Chilli Rellenos (Small Pepper)

  • Time: Three hours
  • Serves: 4
  • Level: medium

Chilli rellenos are an amazing combination of ingredients and cooking techniques. They’re a little fiddly, but as with so many involved recipes, perseverance is rewarded. This recipe uses small peppers, which are now widely available. I’ve suggested three different ways with the cheese centres for each of the three chilli rellenos recipes (see notes in method below). All are delicious and ensure a smooth oozing cheese melt – so mix and match to suit.

This recipe makes 12 small chillie rellenos, which is three per person. They are very moreish, but also quite rich, so serve as a starter or light lunch, or supper, with rice and a green salad.

 

Smaller version of chilli rellenos - fried small peppers stuffed with cheese.

What you need

For the chipotle and tomato sauce

1 onion

2 cloves of garlic

3 chipotles in adobe and their sauces, home-made or from a tin

3 bay leaves

1 tsp dried oregano

400g pulped tomatoes

400ml chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water

1 tsp red wine vinegar

For the peppers

12 small red/yellow/orange peppers (These peppers are new on the market, they are only 8-10 cm long and 5 cm wide, but other types of pepper or bigger chilies could also work).

250g very finely grated medium cheddar

100g cream cheese

2 level tbs cornflour

1.5 tbs white wine or 1 tbs lemon juice

1 tsp epazote (optional)

3 jalapeno chillies

Plain flour

A little fresh coriander or parsley to garnish

For the batter

3 eggs

1 tbs plain flour

1 lt vegetable oil for frying



Dad's Recipe Tales

The sad case of the recalcitrant splitting cheese

There is a stall at Borough Market in London that sells authentic Raclette. To make Raclette, the stallholder sets-up a heavy metallic contraption designed for manoeuvring and holding cheese against a robust vertical gas burner. The cheese (big blocks of Raclette) is clamped into it’s metal frame and swivelled toward the flames. The cheese blisters and spits as if resisting the torment of melting, alas, it gives up the fight, and is scrapped into glorious flows of hot amber liquid and poured over fried potatoes. Look a little more closely, however, and you will see the tell-tale signs of cheese that has split: solid cheese and oil. Fortunately, the oil from the cheese is deliciously absorbed into the fried potatoes and judging by the popularity of the stall, customers are very happy with their melted cheese.

A favourite dish I make our grandchildren is frankfurters covered in grilled cheese. Inevitably, the cheese will split under the grill. The trick is to lift the frankfurters out of the oil – drain if necessary – then serve with potatoes or toast. We forgive the oil, just as for Raclette – result is very happy children.

Even the cheese inside a chilli rellenos is likely to split, yet will still please even if the melted cheese is unable to hide a few rivulets of additional oil.

The issue is not to do with the cooking; it’s to do with cheese. Cheese is essentially made up of fat and protein with varying amounts of water depending on the aging process and preparation. Heating cheese will cause the fat and protein to separate leaving curds of solid chewy protein and pools of fatty oil. Check your pizza the next time you order and you will see the effect, the same with cheese on toast or a cheese omelette or even a cheese coated pasta bake put under the grill. The effect is worse the longer the cheese is heated – so a pizza is safe as it only has a limited time in the oven. But any other cheesy topping will eventually split with enough heat. It can work in your favour; think of a cheesy pasta bake cooked for just a little too long in the oven, but where the diners all seem to fight for the burned crisp and crunchy crusts on the pan.

The Americans understand this cheese-splitting phenomenon and invented a non-splitting cheese. It works, but is it cheese? And if we are not keen on American cheese or are able to buy it, what can we do to limit this effect?

  1. Choose other types of good melting cheese, such as, Emmental, Gruyere, Fontina, Raclette, young Gouda, Tallegio and Mozzarella.
  2. Grate the cheese so that the melting point is reached evenly throughout all of the cheese at the same time.
  3. For grilling cheese in the oven or under the grill think either Hot and Fast or Low and Slow. A cheese on toast placed very near a hot grill will melt in 2-3 minutes. But all the while it will be splitting; so go with the flow and allow the cheese to brown in places – the Maillard reaction will make the toast more appealing and appetising. This is the way the Raclettes are made at Borough Market and how cheese melts in a very hot commercial pizza oven. As with these two examples eat your toasts, as soon as they come out of the grill. The second way, Low and Slow attempts to melt the cheese into a warm pool of soft cheese. Put the toast far away from a low grill and cook for about 5-6 minutes. There will not be as much splitting as the Hot and Fast method, but the big drawback is that for most people it will be unappealing and unappetising, but if splitting is a big issue use this method. Low and Slow is also good for young children as the cheese will be easier to eat and will not burn tender mouths.
  4. If you are going to make a sauce then you need science. Starch helps bind the fat and protein molecules – so start off with a flour and butter roux and add milk as for a béchamel before adding cheese. Or try dusting your grated cheese with cornflour before adding to your hot liquid. Similarly, acid and alcohol help to bind the fat and protein molecules, so you can add a little wine, lemon, or vinegar. The key to success here is Gently Does It. It seems counterintuitive not to beat vigorously to help bind the molecules, but it has the opposite effect. So gentle heat and gentle stirring.

A fondue is nothing more than a cheese sauce. But the one element that works in the favour of a fondue is the cheese. Emmental or Gruyere. Both good melting cheeses. In addition, both are very liable to split – so stick to the rules and gently does it.

A rarebit is a different animal. More of a twice-cooked cheesy custard than melted cheese. The addition of flour, milk, breadcrumbs eggs all help to lock the fat and protein molecules before reheating again under a grill.

