Home Cookin’: Doug Muder’s Chile Relleno Casserole

Welcome to our first edition of “Home Cookin’.” Anyone in Bedford of any age, whether they are a five-star chef or a novice at the stage of learning the correct way to boil an egg, is invited to share their favorite recipes – and cooking stories and photos. Perfection is not required, but a sense of learning, adventure, and fun is always welcomed. The easiest way to get involved is through our Share Your News link. Please remember to include your contact information in case we have questions.

Submitted by Doug Muder:

I never saw myself as the kind of guy who would write about cooking.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, my mother cooked for the household, but didn’t seem to enjoy it, and showed no interest at all in teaching me. So, I reached adulthood with fairly minimal kitchen skills. I could boil up some pasta or fry a hamburger. At the limit, I could follow a recipe well enough to throw ingredients into a slow cooker and turn it on. Once when I was heating a frozen pizza, my attempt to retrieve a pepperoni that had fallen into the oven’s electric element set the oven mitt on fire. Who knew it could do that?

When I got married, my wife and I formed a two-career, no-kids household where there always seemed to be something better to do than cook. We ate out, or we’d over-order takeout and eat the leftovers for a week.

Then COVID-19 happened, and it seemed wise to leave home as seldom as possible. So I began experimenting in the kitchen and learning simple things most cooks were probably told as children. (The reason bacon sets off the smoke alarm is that you’re cooking it too hot. Bacon fat, like every oil, has a smoke point. Keep the temperature just slightly lower than that and you’re fine.)

To my surprise, I discovered that I liked it. After a career in which a year’s work might produce nothing more substantial than a journal article, the immediate gratification of cooking something and then eating it appealed to me. Little by little, I picked up a few simple dishes. 

And then The Washington Post published a recipe for chile relleno casserole.

Back when we were dating, my wife’s favorite dish at our favorite Mexican restaurant was chile relleno – a poblano pepper stuffed with cheese, then lightly breaded and fried. Although I was improving as a cook, that still seemed beyond my powers. But a casserole? I’m a Midwesterner by birth, raised a few hours’ drive south of Lake Wobegon. Surely casseroles are in my DNA somewhere.

The steps looked simple enough: brown some ground beef in a pan with some onions and spices; layer that over some whole canned poblano peppers; add another layer of cheese and chopped poblanos, pour a mixture of eggs, flour, and milk over the top of it; and bake in the oven for 45 minutes. Easy-peasy. 

Then I started gathering the ingredients, and discovered that whole canned poblanos are not nearly so easy to find as the Post implied. “Canned poblanos can be found at Mexican markets,” the recipe said.

A tour of Waltham’s Mexican groceries, plus the Mexican section at the Indian superstore on Moody Street, proved otherwise. Canned jalapenos (a smaller and much hotter pepper) were everywhere, but when I asked for canned poblanos, the clerks looked at me like I must have made a mistake.

I was bailed out – sort of – by Wegmans, which had small cans of shredded poblanos rather than the big can of whole poblanos I was looking for. But that raised a potential for a structural problem: The whole poblanos were supposed to interlace to make a floor under the casserole, which the shredded poblanos couldn’t do. So I borrowed an idea from a stacked enchilada recipe on the Taste of Home website and made a floor out of tortillas. (The eternal flour vs. corn tortilla debate was resolved by looking in my larder: flour.) The shredded poblanos got included in the cheese layer and I baked the dish according to the instructions.

Success, sort of. The tortillas served their purpose and the casserole tasted more-or-less as I’d imagined: pleasantly spicy without mouth-searing fire. 

But what would it be like with all the right ingredients?

Fortunately, the Post offered two other options for acquiring whole poblanos: order online or do something with fresh poblanos and a broiler. I am still intimidated by broilers, though, so I pictured my fresh poblanos scorching to ash in seconds. Mexgrocer.com, then. 

Sure enough, it had exactly the cans the recipe called for. A $60 order qualified for free shipping, so I also acquired other ingredients I may or may not ever use. In a few days, I had my whole canned poblanos and was ready to try again.

The whole canned poblanos proved to be very limp, and cleaning all the seeds out of them was laborious. (Probably there’s a technique for this that I don’t know.) But the result was marvelous. Not only was it flavorful with the cheese, eggs, and ground beef smoothing out the spice of the peppers, but it produced an experience every cook should have at least once in life: My casserole looked exactly like the picture in the recipe.

Feeling victorious, I made the dish again for a church potluck with results almost as good. (The previous time I had allowed for my electric toaster-oven’s uneven heating by turning the casserole halfway through. This time, I didn’t, and one side looked noticeably darker than the other.) Leftovers were scarce, which I counted as success. So I was ready to enter chile relleno casserole into my regular rotation of dishes. 

Then, however, my wife sadly informed me that poblanos didn’t agree with her system nearly so well as they had when we were both young. If I want to rekindle dating-era magic, I suppose I’ll have to try something else.

Find the Washington Post Chile Relleno Casserole recipe here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/recipes/chile-relleno-casserole/

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