Flash in the Pan 

Take this pepper and stuff it

Grazing my way through the garden…a leaf of kale here, a cherry tomato wrapped in basil there. It’s a deeply satisfying activity, in a vaguely archetypical way. Like hunting and gathering. Except the garden is a soft and highly edible landscape, an ecosystem with the odds tilted in your favor. Pull a carrot from the ground, wipe off the dirt, sit under a sunflower and munch.

Checking on some spinach I recently seeded, I pass a celery plant and grab a stalk. My abeja plant, a type of Peruvian pea, is climbing up the stalk of a yuraksacsa corn plant, also from Peru, that is over ten and a half feet tall. Unfortunately, it hasn’t flowered yet. My neighbor scoffs at my monster corn dud. “All meat and no motion,” he says. “Yer shootin’ blanks, laddy!”

Peppers, on the other hand, dangle from the plants like the prettiest Christmas tree ornaments ever, so pretty you just want to eat them. They come in literally every color in the spectrum, rich in vitamins, iron and potassium. Myself, I dig the endorphin rush that hot peppers trigger in my brain—the same mechanism that drives “runner’s high” and heroin’s kick. There is something euphoric behind the snot and tears commingling on your chin.

Originally native to South America (probably Bolivia), peppers share a dubious distinction with Native Americans: They too were misnamed by Christopher Columbus, who, while still thinking he was in India, thought that he had discovered a new species of black pepper plant. The use of peppers quickly spread throughout the world, especially Asia.

This time of year, when the local peppers are fresh, I go big in the chile relleno department. Most vegetarians and non-mystery-meat-eaters are likely familiar with the chile relleno, often the only meatless option available at many Mexican restaurants. In Spanish, relleno means stuffed. Chiles rellenos are stuffed with cheese, and cooked in a sort of egg soufflé.

The best peppers for chiles rellenos are the long, semi-spicy ones in between bells and hotties, like poblano, passilla, moreno, anaheim, or my favorite, the red and green corno de toro (which means “horn of the bull”). You can find all of these at the Missoula Farmer’s Market (Fialky Farm has the corno de toro). These peppers have good spice, but won’t K.O. you, and are big enough to relleno with the stuffing of your choice.

Cut the tops off, scoop out the seeds and put the peppers on a baking pan in the oven, broiling at about 400. When the skins blister, turn them over until the other side blisters, too, then remove and place immediately in a sealed plastic bag.

Once the peppers have cooled to room temp, gently peel off the thin, clear skin. What remains is a pathetically limp and collapsed pepper that looks left for dead. Your job is to bring it back to life.

First, stuff them—with cheese, and other goodies if you prefer. I like curd cheese for the stuffing, but you can go with jack, mozzarella or blue cheese.

Separate the yolks from the whites of however many eggs you want to eat. For each serving, I usually go with two eggs and two to five peppers, depending on size. Beat the whites until they are stiff. Beat the yolks, and then fold them into the whites.

At this point, you have two basic options: You can pour the egg mixture over the chiles in a well-oiled pan and bake at 350. The mixture will rise considerably and turn golden brown. Or you can dredge the stuffed peppers in flour, dip them in the egg mixture and then fry them. This is how they usually do it in Mexican restaraunts.

Myself, I fry up some chopped bacon, take it off the heat, and immediately stir in some chopped garlic and cheese curds. The great thing about cheese curds is they softly hold their form when hot. I stuff the peppers with the curd/garlic/bacon mixture.

If I go the fried route, I just add some grapeseed oil to the bacon grease, then dredge, coat and fry it up, flipping once.

If I go the baked route, I lay the chiles in a pan with some cherry tomatoes. Then I add a layer of corn chips—this is a great way to use those broken dregs at the bottom of the bag. On top of this layer I place the peppers, and then I pour the egg mixture over everything and bake. While it’s cooking, I sometimes toss something on top of the rising soufflé: a sprig of cilantro, a sprinkling of fresh corn kernels, an extra chunk of cheese. When the top starts to brown, take it out.

Pour on some salsa and start eating. Eat until you are relleno with chiles rellenos. They’re great for breakfast with a hot cup of coffee. Or, if you want it exactly like in the Mexican restaurant, serve it on a heated oblong plate with red rice, refried beans and melted cheese.

E-mail Chef Boy Ari: flash@missoulanews.com

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