But if the cheese is still not behaving in your sauce, there is always brute force, not to be advised, but in emergencies needs must. Bring out the stick blender and blitz, ideally with another good glug of wine. We are not really amalgamating the split fat and protein, more creating finer particles in a suspension giving the illusion of a sauce. Straining may help.

Split cheese, whether on toast or in a sauce – or even inside a chilli rellenos – is sad, but in nearly all cases, it is no big deal. It is still tasty, good to eat and nutritious. So get some cheese and without fear or prejudice, turn on the grill, heat a pan or the oven and start melting!

How Dad Cooked It

I have developed three different cheese centres for my chilli rellenos – the usual recipes use grated cheese, so if the idea of making complex sauces is too much just follow the Padron peppers recipe for using cheese only. The sauce-based cheese centres also require a small chopper, or food processor, if this equipment is not available, again, follow the method for Padron peppers.

  1. Padron peppers. A grated cheddar and mozzarella centre. This tastes the most of cheese – a pure melted cheese. For those worried that the cheese might split, it will not. That is not unless it is over-cooked – the beauty of the chilli rellenos recipe is that by the time the batter has cooked the cheese will have just melted. It can be a little fiddly to get the cheese in the chillie, but once you’ve done one, the rest are much easier. See the recipe at chilli rellenos (padron)
  2. Small peppers. A cold blitzed fondue mix. You can taste the wine, which helps to keep the whole recipe fresh and tasty. This sauce oozes from the chillies in a gorgeous pool. It needs a little help to become perfectly smooth – but this happens naturally with a couple twists of a fork. The sauce is cooled in the fridge after blitzing allowing the moulding of a chilli-shaped lump of cheese which makes filling the chilli easy and satisfying. The recipe is below.
  3. Poblano chillies. A pre-cooked cheese sauce blitzed and cooled in the fridge. This tastes of a beautiful cheese sauce. As it is not so intense it makes sense to use this in a larger portion for a larger chilli such as the poblano. The sauce is smooth and unctuous and will not split however much it is over-cooked. The sauce is cooled in the fridge after blitzing allowing the moulding of a chilli-shaped lump of cheese which make filling the chilli easy and satisfying. See the recipe at chilli rellenos (poblano)

To make the chilli rellenos

To make the chipotle and tomato sauce

  1. Chop the onion and garlic finely, pour a good glug of virgin olive oil in a thick-bottomed saucepan with lid and sweat the onions for 5 minutes then add the garlic and sweat for another 5 minutes. Add the bay leaves, oregano, chipotles en adobo, stir, and vinegar and fry for a minute to break up the chipotles. Then add the stock and bring to a boil, stir and then add the tomatoes bring back to a boil and stir. Put the lid ajar on the pan and reduce the heat to lowest setting so that the sauce gently simmers. Cook for 30 minutes.
  2. Remove the bay leaves from the sauce and cool the sauce slightly. Using a stick blender or standard blender blitz the sauce and then strain back into the pan. Set aside until ready to serve.

To make the peppers and cheese fillings

  1. Grate the cheese with the fine side of a box grater. Spread out on a plate and put in the fridge to dry a little.
  2. Grill the peppers under a grill, turning each to blacken and blister evenly. It is not necessary to completely blacken the chillies and they should not cook so much that they are fragile and floppy. A bit of firmness will help things later on. Put them all in a bowl and cover with cling film. Allow to steam for 30 minutes. Then carefully peel the skin from the pepper, and then make a single cut down the length of the pepper with a sharp knife from just below the top to just before the tip. Using a spoon carefully scoop out the seeds trying to keep the chilli intact. Drain the peppers and put aside.
  3. Put the cheese in a bowl and add the cornflour. Toss the cheese to coat with the cornflour, then put the cheese into a strainer and shake to remove any excess cornflour. Put the cheese into a small chopper or food processor and blitz to make a fine cheesy crumb. NB: If using a small chopper, it may be necessary to make the sauce in two stages, dividing the ingredient amounts in half. Add the cream cheese, wine or lemon juice and epazote if using and blitz again. Trim the top off the jalapenos and then cut in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds and the pith and chop finely. Transfer the cheese mix to a bowl and stir in the chillies, cover and place in the fridge for 30 minutes to firm.
  4. To fill the chillies take 28g – 30g. cheese mix and mould it into a pepper shape. Carefully insert the cheese inside the pepper, ensuring the cut edges come together. Set aside and continue with the others.

To prepare the frying oil and make the batter

  1. Fill a high-sided saute pan or chef’s pan or flat-bottomed wok with about 750ml of oil. Heat slowly whilst making the batter below. Try to get the batter ready just as the oil is coming up to temperature (175C-180C).
  2. Separate the eggs with the whites in one bowl and the yolks in another. Add a pinch of salt to the whites and a level tablespoon of flour to the yolks. Beat the egg whites to stiff peak stage and then beat the yolks until thickened and pale. Scrape the yolks into the whites and beat for just a moment or two until mixed. Do not make the batter before you are ready to cook the peppers.

To cook the peppers

  1. Pour some flour into a wide shallow bowl and dust all the peppers to coat evenly.
  2. Using forks dip a pepper in the batter and roll to coat evenly. Pull it out of the batter using your implements (not fingers) and carefully place in the oil. Do this with no more than three at a time. Allow the chillies to cook a while before attempting to turn. You will find that most – if not all – are resistant to turning so it is best to use a small ladle to pour hot over the top. Brown the chillies all over – each should not take more than about 4-5 minutes. Drain well on paper towels. Continue with the others, topping up the oil if necessary. The peppers can be kept warm on a wire rack in a low oven – or they can be cooled and re-heated in the oven just before serving.
  3. To serve, re-heat the chipotle and tomato sauce. For each person, place 2 or 3 chillies on a large pool of hot sauce and garnish with coriander or parsley.
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