When I was 5 years old, my family and I spent the summer with Doris Duke in her Hollywood hills estate Falcon Lair. Doris was my mother's closest friend for over 25 years and was the ultimate Aunty Mame to my sister and I. There was a side to her that was definitely dark and troubled, but it was the crazy, fun part of her that I adored. I can still hear my mother's and Doris's infectious laughter wafting in from far off the coast as I clung to the rocks with my father, longing to be with them but too afraid of the depths they swam in. It wouldn't have done me much good, anyway, as their best gossip was always in French.
The memories I have of that hillside mansion were the terraced gardens where I played with my first daddy-long-legs, the rats that had tunnels all through the hills, and Talba's chile rellenos.Tiny Talba took care of the kitchen and was renowned for her Mexican food. I remember my mother intently watching her every move as she cooked, as Talba spoke not one word of English and we , no Spanish. It was a relationship built on smiles, sign language, and food. I think she spoke eloquently through the latter, introducing us to her culture in Mexico and old old ways that were brand new to us.
I have a faint memory of watching her cook her chiles rellenos but a strong recollection of the crispy crust, melted smooth center, and the firm bite of the chiles. When I order them in restaurants, they never seem to have that voluptuous mouthfeel. Here is how my family has recreated it for over 40 years.
Talba's Chile Rellenos
vegetable oil, heated to 375 in a large pan
fresh charred and peeled anaheim chiles, or canned whole chiles
about a quarter cup flour
about 1 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese
4 eggs, separated into 2 bowls
a pinch of cream of tartar
Some grated sharp cheddar for sprinkling on top , I like extra sharp, grated thick
Blot the excess moisture from the chiles and fill the cavities with the Jack cheese. If they don't close perfectly, don't worry, the oozing cheese will crisp deliciously on the outside. Coat them with flour.
With clean beaters, beat the egg whites till stiff, adding the cream of tartar after you get them slightly bubbly. Leaving your beaters in, now beat the yolks till thick and lemon colored . Carefully fold the yolks into the whites.
When your oil is hot, dip each filled chile into the egg mixture and try to get as much coverage as possible. Don't worry if they aren't perfect. They won't win any beauty contests anyway. Carefully lay the chiles in the oil without crowding. After a few minutes ,check underneath to see if they've gotten a golden brown. If they have, flip them carefully to the other side without taking them all the way out of the oil. You don't want the uncooked egg on top to splash onto the cooked parts of the other chiles.
Drain well on paper towels and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and a little grated cheddar .
If you don't feel like fussing at all, this just cooked together in a big mess, with the chiles roughly chopped, makes delicious scrambled eggs. Eat with hot buttered tortillas.