Lindsay Sterling

Lindsay Sterling

Fall window for a favorite Mexican dish

On a recent Thursday I was delighted to find gorgeous poblano peppers at Andrew’s Farm stand at the Yarmouth Farmers’ Market. Shining with earthly energy, they reminded me something that a Mexican chef once taught me: September through November is the best time of year to cook chiles en nogada. It’s a Mexican classic: deep fried poblano chili peppers stuffed with pork, thyme, apple, and plantains, and topped with walnut cream sauce, fresh parsley, and pomegranate.



I learned how to make this unique dish from Yazmin Saraya, the pastry chef of Five Fifty-Five. She grew up and went to cooking school in Mexico City, before getting the itch to explore other cultures. She worked in Spain, Colorado, and Mexico before joining the vibrant food scene in Portland, Maine. She said that chiles en nogada is up there with her favorite foods from Mexico, along with fried plantains with sour cream and sugar, and candied mango with chili. Mexicans look forward to cooking and eating chiles en nogada in the fall when pomegranates come in season.



In her apartment kitchen, she and her roommate Kyle Robinson, the chef de cuisine of Five Fifty-Five, showed me how to make it. Kyle, a Maine native, had never tasted the dish before so he followed through with Yazmin’s prep requests and she pulled all the components together. As she whipped egg whites into stiff peaks and folded back in the egg yolks, she said: “This is the same batter you would use to make chiles rellenos.” Chiles rellenos are poblano peppers stuffed with cheese, deep fried, and served with a tomato sauce.



Both dishes appear to have originated in what is today the Mexican state of Puebla, in east-central Mexico. This is where indigenous people cultivated a variety of pepper that the Spanish called “poblano,” signifying that it came from Puebla. Yazmin explained that as she learned it, chiles en nogada originated in a convent. “The Spanish nuns and the native servants all mixed together in the kitchen. And that’s how this dish was born.” The Spanish would have brought to the table walnuts, apples, plantains, cinnamon and pomegranates, and the natives would have brought these handsome poblano chili peppers with broad shoulders and mild heat. Over time chiles en nogada has become a beloved national dish of Mexico. The colors of the sauce and garnishes (white, green, and red) mimic the colors of the Mexican flag.


As Yazmin dipped the stuffed peppers into the batter and fried them, they bloomed into tantalizing golden packages. After Kyle’s first taste of this dish, he described his impression: “It’s delicious. It’s a great combination. It’s kind of sweet and savory. There’s a little bit of spice from the poblanos, and you get nice acidity from the pomegranates.” When I made this dish for my family they described it as “gorgeous” and “rich.” Yazmin said some people like the dish without frying the peppers, but she prefers the fried version. I’ve tried it both ways and love both. I ate the fried version for dinner, and then the next day the un-fried version for lunch. I love the diversity of flavors and textures in each bite.


Find the recipe and photos at


Sampling pastel de choclo: Grinning ear to ear

Three Chileans taught me how to make their favorite dish from Santiago, Chile, called pastel de choclo.


Benjamin Sepulveda, a Chilean high school student on exchange at Casco Bay High School, admitted that this was the first time he was cooking the dish by himself. “I have watched my mother and grandmother do this a million times. It’s not something we cook alone, only with family.” Javiera Alvarez, a student on exchange at Freeport High School, agreed. “The whole family cooks it together.” Marcela Naveas, the students’ chaperone, chimed in, “Pastel de choclo is a traditional food in our country that’s served for lunch in summer when the corn is fresh.”



They each got started preparing a different component of the dish. Benjamin sautéed ground beef with onions, paprika, oregano, cumin, and salt. Marcela boiled chicken breasts and whole eggs. And Javiera started blending fresh corn kernels with basil in a blender. At home, her family uses a metal hand-cranked meat grinder to turn the fresh corn kernels into a thick, course porridge. Pulsing the blender seemed to do the trick.


The sights and smells in the kitchen brought back fond memories. Benjamin recalled, “I grew up at my grandfather’s house in the rural outskirts of Santiago. His neighbors were farmers. When they were harvesting corn they would drop a bag at our house, and we would make this dish.” One person in the family would shuck the corn, another would cut the kernels off the cob, and another would put the corn through the grinder. Marcela turned the water on and left it running as she cut an onion, explaining that this was a one of the secretos de naturaleza she learned in the kitchen: if you keep the tap water on while cutting onions, you won’t cry. I didn’t see any tears.


In a casserole dish Benjamin, Javiera, and Marcela layered the ground beef and onions, thin slices of chicken and hardboiled egg, raisins and black olives, and then covered everything with corn porridge about an inch deep. After sprinkling a little sugar on top, they put the corn pie in the oven.


As we waited, we talked about their first impressions of the United States. Benjamin said his biggest highlight was “meeting people from around the world at Casco Bay high school – Congo, Rwanda, Iraq, Sudan. It’s amazing there. Really rich culturally.” The smell of corn bread cooking overtook the house as Javiera shared what she liked. “Here in America, everybody can be themselves. Homosexual people can be homosexual with out being judged. Everyone can be how they want to be.”



