Poblano peppers are for more than just stuffing

Poblano peppers are, hands down, my favorite chile pepper. Traditionally the pepper to use for chiles rellenos, poblanos offer so many more possibilities. In their raw form, they add more punch than a green bell pepper. Roasting them intensifies their flavor, the flesh becoming sweet yet mildly spicy (it’s rare to get a poblano that is fiery, but it does happen).

In my childhood home, Anaheim peppers were the pepper of choice for my parents when making our family’s version of chiles rellenos. The dried version of the pepper, chile California, was the basis for most of the red sauces they made. I think my dad might have used fresh poblanos maybe only once or twice to make chiles rellenos. However, the dried version of a poblano, chile ancho, made a regular appearance in his homemade chorizo and my grandmother’s moles.

It wasn’t until I was older and in charge of a kitchen of my own that I began experimenting with poblanos, using them primarily for stuffing but also in place of bell peppers in recipes like pepper steak and Denver omelets. About 10 years ago, I discovered rajas con crema and, I gotta say, my tastebuds rejoiced.

What are ‘rajas con crema’?

Rajas means strips in Spanish, while crema translates to cream. In this classic Mexican dish, “rajas” refers to the strips of roasted poblanos that are bathed in a cream sauce. The dish, though ridiculously simple, is complex tasting and wholly satisfying.

Our family always roasts chiles directly over stovetop grates so we can control the charring, but you can also grill or broil them. Once charred, transfer the chiles to a plastic bag or covered bowl to sweat and soften up enough to easily peel.

(Anita L. Arambula / Confessions of a Foodie)

A spoon is used to scrape off the charred skin from the roasted poblano peppers.

Removing the charred skin from roasted peppers is messy business. To help tame it, I like to scrape a spoon set at a 90-degree angle down the pepper to remove the charred skin. It’s perfectly fine if some black bits remain — they’ll add a hint of smokiness.

(Anita L. Arambula / Confessions of a Foodie)

Strips of roasted poblano peppers.

After removing the charred skin, stem and seeds, slice the pepper into long strips, then cut those in half so you have about 1 ½- to 2-inch-long strips.

(Anita L. Arambula / Confessions of a Foodie)

I take some liberties with the ingredients that I feel make this lighter than the more traditional recipe without compromising the taste or spirit of the original. In my version of this classic guisado (stew), I’ve drastically cut back on dairy to lower the fat and calories so I can enjoy this without the guilt.

Typically made with an entire block of cream cheese, loads of Mexican crema and several handfuls of a good melting cheese like Mexican manchego or Oaxacan cheese, the original is very rich and indulgent. For my version, the dairy gets pared down to just Mexican crema and some cubed queso panela (a Mexican curdlike nonmelting cheese similar to Indian paneer) for a pop of protein. Though the original is arguably sinfully delicious, it’s a bit too much for my lactose-sensitive tummy. Plus, all that cheese winds up taking center stage over the roasted poblanos, which, in my opinion, are the star of the dish.

Sliced onions are the perfect accompaniment for the poblano strips, and with just those and the cream, you can call it a day and be in rajas heaven. However, I love to amp up the nutrition factor by adding more veg. Today, I’m tossing in sweet, in-season corn and a few large leaves of chard (acelgas in Spanish; chard is a favorite leafy green in many Mexican home kitchens).

Make it your own

This dish is pretty customizable — you can toss in several other vegetables you might have on hand. To the poblanos and onions (which are a must-have, in my opinion), you can add a total of 1 ½ cups from a mix of no more than three other vegetables so that the dominant flavor is still the roasted poblanos. Here are a few other vegetables that you can add:

  • Spinach (if you can’t find chard, rough chopped)
  • Zucchini (cut into matchsticks)
  • Yellow squash (cut into matchsticks)
  • Mexican squash (aka, tatuma squash, cut into matchsticks)
  • Chayote (cut into matchsticks)
  • Green beans (cut into 1- to 2-inch pieces)
  • Nopales (cut into strips)
  • potatoes (small cubes)
  • carrots (cut into matchsticks)

What if my local market doesn’t sell Mexican crema?

