Once upon a time, I witnessed a remarkable culinary event: Ricky, a young handsome man visiting from the States made our family chilli rellenos.
This was back in the 70’s, a period when Old El Paso food products were yet to wash up on the shores of the British Isles (a land where the indigenous population were largely unaware of the culinary delights of Spanish-speaking civilizations). My family, of course, were very familiar with the food of Mexico, having lived in Southern California, an area immersed in the wider influence of its southern neighbour.
Ricky was a close friend of my sister (who was living in the States at the time). He was travelling in Europe and staying at our mother’s house for a few days. A call came through; Ricky had invited us to dinner.
Hang on… Why is a young handsome American man cooking dinner? Surely, he should be hitting baseballs in the park with the kids, or lookin’ for adventure in the Surrey hills on a gleaming Triumph Bonneville, or at least swooning the British lasses down the pub with his alluring American accent.
Instead, Ricky sets off for the local shops, seeking the obscure ingredients, herbs and spices to make chilli rellenos. On his return, he unpacks his bags, dons an apron and takes over the family kitchen, much to our mother’s surprise and amusement.
To make his chilli rellenos Ricky would have bought large chillies (poblanos in Mexico). He would have then roasted them in a very hot oven or under a hot grill until they were blackened and blistered then cooled them in a covered bowl. He would have then delicately skinned and de-seeded the chillies and stuffed them with a couple types of cheese and herbs (epazote in Mexico). He would have then sealed them and and dusted in flour before enrobing in a whisked egg batter and then frying in oil until the cheese is oozing and the crust was browned and crisp. To serve, he would have placed the chillies in a pool of hot chilli and tomato broth, garnished simply with a sprinkling of fresh chopped cilantro.
Clearly, making chilli rellenos requires a fair amount of cooking nous, but it’s also about the intent, the presentation, a little showing off, and just a hint of magic.
There certainly was a ‘ta-da’ moment as the rellenos made their way from the kitchen. No doubt, Ricky had sussed long ago that cooking was a far more effective way to woo the ladies. He certainly made his mark at our mother’s dining table – and by all accounts, my sister’s too.
I had not quite established the interest in cooking that I have now, but I could recognise the nascent budding fascination with food within, such that Ricky and his ability to cook also enraptured me.
Later, Ricky explained he was a bit of a gourmet and subscribed to the food connoisseurs’ magazine, Bon Appétit. This was an American mag, and although Ricky aroused a hankering, it seemed impractical (or a little obsessive) to form my own subscribed loyalty at that stage of my life.
These days Bon Appétit is widely available. I sometimes, browse the online version – it reminds me of Ricky and how that night, at his dinner, I hoped one day to be able to cook like him.
It also seems that Ricky’s cooking had quite an influence on my sister. I believe she still adheres to some of his culinary tenets:
Always use the best ingredients
Spend as much time cooking for yourself as you do for others
Always buy the more expensive bottle of wine – it’s much better value.
I do not know what happened to Ricky – his and my sister’s ships sailed different paths. He may have become a famous chef, or perhaps cooking was just his sideline and he became the CEO of a Tech Co in Silicon Valley. I like to think he reconciled his Mexican instincts and is touring Latin America with his Mariarchi band – Ricky and the Chillies Rellenos…