Sometimes in life you need a personal vacation. This is a time to venture off on your own to follow a passion without having to consider anyone else’s needs or desires. I fondly call it time to contemplate the great undifferentiated aesthetic continuum. Not sure I ever really grasped the deep meaning of this one but love the way it rolls off one’s tongue. For me it was about taking some time away from the responsibilities of work and family to do something I really loved and charge my batteries.
I’ve done this a few times over the years, mostly by extending a business trip with a few days of personal time to explore a new country or city on my own. Once however, I took an entire week just for me. My destination was La Villa Bonita Cooking School. At that time the school was located in the lovely and then relatively safe city of Cuernavaca, Mexico. The city which is about a 30 minute drive south of Mexico City, lived up to its name of the City of Eternal Spring with beautiful weather during my entire stay. The school was located in a former convent just down the street from a beautiful cathedral, the Museo Robert Brady and a short walk to the Zócolo. As with nearly all of the homes lining the streets of Cuernavaca, the beauty of the spot was completely unnoticeable from the street, sitting behind high walls and locked doors. Inside however, was an oasis of vegetation and a beautiful courtyard leading into a spacious kitchen perfect for conducting small hands on classes. The school has since outgrown this spot (it had only three guest rooms) and moved to a more spacious and luxurious spot in the Tepoztlán mountains. If there weren’t so many other spots on my bucket list, I’d be headed back there to check it out! This time I wouldn’t need to carry back the binder filled with recipes, tortilla press and molcajete that came as a part of the class (long before the airline 50 lb weight restrictions).
This trip came when I was still missing some of the foods I loved in Los Angeles. In particular I was craving the hand-made tamales I bought by the dozen from the parents of one of my colleagues. The other dish I was determined to master an authentic Mole Colorado. These were the two that I left home determined to add to my culinary repertoire. However, as is usually the case when I travel I discovered several dishes that I had never experienced before – Chiles en nogada, Quesadillas with Squash Blossoms and Huitlachoche just to name a few. I always feel a little sad when I hear someone declare “I don’t like Mexican food”. I’m also fairly certain that their exposure to this fabulous cuisine doesn’t go much beyond Taco Bell. From simple street tacos to complex moles I love it all.
Of all of the dishes that I experienced on this culinary adventure, the one that has definitely become a favorite at my table and has been shared with many others over the years is a simple Poblano Soup. Before this trip, poblano’s weren’t yet on my radar and hadn’t gained the popularity that they have so rightfully claimed since. Today we can find them year round in most supermarkets and buy plants or seeds for our gardens at most nurseries. They are an easy to grow and prolific plant, so having several recipes in which to enjoy the fruits of my garden is a must for me. The other great thing about them, is they can be roasted and frozen for use in soups such as this one, all winter long.
The soup could be made entirely from my frozen stock, but let’s start with a fresh pepper so you can master this one in any season
Roasting the Peppers-over an open flame until blackened and blistered over the entire surface.
If you’re making a dish that requires only a few peppers this is my go to method. It’s also the way I first learned to do it during my stay in Cuernavaca. If you are not lucky enough to be cooking with gas, you can achieve much the same result by roasting them on a sheet pan under the broiler unit of your oven. I suggest cutting them in half to speed up the process and limit the number of times you have to go into the oven to turn them.
In the summer when I’m working from my garden I use my gas grill (just wait a few months and you’ll see)!!
Let it steam!
I’m a big fan of these silicone covers but plastic wrap works as well. Simply place the charred peppers in a bowl and cover. It will take only a few minutes for the steam to loosen the skin from the peppers, but you will be peeling it by hand, so wait until you can handle the pepper comfortably.
If you have sensitive hands you may want to wear gloves, but most poblanos are on the lower end of the heat scale so you may be able to handle them bare handed. In any case the most important thing to remember is Do no rinse them under running water. I know that you will want to do it, because it just seems to be the natural thing to do, but you’ve worked hard to get those lovely roasted, charred flavors and you don’t want to rinse them away. Simply peel off the loosened skin with your fingers or a small paring knife. Remove the stem and cut the pepper open and remove the seeds and veins (those tough white parts running down the length of the pepper).
Now you’re ready to concentrate on making the soup!
So I have one freshly roasted pepper in the front and the last remaining peppers from my freezer stock are just behind. I use them all winter long in dishes like this soup where I want the flavor but don’t need great texture. The only other things you need are onion, potato, butter, stock, milk/cream, a soft, creamy cheese and perhaps some sour cream/crema/crème fraiche.
Start with diced onion in melted butter on medium heat. You just want to soften the onion until it is translucent but not browned. In the original version of the recipe it suggests straining out the onion and just using the onion flavored butter, but that’s definitely not my style!
