Sunday Dinner: Shrimp & Plantain Stuffed Poblano Peppers in Criollo Sauce

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Publishing a food blog is definitely getting my creative juices flowing; tonight's recipe is no exception. I've been toying around with the idea of doing stuffed peppers for awhile now, but I really wanted to create something to make me forget the rice and ground beef stuffed bell peppers I've eaten in the past. Let's face it, most stuffed peppers are uninspiring. They are often soggy, drenched in tomato sauce to cover up otherwise bland ingredients, and not that pretty to look at. On the other end of the spectrum is one of my favorite authentic Mexican dishes I got to know while living in El Paso, chiles rellenos, made with poblano peppers loaded with cheese and sometimes meat, dipped in batter and fried. Tasty? Damn right. Healthy? Not so much. I knew that I wanted to use the poblano peppers though - if nothing more than to redeem myself from a previous stint in trying to roast and stuff these suckers that failed miserably, resulting in a makeshift casserole. I also knew that I wanted to take advantage of the $5.99/lb shrimp special going on this weekend at Publix. Finally, I had some extra plantains on hand that were just about ripe. While that may seem like a wildcard, it turned out to be the missing link A random Google search for "shrimp and plantains" lead me to a curious Puerto Rican dish called Mofongo, made with mashed green plantains and pork cracklings. By all appearances it just might be the holy grail of plantain dishes. However it was this version that caught my eye, served with shrimp and a tomato based sauce. (Note to self: must get to Jimmy'z Kitchen in Miami, ASAP!)

It was then that the gears began to turn and my recipe was brought to life. Instead of using rice as the base of my stuffing, I would take a cue from the Mofongo and use mashed plantains, albeit a sweeter version as my plantains were near ripe. The shrimp would be sauteed in Latin seasonings and incorporated into the stuffing, which would fill the slightly spicy roasted poblano peppers. I would then make a tomato & red pepper criollo sauce, similar to marinara in texture but flavored with garlic, cumin and cilantro. And because I wasn't ready to give up the idea of cheese completely, I picked up a package of fresh Queso Blanco, a white Mexican cheese that is lower in fat than most aged cheeses and has a texture similar to feta. With only five main ingredients needed, the rest being staples I always have on hand, I was well under my $20 budget.

My notes were neatly written, I had what I believed to be a seemingly straightforward recipe that I was ready to bang out after work Friday evening. I did my research and studied up on proper poblano roasting & peeling techniques. I knew that without the open flame of a gas stove or grill, I would have to improvise by using my broiler, but this time paying closer attention so as not to over-cook the peppers and have them fall apart on me. My previous attempt at roasting poblano peppers would be a thing of the past. I was not going to skip steps, so my plastic bag was ready to steam the charred peppers and I had plenty of time to allow the peppers to cool before working on them. I had my trusted paring knife ready to scrape off the blistered skin, leaving behind perfectly roasted peppers ready to stuff. You see, this time I had a plan, and it was going to go perfectly.



Three hours back was aching, my son had long since fallen asleep, and my face looked something like this as I stared in disbelief at the clock:

I admit, I had a moment there. But I worked it out, the dish came together beautifully and my son miraculously awoke to the smell of stuffed poblano peppers coming out of the oven. So while I will caution you that this recipe is time consuming and labor intensive due to it being mostly hands-on cooking time, I can assure you that your efforts won't be in vain. I hope that you're as proud as yourself as I was when I took that first bite and realized every minute of hard work was absolutely worth it.  Realistically, it probably also wouldn't take as long to cook now that I know what to expect, but take my advice and try this for Sunday dinner, because if you're like me it's the only day of the week that would have made sense to spend this much time cooking!

Shrimp & Plantain Stuffed Poblano Peppers in Criollo Sauce

4 large poblano peppers
1 lb raw shrimp
2 large plantains*
1 red bell pepper
2 c. Queso Fresco
1 can diced fire-roasted tomatoes
Fresh cilantro
2 Tbsp Sofrito Tomato Cooking Base (I use Goya, but any brand is fine)
2 limes
2 large sweet onions, red and/or white
1 whole garlic bulb
1 -2 tsp chipotle powder
1 -2 tsp Cumin
Vegetable broth, as needed
Sea Salt, to taste
Olive oil

*The ripeness of the plantains you choose can alter the dish significantly. Riper plantains, with partially blackened skin will yield a sweeter stuffing. Choosing greener plantains will give you a more savory stuffing, so it's a matter of personal preference. I don't recommend using plantains that are completely ripe because the texture will be too soft for stuffing.

Servings: 4
Prep Time: Clear your schedule. Okay, realistically 1 - 2 hours..
Cook Time: 30 min
Equipment Needed: 2 roasting pans or baking sheets, 2 large fry pans, sauce pan, hand blender, blender or food processor, large casserole dish.

The most important prep work you'll do in making this dish is roasting and peeling the poblano peppers. In almost all of the instructions I was able to find, it's recommended to use an open flame, whether a grill or a gas stove. I have neither, so my only option was to use the oven. Regardless of how you go about roasting the poblanos, it's important to char the skin but not cook the flesh to the point where the pepper falls apart. Rather than recreate the wheel here, I defer to Cooking in Mexico's blog post on how to do this. 

