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The possibilities of poblano

If there were such a thing as an upscale chile, it would have to be the poblano. Dark-green and elegantly flavored, the poblano chile turns up in Mexico in everything from rice and rellenos to posole and polenta.

Its bold, distinctive pepper flavor stands up to intense seasonings, while its plump shape makes it ideal for stuffing. All of which should put the poblano high on any heat-loving cook's shopping list.

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One of the poblano's most visible guises is as the chile relleno. Although Anaheim chiles were long the standard for the dish, the poblano is taking over. No longer limited to restaurants that delve more deeply into authentic Mexican ingredients, they're now used for rellenos by middlebrow establishments.

Once difficult to find, poblanos now are as abundant as all-purpose Anaheim chiles always have been. Yet unlike the Anaheim, which usually is mild, poblanos vary in heat, from moderate to something approaching jalapeno fire.

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You can't tell by looking at them; you have to taste them, best done after they have been roasted and peeled. One way to lessen the heat is to soak the chiles in salted water, but this leaches out some of the flavor.

When shopping for fresh poblanos, don't be put off if they are labeled pasilla. Who knows how the misnomer started, but somehow it caught on, and poblanos are routinely mislabeled as pasilla.

A dried poblano, wrinkly and a deep red-brown, is called an ancho chile (sometimes ancho pasilla). Ancho means wide in Spanish and refers to the chile's broad girth. Pasilla, slim and almost black, actually is a dried chilaca chile.

The poblano happens to be the foundation of Mexico's most patriotic dish, chiles en nogada. A far cry from everyday cheese-stuffed rellenos, these chiles are filled with meat, nuts and fruit and topped with a luxurious nut sauce. Parsley and pomegranate seeds scattered over the pale sauce represent the red, white and green of the Mexican flag.

Chile poblano means the chile from Puebla, a city that has played a key role in Mexican history and cuisine. Chiles en nogada was devised to honor Gen. Agustin de Iturbide when he passed through Puebla on his way back from signing independence documents in 1821. The new flag had just been adopted, and the creators of the dish, probably nuns, thought of an appropriate garnish - bands of pomegranate seeds and parsley with the white sauce showing in between.

Complex and aristocratic, chiles en nogada well suits the Mexican Independence Day holiday. In September, Puebla's restaurants put their best efforts into this dish. One of the few restaurants to serve it in Los Angeles is the Spanish Kitchen on La Cienega Boulevard. Chef Hugo Molina's version includes an ornate picadillo filling that combines pork and beef with dried cranberries, apricots, prunes and tomatoes. Molina sweetens it with honey, pours in a cup of sherry and adds fresh oregano along with cinnamon and cloves. Talk about richness - the sauce, or nogada, blends goat cheese, whipping cream, sour cream and milk with almonds, walnuts and even more sherry.

Poblanos shine in a silky cream soup from Cien Anos in Tijuana. This restaurant is known for innovative, high-end Mexican food. Accordingly, its crema poblana blends in ground almonds and shows off large Baja shrimp.

In Ensenada, Mexico, Benito Molina Dubost of Manzanilla restaurant makes green polenta with pureed poblanos. However, be sure to test the poblanos for heat before adding them to the polenta. If they are very hot, reduce the quantity or top the polenta with sour cream or thick Mexican crema to mitigate the heat. Molina says this is a fine side dish for carne asada, barbecued lamb, grilled quail or chicken.

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The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

A Stately Mexican Chile: Crema Poblana

Serves 8

8 poblano chiles

1 cup slivered almonds plus 1/3 cup for garnish

2 cups chicken broth

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2 tablespoons butter

1 cup carrots, peeled and chopped

1 cup celery, chopped

1 cup onion, chopped

2 tablespoons flour

4 cups milk

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1 chicken bouillon cube

16 large shrimp, boiled and peeled with heads left on (see note)

salt to taste

Roast the chiles over a gas flame on the stove top until they are blistered. Place in a plastic bag and let stand 10 minutes. Peel the chiles, remove the stems and seeds, and wash. Place the chiles in a blender, add the cup of almonds and the chicken broth and blend until pureed. Set aside.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the carrots, celery and onion and cook for 5 minutes to soften the vegetables. Gradually stir in the flour, and continue to stir about 2 to 3 minutes to lightly brown the flour coating the vegetables. Slowly pour in the milk, stirring as it comes to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 5 minutes to blend the flavors. Strain and discard the vegetables.

Combine the chile and milk mixtures in a large saucepan. Add the bouillon and stir to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly, until thickened, 2 to 3 minutes. Check for seasoning and add salt if desired.

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Ladle the soup into broad, shallow soup bowls. Add two shrimp to each bowl and garnish with a few slivered almonds.

Note: Raw shrimp with heads on may be found at Asian markets.

Each serving: 303 calories; 15 grams protein; 24 grams carbohydrate; 7 grams fiber; 18 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 46 milligrams cholesterol; 488 milligrams sodium

-- From Cien Anos, a restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico

Chile Poblano Polenta

Serves 6

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4 poblano chiles, roasted and peeled

1/2 cup whipping cream

2 cups water

3 tablespoons butter

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper

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1 1/2 cups instant polenta

1/2 cup Mexican crema (see note)

Remove the stems, seeds and veins from the chiles. Cut the chiles into thick slices. Place the slices in a blender and add the whipping cream and water. Blend until smooth. Pour the mixture into a saucepan.

Bring it to a boil and add the butter, salt and pepper. Slowly stir in the polenta. Turn the heat to low and continue cooking and stirring for 3 minutes until the polenta grains have softened.

Serve with a dollop of the Mexican crema as garnish.

Note: Mexican crema is available at Hispanic markets and some supermarkets.

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Each serving: 319 calories; 5 grams protein; 34 grams carbohydrate; 5 grams fiber; 19 grams fat; 11 grams saturated fat; 51 milligrams cholesterol; 800 milligrams sodium

- Adapted from Benito Molina Dubost at Manzanilla restau- rant in Ensenada, Mexico


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