I’ve been taking a conversational Spanish class on Monday nights at a Cuban restaurant in my neighborhood for the past few months. Over wine and bread with garlic oil, we clumsily discuss our rutinas diarias, fines de semana, trabajo, etc. Inevitably, the conversation almost always reverts to what we cook and where we eat.
This is my favorite part of the class for many reasons. Being a food person, I find the idea of achieving food fluency in two languages incredibly exciting. But we students all have pretty limited vocabularies when it comes to food, compounded by the fact that our teacher is from the Dominican Republic, so she is accustomed to a completely different set of ingredients than we are in the States. Trying to explain what a chive is in not-your-first language to someone who’s never seen a chive is pretty funny, sort of like playing Taboo.
“Es como una pequeña, flaca cebolla verde” (It’s like a small, skinny green onion), I said. Sensing I wasn’t getting anywhere, I tried to explain that chives look a lot like blades of grass, except I couldn’t remember how to say grass in Spanish.
During another class, my classmate was describing what she’d planted in her neighborhood’s community garden–carrots (zanahorias), lettuce (lechuga), parsley (perejil), and beets…Hmm, como se dice “beet”?
We spent the next five minutes trying to explain in broken Spanish what a beet is to the confused teacher before someone finally gave up and looked it up on Google Translate.
“Remolacha!” my classmate cried.
“Ohh, sí, sí, remolacha–I know what this is,” my teacher replied. Then she added with a laugh: “Sí se puede!” (She uses this phrase when any of us struggle with a nagging pronunciation, verb tense or translation, which is quite often.)
The class is humbling to be sure, but also a lot of fun. Plus, now I find myself translating foods to Spanish under my breath in the grocery store.
That brings me to today’s recipe and mini vocabulary lesson: poblano rajas. Rajas in Spanish literally means strips–and strips of blistered poblano chiles are the stars of this meatless taco filling, along with charred onion, garlic, oregano, Mexican crema and Monterey jack cheese. You’ll find some recipes incorporate little cubes of potato as well, but I like rajas best when they’re all about the chiles.
serves 3 or 4, adapted from Bon Apetit
1 pound large fresh poblano chiles
1/2 an onion, cut in half and sliced into 1/4-inch strips
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/3 cup Mexican crema or sour cream
1/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Warm corn tortillas, for serving
Red onion, minced for garnish
Whole fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish
Additional crema, for garnish
Lime wedges, for garnish
Method: Heat the gas grill to high or preheat the broiler. If grilling, put the chiles directly on the grill. If broiling, put the chiles on a baking sheet. Roast the chiles, turning occasionally, until blackened all over and soft.
Transfer the chiles to a large bowl and cover them with plastic wrap. Let them steam for about 15 minutes. Peel most of the charred skin from the chiles and remove the seeds. Cut them into about 1/4-inch strips.
Heat a large dry skillet over medium high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until softened and slightly charred, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, another minute. Add the oregano and about 1/2 cup water and simmer until the onions are tender and the water has evaporated, 5 to 7 minutes. Season with a sprinkling of salt to taste.
Add the chiles and cook until the flavors meld, another 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, and stir in the crema and cheese. Add a spoonful or two of water if needed if the sauce feels too thick. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.
To serve, spoon a few tablespoons of the rajas into a warm tortilla. Top with onion, a drizzle of crema and cilantro. Squeeze lime juice over top, and serve immediately.