One of the most memorable meals of my life was eaten at a pit stop during an overnight bus trip through the Sierra Madre in Mexico. In the early hours of some anonymous morning, we tumbled down the steep stairs of the coach and into the desert. I remember looking around with weary eyes and seeing nothing. But at the very same time it was everything; everything that cinema had conjured for me over the years – and suddenly I was standing right in the centre of it. In this moment, I was inside cinema.
Fellow travellers bought coca-cola in small glass bottles, rubbed their eyes and smoked cigarettes. Some of us ate. Beside the register a woman stood behind a metal drum that’d been fixed up into a kind of grill and beside it on the table were plates of pulled meat and chorizo, little containers of pico de gallo and salsa verde. There was a bowl of rice – grainy and tinged pink with roasted tomato – covered with an upturned sieve to keep bugs out. There was a plate of whole fried chillies of a kind I’d never seen and a pile of tortillas wrapped loosely in a dishcloth. We stood there and realised that sleep deprivation had devoured our paltry Spanish and the woman looked at us and knew, so she made us something to eat.
On the top of the drum she flipped tortillas in slow motion, while warming a couple of the chillies and when they were ready, she put spoonfuls of rice onto the centre of the tortillas and topped them with a chilli, pulling out the stem before wrapping the whole thing up and handing it over on a little Styrofoam plate. Too tired to care what it was (or so we thought) we sat down and bit into one of the most awesome things we’d ever encountered: a burrito filled with Mexican rice and chiles rellenos.
What I couldn’t have known standing there, hungry and almost too tired to eat, was that these were ancho poblano chillies that had been grilled whole over an open flame until the skin blistered and blackened. Once peeled, a little slit had been made in each so that the chilli could be stuffed with queso fresco – a fresh white cheese something between ricotta and haloumi. Once resealed, it had been dusted in flour and dipped into a batter lightened with beaten egg whites before being fried. The batter became this super-crispy shell encasing the meaty pepper that was sweet, but with a little kick and the whole thing became the house for the molten and slightly squeaky, salty cheese centre. I could go on, because Lord. It. Was. Good.
So of course I set about making these as soon as I got home, but I realised quickly that the ancho chilli is not something you can get here (unless you want it dried, in which case click here). I experimented with different kinds of peppers, some hot, some sweet, but it just wasn’t the same. So this year, I’m growing my own. Maybe you should too?