready to start a new venture; I was too saddened and worn by the previous three years. But the idea had planted itself, and in January 1969, on Sunday afternoons, I did start a series of Mexican cooking classes-the first in New York. A wintry Sunday afternoon is a wonderful time to cook, and the idea caught on.

The classes expanded beyond those Sunday afternoons, and the work for the book went on as well. But while the classes continue to flourish and grow, the research and testing have come at least to a temporary halt-if only to allow the book to be published at last. For I find myself involved in a process of continual refinement, due both to the frequent trips I make to Mexico to discover new dishes and to refine old ones, and to the constant dialogue between myself and my students and friends who try these recipes with me.

New York April 1972