They were all grinning ear to ear as Benjamin pulled the pastel de choclo out of the oven: a success! Restaurants in Santiago serve pastel de choclo in individual clay bowls made in a Pomaire, a Chilean town famous for its earthenware pottery, but families make a large version and serve pieces as they would serve cake. “Pastel” means “cake,” and “choclo” is a Chilean word from native Quechua that means “corn.” The dish, with a golden brown topping, was as inviting as a wrapped present. It tasted like a summer adventure, sweet and fulfilling.



For the recipe and upcoming cooking class information, visit

Freedom chicken

Parivash Rohani heard about Immigrant Kitchens from a friend and reached out to see if she could be involved. In her Portland home, she taught me how to make her favorite Iranian dish, called fesenjoon, which is chicken breast in a sweet and sour sauce. It’s like Persian bar-b-q sauce without the tomato base. Ground walnuts give the sauce body, richness, and a touch of bitterness. Pomegranate molasses adds dark red color and pungency.

Fesenjoon is really too intense to be eaten straight in a bowl. It’s perfect served over basmati rice made yellow with saffron. You couldn’t have a better match for fesenjoon’s bold flavor than a Shirazi salad, named after a town where she spent her teenage years in Iran. Lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes, tossed with limejuice, olive oil, dried mint, and sumac, make for a fresh, cool accompaniment. She remembers her mother using the juice from unripe grapes called ab ghooreh instead of the limejuice.

Her mother and father still live in Iran, but 16 of her friends from childhood were executed by the Iranian government between 1982 and 1985 for believing in her religion, the Bahá’í Faith. It is the largest minority religion in Iran. When she was just six years old, fanatical Muslims threw stones at her and pulled her hair. In her teens, an angry mob of Muslims burned her home to the ground along with those of 500 other Bahá’í families. In 1979 the Islamic government denied Bahá’ís access to higher education and work, and started imprisoning and executing them. Parivash fled to India with two cousins when she was 18, thinking she would stay until the persecution ended.

It never did. After six years, her Indian visa ran out. She could neither return to Iran nor stay in India. She had no permission to live anywhere. She applied to the United Nations for refugee placement. In 1986 she made Maine her permanent home to be near friends and a relative. She said, “The first day I got to America, I was human. It was so liberating. For the first time I felt: I am safe. I belong somewhere. I can be me.”

Parivash loves making this meal because her husband and grown children love to eat it. She met her husband, who is also from Iran, when she was in exile in India. Their daughter was born there. One son was born in Canada, and two sons were born in Brunswick, Maine. Her daughter is now a nurse; her son, a pharmacist; and two sons are college students at University of Southern Maine.

After working in nursing for over 20 years and raising her family, she now dedicates her time to building community and helping humanity. She is on the board of the Maine chapter of Interfaith Power and Light, an organization that brings diverse religious groups together to save the earth. She volunteers on the “Education is Not A Crime” campaign, setting up documentary film viewings and speaking at educational institutions about the continued deprivation of education for the Bahá’í in Iran. She is also working with local organizations in Portland to plan this year’s festivities for World Refugee Day on June 20.

For the recipes, visit

Immigrant Kitchens: After the gala, seeking out Burundian spicy rice

food_IK Burundi 1_101515The young man at the front desk of my office building had an accent. He was from Rwanda. I asked him if he’d teach me how to cook a dish for Immigrant Kitchens. He shook his head, but he knew an African friend who liked to cook, and he’d ask her. In the meantime, he suggested I go that Friday to the African Gala, a festival of African food and entertainment. There would be a big buffet of African food and I might meet someone there who could teach me how to cook.

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Immigrant Kitchens: Armenian cooking secrets: Arabic music and a tablespoon of rose water

Ali and Maggie Saab in front of MaggieÕs favorite Armenian lunch.When my physical therapist, Amin Saab, in Brunswick heard about my quest to learn a dish from every country in the world, he connected me with his Armenian mother in Cape Cod. In August, she and I sat together on her back porch, overlooking a beach packed with orange parasols. Over the sounds of distant waves crashing and kids playing, Maggie Saab told me the story of the foods she was about to teach me how to cook.

Immigrant Kitchens: From the mountains of Colombia, a revelatory soup

food_immkitchensoupLS_071615Leonor Londono McGinn, the Colombian-American grandmother of my daughter’s schoolmate, taught me how to make her favorite food from her childhood. It’s a popular soup called sancocho, made with chicken broth, carrots, celery, whole sections of corn on the cob, whole pieces of bone-in chicken, and big chunks of potatoes, yuca root, and green plantains. My favorite part was the slices of avocado and fresh cilantro on top. After forty years of serving avocado room temperature or cold, it was liberating to eat avocado warm, melting into soup.

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