Some switch seems to have been flipped since I spent a few days in Mexico. Previously, I merely tolerated heat and hot peppers, craved them rarely - perhaps in the odd hot & sour soup or the bimonthly curry over on Lexington and 28th. I've never owned a bottle of hot sauce or spent time dreaming about making my own harissa. My father's the heat nut in the family, eating spicy food until he starts to sweat, shaking Korean pepper over his dinner plate every night. I've always preferred a milder meal.
But now? I seem to have been bitten by the same bug. It's all I can think about: how to make my dinner as hot as I can possibly take it. My pantry isn't up to snuff, though, with cayenne and a few dried chiles de arbol being the only sources of true heat in our home. That hasn't stopped me - I've been spicing up everything from pureed squash to collard greens like I'm making up for lost time. Which, I suppose, I am. Tingling lips, a runny nose, the flush of heat that starts around your jawline and works its way upward (or is it the other way around?), I love it all and I want more.
On the advice of the Internets and a commenter, we went to Taqueria Coatzingo in Jackson Heights for lunch on Saturday and I was actually pretty disappointed. Perhaps we didn't order well, but my two carne asada tacos were sort of limp and flabby and overfilled. Ben's enchiladas verdes looked just like they have in every other New York Mexican restaurant we've been to: pallid and oily and absolutely nothing special. But that's okay - I'm now even more motivated to just figure out Mexican food for myself at home.
Luckily, last week my CSA obliged, providing me with my first four poblano chiles. At home, I put them under the broiler and watched carefully as the dark green skin raised and blistered, turning black and wrinkly and fragrant. Working quickly, I deseeded the peppers (I didn't think I'd need gloves, after all, poblanos are really quite mild, but there was still some stinging, so I rubbed my hands with a cut lemon and that seemed to take care of things, even later when I had to remove my contacts) and cut them into strips.
The peppers weren't slick and oily like the roasted bell peppers that I've grown up making. They were drier and firmer, had more structure. Following a recipe in this charming cookbook, I cooked the poblano strips with onions until they were fragrant, then doused the pan with a bit of milk and turned the heat down low. The vegetables mellowed and softened even more and started picking up a deliciously brown coating from the evaporating milk.
A spoonful or two of creme fraiche swirled in at the end barely coated the peppers and onions with a thin, creamy film. The recipe says that you can eat these with scrambled eggs or in a taco, along with some other suggestions, but I found them so irresistible that I simply plopped a tangle of them on my plate along with a dollop of pureed squash (a Kabocha, roasted until dry and soft, then pureed with salt and more creme fraiche. I let the oven get a little too hot, so it burned in places and actually tasted sweet and caramelly next to the peppers).
Eaten in the office, with my feet propped up on the desk, looking out the window at the black and starry Queens night, I felt like I literally tasted my world expanding. And not to get too serious on you here, but this is really one of the reasons why I love food and cooking so much: a whole other world, a whole new culture opens up to you once you start exploring its culinary traditions. I don't know much about Mexico and I'm so impatient to get back there and learn more, but in the meantime, I'm going to get acquainted the easiest way I know how, through the recipes and stories I'll find in my kitchen. I can scarcely contain my excitement when I start thinking about the discoveries.
Oh, and I should let you know, since I started this post out on such a hot and spicy kick, this dish really is pretty mild, almost even soothing. Every now and again, you'll get a bite that warms the inside of your mouth, but on the whole this is a pretty easygoing dish. Just so you know. I'm sure I'll try to make this again and eat it with eggs or tortillas, but I'm not promising I'll be able to restrain myself from just eating them plain right then and there.
And now I'm off to daydream about hot sauces and dried chiles, cayenne and Aleppo pepper, capsaicin and the Scoville heat scale. My father will be so proud.
Rajas con Crema
4 fresh poblano chiles
1/2 white onion
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup milk
1 tablespoon Mexican crema or creme fraiche
2 epazote leaves, chopped (optional)
1. Char the chiles over a gas flame or on a very hot grill until blackened. While still hot, wrap in paper towels to steam and cool. Remove the stem and seeds and rub off all the blackened skin and clinging seeds with the edge of a spoon or the paper towels. (Don't wash them; much of the flavor goes down the drain.) Don't worry if a little skin remains. If you want a milder taste, remove the ribs inside the chiles. Cut into lengthwise strips 3/4 inch wide.
2. Cut the onion into thin strips, from the stem to root instead of across (they hold their shape better this way).
3. Melt the butter over medium-low heat in a heavy frying pan and cook the onion and peppers together for 5 minutes, stirring often.
4. When the onion is softened, pour the milk over the vegetables and cook very slowly until it is evaporated. Season with salt to taste. (Can be made head to this point and refrigerated; reheat before serving.)
5. Just before serving, stir in the crema or creme fraiche and epazote, if using. Serve hot.