Chef Elia Her­rera’s abuela’s recipe

A third-generation Mex­i­can chef re­turns to her roots

North Toronto Post - - Food - by Jessica Wei

RED, WHITE AND GREEN Chiles en no­gada was served to Au­gustín de Itur­bide, known for se­cur­ing Mexico’s in­de­pen­dence. Tra­di­tion­ally, the sauce was made by grind­ing wal­nuts into a paste with a stone made of vol­canic rock.

Chef Elia Her­rera has been mak­ing chiles en no­gada for so long she can’t remember the first time. The executive chef of Los Colib­ris and

Top Chef Canada con­tender used to make it with her abuela (grand­mother), who ran her own cater­ing busi­ness in Mexico.

Her­rera en­tered the biz through pas­tries, work­ing as a pas­try chef for 10 years across Europe and Toronto be­fore open­ing Los Colib­ris and El Ca­bal­lito at King and Uni­ver­sity in 2014.

Her recipe for chiles en no­gada is her grand­mother’s, who adapted it from a woman from Pue­bla City, the birth­place of the dish. Her­rera spent the late sum­mers of her child­hood mak­ing large batches of chiles en no­gada to sell, to give to fam­ily and friends and to keep for her own fam­ily.

“We are from Ver­acruz, three hours south of Pue­bla City,” she says. “So it was a big deal that some­one from Pue­bla would ask some­one from Ver­acruz to make this tra­di­tional Pue­bla dish.”

Cel­e­brated for sharing the same colours with the Mex­i­can flag, chiles en no­gada is a dish stud­ded with pome­gran­ate seeds on a soft white blan­ket of raw wal­nut sauce, un­der which lies a roasted and de­seeded green poblano pep­per stuffed with mar­i­nated pork pi­cadillo. When pome­gran­ate sea­son comes around in Au­gust and Septem­ber, so come the calls for this na­tion­ally rev­ered del­i­cacy.

With 32 in­gre­di­ents and dif­fer­ent tech­niques for pre­par­ing each one, it is not an easy dish to make, nor a quick one. The process takes three days in to­tal, in­volv­ing roast­ing the poblanos and mar­i­nat­ing chunks of pork to pure flavour­ful ten­der­ness. There’s the whip­ping of egg whites, which are then folded with one egg yolk to cre­ate a light foam. And fi­nally, the stuffed poblano gets dipped into that egg mix­ture and fried.

That’s just the ba­sic ar­chi­tec­ture. Along the way are nuts both toasted and raw; fruits that are fried, dried, and fresh; and rice that’s been cooked in cilantro, gar­lic and spinach. Plus spices and herbs are added: thyme, cin­na­mon, star anise, black pep­per, bay leaf, oregano.

“So the flavours are very savoury. It’s very aro­matic, it’s sweet as well,” ex­plains Her­rera. “It’s a com­bi­na­tion of sweet and salty, and it has some acid from the vine­gar and a lit­tle spici­ness from the poblano but not too much be­cause poblanos are very mild.”

When Her­rera moved to Toronto in 2003, she had trou­ble finding pick­led jalapenos at the store. But, she says, in the last seven to eight years, in­ter­est in Mex­i­can food be­gan to grow in Toronto.

“You can find dried chilies to fresh chilies; peo­ple grow tomatil­los here. I don’t have trou­ble now finding tra­di­tional, au­then­tic in­gre­di­ents.”

The ap­petite deep­ened: spitroasted tacos al pas­tor be­came de

rigueur in fast-ca­sual Mex­i­can spots. La Car­nita be­came Toronto’s stan­dard take­out taco. The base­line moved, and serv­ing home cook­ing to the masses be­came pos­si­ble.

“Mex­i­can cui­sine ex­ploded in a big way,” she says. “Peo­ple are ap­pre­ci­at­ing more the his­tory be­hind each dish.” Now, chiles en LABOUR no­gata re­mains a OF LAVA year-round sta­ple on her menu be­cause she can al­ways find pomegranates. Lately, she’s taken her flavours to Top Chef Canada, cur­rently in its sixth sea­son. “I opened with my fam­ily recipes, which have been proven.” says Her­rera. “For me to com­pete, or col­lab­o­rate or stage with other chefs, it’s an op­por­tu­nity to learn and grow as a chef.”

Top Chef Canada airs Sun­days at 10 p.m. on Food Net­work Canada.

Elia Her­rera makes tra­di­tional chiles en no­gada

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