Being in Southern California, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a major supermarket that doesn’t carry Mexican crema. But if it happens, you can make your own by starting with the easier-to-find creme fraiche. It’s super simple: Just measure out a cup of creme fraiche and stir in the juice of ½ a lime (start with 2 teaspoons, adding a bit more if you want it thinner) and a pinch or two of fine sea salt.

Now, why creme fraiche and not sour cream, you ask? The difference lies in the fat content. Mexican crema and creme fraiche share a fat content that is much higher than sour cream (30 percent vs. about 20 percent). Sour cream’s lower fat content makes it more prone to curdling when adding to a hot pan of food. You won’t have that issue when using a cream with heavy fat content.

How do you serve rajas con crema?

Rajas con crema can be served over arroz blanco (Mexican-style white rice with carrots and peas) or arroz rojo (Mexican-style red rice). It is also fantastic served over pasta, like spaghetti or linguini.

My favorite way to eat it? I love it as a messy, gets-all-over-your-fingers-and-drips-down-your-chin taco. And preferably, that taco is made with a corn tortilla and not a flour one, but I won’t think less of you if you choose flour.

Alternately, serve this in place of a traditional tomato salsa at your next outdoor gathering. When prepping the peppers and vegetables, chop and cube all of the ingredients a similar, small size. Then serve the rajas con crema still warm as an antojito (appetizer) in a shallow bowl with plenty of tortilla chips for scooping.

Rajas con crema might seem like a simple vegetarian meal, but don’t be fooled. Sometimes the simplest dishes can be the most satisfying.

Rajas, Elote y Acelgas con Crema y Queso Panela

(Poblano, Corn and Chard With Cream and Panela Cheese)
I am not a vegetarian, so I use my favorite powdered chicken bouillon, but if you are, use something like Better Than Bouillon Vegetable Base or your favorite brand.

Makes about 6 servings

3 large poblano peppers
4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ large white onion, thinly sliced
3 fat cloves garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
4 leaves chard, thick ribs removed and discarded, leaves chopped into bite-size pieces
¼ cup water
1 ½ teaspoons Knorr Chicken Bouillon
⅔ cup Mexican crema
1 cup cubed queso panela
12 corn tortillas, warmed

Roast the poblanos on the stovetop, either directly on the grates over the open flames if you have a gas stove, or on a hot skillet or griddle over medium-high heat on an electric one. Once the skins have blistered and charred, remove the chiles to a plastic bag or bowl (covered) to sweat for 10 to 15 minutes while you slice the onion, mince the garlic and chop the chard as indicated in the ingredient list.

When the peppers have cooled enough to handle, use your fingers or a spoon to scrape off and discard their skins. Slice off and discard the tops of the peppers. Slit the peppers open and remove and discard the seeds and veins. Slice the peppers into about 2-inch-long by about ½-inch-wide strips.

Heat a skillet on medium heat. Toss in the butter and olive oil. When the butter has melted, add the onions and cook, stirring often, until softened and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, pepper and oregano, stirring to combine, and cook for 1 minute. Drop in the corn and the poblano strips, tossing until well incorporated. Add the chard a third at a time, tossing to wilt after each addition. Stir in the water and bouillon, cover pan and simmer on low for 3-4 minutes.

Add the Mexican crema, stirring until thoroughly combined. Fold in the cheese and cook for 2 minutes to heat through. To serve, mound 2 or 3 generous tablespoons in the center of a warmed tortilla and fold into a taco. Alternately, serve over rice or spaghetti.

Recipe is copyrighted by Anita L. Arambula and is reprinted by permission from Confessions of a Foodie.

Arambula is the food section art director and designer. She blogs at confessionsofafoodie.me, where the original version of this article was published. Follow her on Instagram: @afotogirl. She can be reached at [email protected]

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