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Eating Patriotism

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In Mexican gastronomy, there is a dish that represents the history of Mexico topping the lists of favorite foods by Mexicans here in San Miguel de Allende. The colors give it away, the flavor distinguishes it and its presentation in August and September, makes you fall in love. Eating Chiles en Nogada is savoring a piece of Mexico’s history and culture.

Following the cry for independence issued by Father Hidalgo that fateful night of September 15th, 1810, came the Mexican War of Independence. The war didn’t end for 11 long years until Agustin de Iturbide signed the Treaty of Cordoba with Spain.

Agustin de Iturbide was a military commander becoming the emperor of Mexico from 1822 to 1823. Back in August of 1821, he signed the Treaty of Cordoba in Veracruz, granting Mexico its independence from Spain. After signing the treaty, Iturbide traveled to Mexico City, stopping along the way in the town of Puebla for his birthday.

A feast was held in his honor, but the Augustinian nuns at the convent of Santa Monica preparing a special dish on Agustin de Iturbide’s birthday were at a loss for what to prepare, given that they could only use ingredients in season at the time. In a last-minute panic, the brides of Christ launched the dish that would come to be considered Mexico’s most patriotic dish.  A dish of meat, dried fruit and raisin stuffed poblano chilies, doused in creamy walnut sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and parsley.

Sidebar:  The ingredients that make this dish possible were cultivated on the slopes of the Popocatepetl volcano you glimpse on your way to or from the Mexico City airport.

Saint Augustine’s Day, which falls on August 28 and why Iturbide’s mother named him Augustin, is celebrated throughout the country and many families enjoy this sacred dish around this time.

Saint Monica, for whom the Augustinian nuns’ convent was named for, was an early Catholic obsessed with the new religion, all she talked about.  She had one child, a son, who didn’t share her interest and liked to smoke and drink instead.  Then, in his 30s, he started writing and became a great philosopher, St. Augustine, that effected how the world thought throughout the Middle Ages.

In today’s world, Monica is patron saint for mothers with troublesome children.  Her son, the great philosopher, St. Augustine, is now the patron saint of brewers because he was a drinker.

Chiles en Nogada is truly one of Mexico’s most patriotic dishes, sometimes referred to as the country’s “national dish,” although this distinction, technically, goes to Mole.

The legend behind the invention of mole credits St. Pascual, the patron of cooks.  It is very common to meander into a San Miguel kitchen and find a wooden statue of a fat, bald friar carrying a spoon.  That’s Pascual.

Pascual was cooking one day for his fellow clergy when several unexpected guests arrived.  Pascual did not have enough chicken to go around so he scurried about the kitchen adding everything to his sauce he had at his fingertips.  A pinch of chocolate, some coffee grounds, a stray vegetable, whatever.  With this stroke of genius, he became the inventor of Mole!

Chiles en Nogada is a more seasonal dish incorporating the colors of the Mexican flag – red, white, and green and not all that difficult to prepare, it just takes some preparation and time to assemble the ingredients.

Poblano chiles are the recipe’s backbone so be careful, once roasted and peeled the chili skin must unbroken. Then one stuffs the chili skins with a type of hash consisting of a mixture of meat and dried fruit with tomato, garlic, onion, almonds, and raisins producing the contrast of sweet and sour. Once cooked over low heat, the hash is stuffed in the chili.

The final touch is the cream sauce made with local walnuts. The walnuts give the Nogada sauce its name (Nogal being Spanish for walnut).

According to Rolando, dance teacher extraordinaire and owner of the restaurant, Bugambilia, on Canal 9, “The star ingredient of the dish is, without doubt, the walnut”.  Walnuts are what make Bugambilia’s version of Chiles en Nogada one of the most popular in town.

One of the best places to gather walnuts is the huge tree in Cieneguita right next to where you turn to take the bridge towards the Leon airport.

Although every cook has their preferred seasonings and some ingredients change (like pecans for walnuts), the preparation follows the above pattern before the dish is served at room temperature.

Now if you want to serve a related, but very American dessert, also at room temperature I suggest brownies served with cream cheese frosting.  Then to decrease the inherent sweetness of brownies with icing, add red pomegranates and a green sprig to complete your color-coordinated Mexican-flag honoring dessert!

by Joseph Toone

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