Next you need a cooked potato. You can cook it anyway you choose-boil, steam,bake etc. For me the easiest method is to poke a few holes in it and microwave until it’s soft. Depending on your microwave , a rather large russet potato like this one it will take from 5 to 8 minutes. Any type of potato good for baking (Russet, Yukon Gold etc..) will do. Just stay away from waxy boiling potatoes (often red,)these are great for potato salad but not for soup or mashed potatoes
Cut the potato in half and scoop out the fluffy interior (don’t throw away that skin though)
Peppers, cooked onion and potato all go into a blender or food processor. This is one puréed soup where I actually prefer using one of these devices over my immersion/stick blender. I like this soup to be perfectly smooth and silky and since I’m not working with a hot liquid or dirtying an extra pot, it’s the way to go for me.
Puree these ingredients until perfectly smooth. You may need to stop the blender and scrape down the sides a few times and you can add a bit of the room temperature stock after a bit of blending.
Pour the puree into the pot where you sautéed the onion. Rinse the blender with the remaining broth. I start with a total of 4 cups of broth and then taste to see how much more I will use. If the soup seems really spicy to you, you will want to use whole milk and/ or heavy cream for the rest liquid. In this batch I ended up using 1 cup of cream and 2 cups of whole milk. It’s really up to you and how spicy vs. creamy you want it to be.
If you’re using all fresh peppers, the soup will be a brighter and more vibrant green. The freezing process takes a bit of a toll on the color, but in mid March when my garden is still months away from producing, I’m happy to have a bowl of homemade soup made from frozen peppers!
Now all you need is some cheese and for those who like it spicy some of that pepper you saved for garnish. The cheese of choice is Mexican Panela. I found it in my local Mexican Market-La Michoacana for $4.99/lb. If you can’t find Panela, most stores carry Queso Blanco-generic for white cheese. The beauty of Panela is that it gets soft in the hot soup but does not melt or string as a mozzarella or Jack cheese would. Queso Blanco has a very similar flavor and is just a tad more crumbly in texture, so if you can’t find panela it makes a great substitute.
Today this soup is so delicious and creamy it doesn’t even need the addition of the crème fraiche I had planned to top it with. This, I attribute to the goodness of the Snowville Creamery whole milk and whipping cream I use.
But what this blogger really enjoyed for lunch was that leftover potato skin, topped with some soup, that lovely panela cheese and of course a cerveza!
Crema de Chile Poblano
by: M.B. Einerson
Adapted from La Villa Bonita Cooking School
One of the most popular fresh cheeses in Mexico, this cheese is mild, white and crumbly. Like Queso Blanco, it will not run when heated—it will get soft and creamy but will not lose its shape. The cheese is used in Mexico for many cooked dishes and is commonly crumbled over salads, tacos, chili and burritos.
Servings: 4 to 6
- 3 to 6 poblano chilies, roasted, cleaned and de-veined. (6 will make it very spicy depending on the heat level in your chilies, so adjust according to your heat tolerance and size of chilies.)
- 1 large cooked and skinned baking potato (a second way to tame the heat-use more potato)
- 2 Tbs. butter
- ½ medium white onion*, chopped
- 7 cups chicken broth (the third way to tame the heat is a substitution of whole milk, half & half or cream for part of the broth-I often use 4 cups of broth and then a combo of whole milk and cream)
- 6 ounces of Panela cheese, cubed or shredded (it’s an add in to your bowl, so don’t fret about the weight/ quantity. I add between 1/4 and 1/2 cup of cubes per serving)
- Sour Cream, Mexican Crema or Crème Fraiche for garnish
In a medium soup pot melt the butter and add the chopped onion. Cook until the onion is soft and translucent, but not browned. Add the onion, roasted chilies (set aside a small portion of the chilies for garnish if you wish) and potato to a blender or food processor and puree until very smooth. Add a small portion of the broth and blend again.
If you are a silky, smooth soup lover, strain the puree through a fine mesh strainer back into the soup pot. If you are like me and don’t mind a little texture to your soup, skip the straining part. Rinse the blender or food processor bowl with the remainder of the broth you are using to make sure you get every last drop of that yummy puree.
Simmer the soup until it thickens slightly. Stir in the milk or cream if you are using it, add salt to taste and heat to serving temperature.
Ladle into bowls and top with a dollop of sour cream, a generous portion of cheese and a few pieces of roasted chile poblano.
* Yes, any onion will do but the white variety is the onion of choice in classic Mexican cooking. They have a clean, sharp flavor, have less of a sulfurous bite than yellow onions and are tender and thin-skinned.