For such a colorful plate of food — roasted green peppers in an ivory puddle dotted with cardinal-red pomegranate seeds and leaves of parsley — the chile en nogada generates a lot of brow-furrowing. The controversy begins with the dish’s provenance, which can be traced to an 1821 Puebla banquet that commemorated Mexico’s Independence Day (September 16). Nuns created the dish to honor Agustin de Iturbide, who led the final revolt against the Spaniards, but which nuns, and at which convent? And every cook has firm opinions on the preparation. Should the walnut sauce be sweet or savory? Should the pepper be capeado’d (dipped in beaten egg and fried) or not? It is a complex dish, but most versions are, unfortunately, dessert-sweet, cold, and clashing.
One inarguable point is the pepper, which should always be a poblano chile, roasted until blackened, skin peeled away, slit and stuffed with picadillo, a chopped meat and fruit hash of sorts. Chiles en nogada celebrate the season, as well: They’re made with the pomegranates and fresh walnuts that flood the markets in early fall. In central Mexico at this time of year, campesinos from the countryside truck in sacks of freshly picked walnuts, sold in small bags with a couple of specimens already cracked and peeled of their papery brown skins so you can see the meat underneath, which is white as bone.
There is an excellent, slightly sweet version of chiles en nogada ($22) served at the Fonda restaurants throughout the month of September. Two huge peppers, stripped of their skins but left bare, are cloaked in a sauce made of ground walnuts and almonds and sprinkled with goat cheese. The picadillo inside contains beef and braised pork, diced pear, and a rustle of warm spice. It’s a salute to nuns and nationalism, and it’s one tasty dish.
Scarlett Lindeman is a Brooklyn-based writer, covering the city’s best taquerias, fondas, and cantinas. She writes the ¡Oye! Comida column for Fork in the Road.