Just when you thought the United Nations was only good for dishing out sanctions and giving third world dictators a venue to vent, along comes UNESCO - the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
Actually, the organization has been around since just after the end of World War II, but starting in 2003 they began identifying and officially protecting cultural icons based on their intangible cultural heritage. And last November they bestowed such designation on the "Cuisine of Mexico," specifically that of Michoacan, one of the 31 states comprising our neighbor to the south.
In their opinion, Michoacan's food (represented by the fundamentals of beans, corn and chilies) encapsulates the history of Mexico from its pre-European days on up through the arrival of the Spaniards and subsequent cultural fusion. Kind of a history of the New World told with food.
Interestingly, the latest craze sweeping the U.S. - the farm to table, buy and eat locally movement - is nothing new to Mexico. Whether you're scratching out a living in the poorest part of town or dining at the finest restaurants, most of the food consumed in urban Mexico is still artisanal - it's made using the old ways.
And the custodians of this traditional cuisine tend to be the women. Called "la cocina de las mayoras" (the cooking of the grandmothers), women chefs have taken the lead in preserving and promoting their culinary heritage.
To celebrate their glorious recognition, and with Cinco de Mayo just ahead, we've come up with this recipe for chilies stuffed with a mixture of corn, squash and cheese - part of the holy trinity of Mexican cuisine.
Variations on this recipe show up throughout Mexican cooking. Sometimes the filling is served as a side dish without the chile. Aaron Sanchez of the Food Network gets glossy eyed when describing his mother's rice dish that incorporates the chile and creamy, cheesy elements found in today's offering.
We served this dish the other night at a party, and it did strike a chord with one of the guests who was a native of Mexico. So reminded was he of the food of his homeland that he felt compelled to come back in the kitchen and not only share but demonstrate his grandmother's recipe for salsa. It was one of those kumbaya-type moments that always seem to take place in the kitchen where cultures are bridged by the common denominator of food.
The next time you hear someone dissing the U.N. as ineffective and a waste of prime New York real estate, remember: Acupuncture, Flamenco dancing and the Mediterranean diet will all be saved and protected for future generations thanks to UNESCO. As far as making some real progress toward world peace, maybe they should hold their meetings in a kitchen.
Chile Rellenos with Corn and Zucchini
A lot of people think that rellenos are the battered, deep fried kind typical to most Mexican restaurants. By definition, they are simply stuffed chilies. We've used fresh poblano chilies, but if you like a milder chile, opt for an Anaheim. If you don't feel like peeling your own chilies, "Buenos Chilies," available in the frozen section at Smith's are pretty good.
8 small poblano chilies
1⁄4 cup butter
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves of garlic minced
1 medium zucchini, cut into 1⁄2-inch cubes
3 cups fresh corn cut from approximately 3 ears
1 medium red bell pepper, diced
2 teaspoons Mexican oregano
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1⁄4 teaspoon ground allspice
Big pinch of ground cloves
1⁄2 cup heavy cream
1 cup sour cream
8 ounces Monterey jack cheese, shredded
Juice from one lime
1⁄4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1⁄4 cup bread crumbs
1⁄4 cup grated Parmesan or Asiago cheese
Salt to taste
Char the poblanos under the broiler, turning occasionally until blackened and blistered all over. Place in a bowl and cover with plastic. Allow to steam off for about 15 minutes.
Remove the charred skin then make a slit almost the full length of the pepper. Scrape out the seeds and put the prepared chilies in a casserole large enough to accommodate them once they are stuffed.
In a large saute pan melt the butter then add the diced onion and garlic. Saute until the onions are translucent. Add the zucchini and seasonings and cook for one minute. Add the red bell pepper and corn and saute for a minute. Add the heavy cream and bring to a simmer. Add the shredded Jack cheese and continue cooking, stirring until the cheese is melted.
Remove from heat and stir in the sour cream, lime juice, cilantro and salt if necessary.
Using a slotted spoon, scoop the vegetables into the chilies leaving the sauce in the pan for the time being. Fill the chilies until bulging. Pour the sauce over the chilies. Combine the Parmesan and bread crumbs, and sprinkle over the chilies. Bake at 3750 until the tops start to brown - about 20 minutes.
Try them over steamed rice draped with the resulting sauce from the casserole.
• Brian Shaw and his wife Ardie own Cafe Del Rio in Virginia City.