I opted to roast the poblanos, bell pepper and one of the onions on the same pan, covered in aluminum foil. The bell peppers and onion were drizzled with olive oil. I also roasted my garlic but in a small ramekin. I roasted everything at 450° for about 20 minutes, then removed the poblanos and turned the heat down to 400° to finish the rest of the veggies for another 10 minutes.  Since everybody's oven works differently, use your best judgement. If you are using your broiler on a high setting, it will take much less time so make sure you keep a close eye on the peppers and turn them over as soon as one side starts to get black. In a separate roasting dish (not shown) I roasted the plantains, lightly drizzled with olive oil, for about 20 minutes at 400° until soft.

I love the smell of roasting garlic. It's so ridiculously easy to do at home and great to always have on hand for your favorite recipes (or to smear on fresh bread!) Simply cut off the top of a whole garlic bulb, no need to peel it. Wrap it in foil and drizzle heavily with olive oil. Roast at 400° about 30 minutes or so, until soft. When done, you can remove the individual cloves with the tip of a knife or just wait until it cools and squeeze it out. As a bonus, the olive oil left behind after roasting is infused with garlic so that can be used too.  

When the poblano peppers and red bell peppers are done, put them in plastic bags or a sealed plastic container.  This steams the peppers and makes the skin easier to remove once cooled. The garlic and onions can be set aside.

After the peppers have cooled completely, peel the skin. The bell peppers are relatively easy to peel by hand, but it is helpful to use a paring knife for the poblanos. Cut a slit lengthwise down the pepper, and remove all of the seeds from the inside. You'll then have a pocket to insert the stuffing later. Be extra careful not to pull off the stem as that holds the pepper together. 

The roasted plantains can be added to a medium bowl and mashed, along with two or three cloves of roasted garlic, the chipotle powder, cinnamon and cayenne. 

The next step is caramelizing the remaining onion. This process takes 20 - 30 minutes depending on the onions used. It is essentially a slow browning of the onions. Heat your fry pan to medium and once hot, add a couple tablespoons of olive oil (twice around the pan is fine.) Thinly slice the onion and add to the hot pan. To avoid burning the onion, you may need to adjust your heat down to medium low if the onion is browning too quickly. Stir occasionally, and once the onions have softened and start to brown add a pinch of salt. Some people add a pinch of sugar at this point but because I was using a sweet red onion, I didn't need to. If the onions start to stick the pan, add a splash of vegetable broth. You can move on to prepping other ingredients while the onions finish caramelizing, just remember to stir ocassionally and if needed add a splash of broth as the pan dries up. Once the onions are caramelized (they will look like the lower right picture below) turn off the heat.

Peel and devein the shrimp, if necessary. I left a few shrimp with tails intact to use as a garnish later. Besides being great for presentation, it's a useful way of letting your guests know what's inside a stuffed dish.

To season the shrimp, add fresh cilantro, the juice of half a lime, chipotle powder, cumin, a pinch of cinnamon, a pinch of cayenne, and sea salt. I'm liberal with seasonings, but a good mix is about a teaspoon each of chipotle powder and cumin.

Mix well to coat the shrimp with the seasoning. Drizzle with olive oil and refrigerate for 10-15 minutes. 

To make the criollo sauce, add your roasted onion, roasted and peeled red bell pepper, six cloves of roasted garlic and some fresh cilantro to a mixing bowl (or food processor/blender).

Add the fire roasted tomatoes and 2 tablespoons of sofrito base. 

Puree the vegetables until you see the consistency of marinara sauce.  It's great to have a hand blender for cooking, I've found it much more convenient not to have to transfer what I'm mixing in and out of blenders or food processors. I received the DeLonghi Tri-Blade Variable Speed Handblender as a gift and it quickly became the most useful gadget in my kitchen!

Preheat your oven to 375°. Heat a saucepan over medium heat and add a couple tablespoons of olive oil.  Slowly pour the pureed criollo sauce into the pan and stir. Season to taste with sea salt and cumin and allow the sauce to gently simmer. It will reduce slightly.  I added a splash of vegetable broth towards the end.

In a large fry pan over medium heat, add a tablespoon of olive oil. Saute the shrimp just until they turn opaque and then remove from the pan.

Chop the cooked shrimp into bite size pieces.

Add the shrimp and caramelized onions to the mashed plantain stuffing.

Add about a cup of crumbled Queso Blanco cheese. If you can't find fresh Mexican cheese, you could probably substitute shredded Monterey Jack.

Stuff each poblano peppers with 1/4 of the plantain stuffing and place in a lightly oiled casserole dish.

Carefully spoon the sauce into the pan until it reaches about halfway up the sides of the poblanos.

Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes or until the cheese has softened (it won't melt.) If you made your peppers a day ahead of time, adjust the cooking time so that the stuffing is heated thoroughly. In the last 5 minutes or so of baking, remove foil and sprinkle with additional cheese. Add the shrimp garnish if you'd like.

To serve, I placed one stuffed pepper in a large bowl and spooned criollo sauce around it. I then warmed some Mexican Crema (similar to sour cream) and drizzled that over the pepper, and garnished with chopped fresh cilantro.

Serve with a bowl of brown rice and a fresh salad, and you'll have a restaurant worthy meal in your own home. It's a beautiful dish and the contrast of flavors are exciting. Exhausting, but totally worth the effort! That said, I may or may not have passed out on the couch without doing the dishes that night...


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