Late 1940’s Sunset District, San Francisco: At sunset, an aproned woman flits around her large kitchen preparing her husband’s lunch. She twists the oven knob to low, wraps his coveralls in newspaper, stuffs the package onto the oven rack. While the coveralls warm, she prepares his lunch: two chiles rellenos covered in sauce and pressed into a soft sour dough roll. She wraps the bolillo in newspaper and swaps it with the steaming coveralls knowing he’ll be the talk of the American Can Company cafeteria—how during their midnight lunch break co-workers will sniff and squawk, leaning in hoping to taste a drip of sauce as he raises the sandwich to his mouth, or perhaps even earn an invitation to dinner.
The Legorreta women have filled their families’ bellies with rellenos for at least four generations. Grandma Ella relied on fresh chiles, which she roasted over a gas flame and seeded by hand; though on occasion a surprise seed would land on her granddaughter’s tongue and sear. Alicia did not cry, however, because a seed’s burn was the sign of a good chile. Grandma Ella taught the recipe to not only her own daughter, Concepcion, who modified the recipe and created the sour dough bolillo, but also her granddaughter, Alicia, who as a busy working mother made modifications of her own before passing the recipe on to her children.
As their family expanded, Alicia and her husband, Vernon, dove into the ebb and flow of a life of childrearing and full-time work. Like most parents, they quickly learned where and how to cut corners; Alicia, though, was unwilling to give up her family’s relleno tradition. As such, she modified the recipe again, this time choosing canned Ortega chiles over fresh and monterey jack cheese over queso blanco. These modification did not save enough time, so instead of stuffing each relleno individually, she created a chile relleno casserole, which her children dutifully gobbled up until they became adults. Then, they rebelled against the dish, insisting their mother bring back the original rellenos.
While her life became a bit less hectic with grown children, Alicia determined the relleno recipe was best appreciated as a treat rather than a staple. Thus began her tradition of making chiles rellenos for each new son-in-law. Unlike her mother, she did not have to stuff rellenos and coveralls into an oven, but she did have to fill the bellies of young men, as her daughters were want (as in many families) to have, invite a few additions to the family over the years. The relleno became the symbol for approval in the Clay family.
Though we did find one little hiccup in the tradition. The day we visited Alicia and her daughter, Sandy, we discovered Sandy’s husband, who’s been in the family about fifteen years, had never been served a chile relleno. We purposed, perhaps Alicia did not approve of this husband but were quickly corrected—and Lance was promptly served up a fresh relleno. As he chewed through the fluffy egg coating and the chile’s crunch, his eyes brightened and his cheeks perked up. We saw then that Alicia’s rellenos, while served only on rare occasion, were an apt reward for approval and a lovely invitation into the family.
Chile Relleno Recipe 2012 *This is the final, heart healthy modification created by Alicia and Sandy
Ingredients for 8 rellenos 1 Can Large Ortega Whole Chiles 1 block Mozzarella Cheese 1-2 Tbsp Canola Oil 1 Tbsp Unbleached Flour 4 Eggs 1 Small Onion 1 Small Can of Diced Chile Fresh Cilantro (for topping the rellenos)
Utensils Cast iron skillet gas stove good sharp knife
Directions Cut a slit in each chile and remove seeds Slice cheese into long pieces to fit into chile Evenly stuff each chile with cheese (don’t overstuff or the chile will split)
Egg Batter Beat 4 egg whites at a time with a mixer *using more than 4 egg whites will end in deflation of batter before frying; if you double the recipe, beat only 4 egg whites at a time Add 1 Tbsp of flour Beat until peaks form Fold egg yolks into egg whites Mixture should be thick like a merengue
Add 2 chiles at a time to egg mixture Coat Evenly
Heat oil in pan Drop dab of batter into pan; if it bubbles, it’s ready (Oil should not pop; if it does, it’s too hot) Place relleno in pan Flip when the bottom begins to firm up and is golden brown like a pancake Roll the relleno around in pan to ensure all egg batter is cooked *Don’t deep fry, just lightly fry each side
Relleno Sauce Juice from Ortega Chiles 2 cans Tomato sauce (1 salted and 1 unsalted) sautéed onion one diced chile (you can add a spicy chile if you prefer but not too spicy or you’ll lose flavor)
Mix all ingredients Electric skillets work well for large batches Place rellenos in sauce to keep warm, but not for too long, or they will dry out
Serving: Serve Immediately Place rellenos on plate Pour sauce over the top Sprinkle with Cilantro Serve with a side salad and a smile