Trying to cook a version of dish enjoyed on vacation: It's not there yet

April 11, 2007|By ROB KASPER

I should know by now that vacation food doesn't travel well. That the chiles rellenos I savor at Padre's, a festive Mexican restaurant in Phoenix with a balmy courtyard and silky margaritas, will not taste the same when I create a version of the dish in my Baltimore kitchen.

But I try anyway. As soon as I return to the grind of daily life, I am a sucker for any dish that extends the feel of vacation.

That is what I did recently after spending a week visiting relatives in Arizona. On a chilly Maryland evening, I tried to cook something that would summon up memories of sunshine and good times. I came close.

I suspect the same near miss occurs when residents of Arizona return home after visiting Maryland and try to make crab cakes. They are a long way from the core ingredients and they end up with a compromised version of vacation bliss.

Authentic chiles rellenos recipes, I am told, use fresh whole chiles with heat that can be "blistering." The ones I used were canned, minced and mild-mannered. I found them in the Super Fresh in Hampden.

Someday, I might work up to the proper regimen of burning and skinning the whole chiles, stuffing them, coating them in an egg batter and frying them. But as a greenhorn in this cuisine, I settled for the convenience and gentle disposition of canned chiles.

The recipe I used came from a cookbook written by James Villas. Villas is an established expert in American regional cuisine. He hails from Charlotte, N.C., not exactly the ancho chile capital of the world. But I trust Villas' recipes. This one, which took chiles rellenos and transformed it into a casserole, could be found in the kitchens of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, he wrote. Sometimes, he added, it is jazzed up with wild herbs, ground lamb or corn.

So while I was venturing into new waters, this recipe required that I wade in only about ankle-deep.

Fetching the ingredients did require breaking some of my old shopping habits. Instead of zipping through the grocery store, loading my cart up with the usual purchases of potatoes, onions and brisket, this time I had to slow down and prowl the international-food aisle.

There, I found the canned chiles and the canned refried beans. But there was no ground pork at the meat counter. So I tracked down a butcher, a time-consuming move in a modern supermarket. It was worth it. The butcher took a couple of pork chops and made them into ground pork.

Back home, my kitchen filled with familiar aromas when I tossed the pork into a hot skillet. It joined ground beef, onion, garlic, a little oregano and a healthy shot of cumin. When I stirred in the refried beans, I was reminded of the enticing fragrance that had hit me when I walked past the kitchen doors of restaurants in Arizona.

Assembling the dish was a challenge. In the casserole, I alternated layers of chiles with the meat-and-bean mixture as well as coatings of shredded Monterey Jack cheese.

The dish was supposed to be capped with a crust made with cornmeal, four eggs and 1 1/2 cups of milk. But adding this liquid looked like it was going to cause an overflow, the equivalent of the Colorado River's spilling over the Hoover Dam. I held my breath and let the torrent flow. The liquid touched, but did not crest, the rim of the casserole; I eased this flood-stage dish into a 350-degree oven.

It emerged about 45 minutes later, in a more placid and solid state. It was supper, and it was a hit, providing a pleasing, if mild, mix of Southwestern flavors. The cornmeal topping, in addition to preventing spills, provided a welcome corn note.

I sprinkled a liberal dose of Tabasco sauce on my serving, and this added fire helped bring out the taste of the chiles. The flavors in this dish were not as bright as those of the fare I enjoyed in Arizona, but it wasn't a bad effort for a Baltimore cook. Maybe next time I make it, I will be brave enough to lose the Tabasco sauce and instead use the blistering peppers.

Chiles Rellenos Casserole

Serves 6

3 tablespoons corn oil

1/2 pound ground beef

1/2 pound ground pork

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled

one 16-ounce can refried beans

salt and pepper to taste

two 4-ounce cans green chiles, drained and chopped

8 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, shredded

1 1/2 cups milk

4 large eggs

1/4 cup cornmeal

Tabasco sauce to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 2-quart casserole dish and set aside.

In a large, heavy skillet, heat the oil over moderate heat. Add the beef, pork, onion, garlic, cumin and oregano and stir until the meats crumble and are no longer pink, about 10 minutes.

Remove from the heat, add the refried beans, season with salt and pepper, stir and set aside.

Spread one can of the chiles over the bottom of the prepared casserole, spoon half the meat-and-bean mixture over the chiles, and sprinkle half the cheese over the top.

Spread the remaining chiles over the top, then layer the remaining meat-and-bean mixture and the cheese.

In a medium-size mixing bowl, whisk together the milk, eggs, cornmeal and Tabasco till well blended, pour over the casserole and bake until set and golden, about 45 minutes.

Let stand for 10 minutes; cut into squares.

From "Crazy for Casseroles" by James Villas

Per serving: 537 calories, 35 grams protein, 33 grams fat, 14 grams saturated fat, 24 grams carbohydrate, 6 grams fiber, 233 milligrams cholesterol, 695 milligrams sodium

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