During our week on Hilton Head Island, my brother-in-law and I spent an afternoon bouncing around recipe ideas and exchanging high fives over recent cooking successes. I told him about my dosas and a particularly good peach slab pie, he told me about the ethereal cake doughnuts he’d recreated from an old family recipe. Then he told me about some slam-dunk chiles rellenos he made, and I started to get jealous. Or maybe just really hungry. I wanted those chiles rellenos, stat.
Stephen’s version sounded pretty authentic. The chiles were deep-fried, and the sauce was a split-egg concoction that had to be timed perfectly. He nailed it and reaped the rewards. But I’m settling into a slightly lower-key mode of cooking, one that involves lots of casseroles and things I can make in advance. I also vaguely remembered an episode of a bobby flay show from back before I swore off the terrible food network, where a California restaurant called La Casita Mexicana made its famous chile relleno in the oven, instead of in the fryer. Between my faint memory and my very not faint appetite, I figured something could be done.
Chiles rellenos casserole recipes abound, but they’re almost all egg-based – like a massive frittata enveloping stuffed chiles. I wanted the chiles to stand out more, and – shocker – I wanted the casserole to be saucy. So I riffed on the method for manicotti, basically swapping peppers in for noodles and Mexican stuff for all that ricotta.
Here’s where the road forks. I loved this dish. Next time, I’d make two pans full and freeze one unbaked – it’s the perfect thing to have tucked away in the depths of the freezer for a lazy dinner at home. But D found the whole thing way too spicy, and she ended up taking out the leftover corn filling and making it into a quesadilla. Winners, losers. I think she just got a particularly hot pepper – mine was pretty mild. See below for some thoughts on avoiding the last-minute scramble and/or sad face due to heat.
Notes on the fuss: Even though this is a casserole, it isn’t the “dump everything in a pan and bake” kind of casserole. It’s a bit on the fussy side. If you’re feeling hesitant about the fuss, you can skip the tomatillos+tomatoes step and just use a large jar of whatever salsa you like. You can also probably skip blending the beans, and just toss them in with the corn; the result will be different, but no less tasty. Lastly, if you do bother to make the recipe, you might make a double batch. This is the sort of thing that freezes beautifully, and that way, it’s twice the food for the effort.
Notes on the heat: One last note: poblanos are notoriously inconsistent in spice level. Some are as mild as bell peppers, and others are really quite hot. If you’re nervous about the casserole being too spicy, you might consider substituting Anaheim chiles or even banana or bell peppers. Another nice option, though not widely available, are Jimmy Nardellos, which are shaped long and lean, but are not at all spicy.
Can I make this vegan? Definitely. Skip the cheese (or replace with soy cheese) and you’re good to go.
Chile Relleno Casserole
Serves 4 with leftovers
7 or 8 poblano chiles
3 tomatillos, husked and rinsed
12 oz. canned crushed tomatoes
1 canned chipotle in adobo (you may not need all of it)
1 can kidney beans
1 teaspoon epazote or dried oregano, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil or butter
kernels from 2 ears corn (about 2 cups)
2 scallions, sliced
1/2 cup grated cotija cheese
1 cup grated cheddar or pepper jack cheese, or a mixture
Roast the peppers: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Set the poblanos and tomatillos on a baking sheet lined with foil, and roast until blistered and soft all over, about 30 minutes total, turning peppers once halfway through roasting. Transfer peppers to a heatsafe bowl, cover with a piece of plastic wrap, and let the peppers steam while you prepare the sauce. Lower the oven to 350 degrees.
Prepare the sauce: Transfer tomatillos in the jar of a blender or a food processor (I like a miniprep). Add the tomatoes and half the chipotle, and blend until smooth. Taste, and add any salt and, if desired, more chipotle, as needed. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
Prepare the fillings: Drain the beans, and add to the same blender or food processor container along with half the epazote or oregano. Blend until mostly smooth, adding water by the tablespoon if the beans won’t blend. When beans are mostly smooth, set aside.
Heat the olive oil or butter in a saute pan over medium heat. When hot, add scallions, corn, and remaining epazote or oregano. Cook 5-7 minutes, until some of the corn has turned golden. Transfer to a bowl, add cotija cheese, and stir to combine.
Assemble and bake casserole: By now, the peppers should have steamed enough that their skins slip right off. It’s okay if little bits of skin remain, but try to remove as much as possible. Slit each pepper lengthwise down one side of the pepper, and scoop out the core and seeds from the pepper. Lay the slit pepper on a cutting board or work surface. Repeat with remaining peppers.
Pour 1/2 cup of the sauce into a 9×13″ baking pan. Smear a large spoonful of the bean puree onto the inside of each pepper. Top with a couple spoonfuls of the corn-cotija mixture. Wrap the clean side of the pepper over the filled side, and transfer the filled pepper into the baking pan. Repeat with remaining peppers, laying peppers in the pan in alternating directions. You probably will have some leftover corn mixture; reserve it for stuffing quesadillas, or just eat it as is.
Spoon the remaining sauce over the peppers, and top with the grated cheddar or pepper jack cheese. At this point, the casserole can be frozen (preferably without the cheese), to be baked at a later date. Alternatively, transfer to the oven and bake for 25 minutes, until cheese is bubbly and melted. Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.