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November, 2009

Guest Chef Felipe Serna

By Dennis Linden

If you have never tried to prepare chiles rellenos (stuffed chiles), here is a great recipe that the novice cook can easily prepare and the more experienced devotee of fine Mexican cuisine can take to a new level.

Chef Felipe Serna
This tasty combination of fresh ingredients, several different chile powders and three varieties of seafood stuffed into a mildly spicy poblano pepper was submitted by Chef Felipe Serna of the Cantina Lounge in Fullerton, California. It is a fitting dish from the kitchen of a chef who oversees the culinary needs of a multi-dimensional venue that is itself a tasty combination of fine dining, sports and entertainment under one roof. Making any chile relleno starts with the very hands-on process of roasting the poblano pepper, also marketed as a pasilla pepper, to remove the chile’s thin, film-like skin. Actually, you should always use tongs or gloves when handling all chile peppers as your hands will absorb the pepper’s heat producing substance called capsaicin. If you have a gas stove, then take the time to roast the peppers individually, using the burner as a grill; this method provides the most control for even cooking. Preparing a large batch of chiles rellenos can still be done on the stovetop easily, just consider those four burners an opportunity to hone your multi-tasking skills!

Of course not everyone cooks with gas and the peppers can be roasted under the oven broiler, but this demands even more concentration than the stovetop method. The best advice for peeling peppers by oven roasting is to disconnect the phone, lock the doors, pull down the shades and do not get distracted by anything while you are constantly checking and turning those peppers until they are completely blackened and bubbly. After roasting, immediately seal the peppers in a large plastic bag for about 10 minutes so the steam can further loosen the skin. Then rest the peppers 5 minutes out of the bag before stemming, seeding and gently scraping off the blackened skin, which should peel right off. After much pepper peeling, my vote goes to the use of a small spoon, a glass of Pinot Noir and some nice background music for this rather tedious stage of the preparation. Enjoy the process! Do not rinse the skinned peppers to remove the last remnants of seeds and blackened skin. This also rinses away some of the flavor of the pepper itself, plus a little bit of char adds a hint of smokiness to the dish. Instead, just do a very thorough job of seeding and scraping, then gently pat dry with paper towels.

In making this dish, think UNDERCOOK at every stage. Be aware that the peppers are being cooked during the peeling process and that later they will have to go back into the oven to reheat and melt the cheese. Approach the seafood stuffing just like the pepper; undercook it purposely, as fish will continue to cook as it cools and then cook a little more when you reheat it in the stuffed pepper. One other tip about combining the two parts of this dish – let the fish mixture cool to room temperature before stuffing the pepper; hot stuffing will cook the pepper from the inside out before you are ready to reheat. Pack each pepper to the point of almost bursting with the seafood mixture. A very plump pepper works best for the way Chef Felipe’s recipe finishes this dish in the oven and then plates it. Besides, this seafood stuffing is just so very good, the more the better!

As already mentioned, Chef Felipe Serna manages a very busy kitchen that supports the Cantina Lounge's focus on offering patrons a one-stop-dining, sports, and entertainment experience. His ever-changing lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch menus combine a contemporary Mexican fusion style that uses the flavors of traditional Mexican cuisine in inventive ways that have garnered a four-star rating from the Restaurant Review in the Orange County Register newspaper. Quite an accomplishment, since the Cantina Lounge just celebrated its one year anniversary in July. Chef Felipe relocated from the glitter of the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas to man the helm of the kitchen when the restaurant launched. "I have been adding to the menu every few months since we opened, as I am constantly working on new dish ideas,” explained the chef. “In fact, that is the most enjoyable part of the job for me; playing around in the kitchen until I come up with some flavors and style that I believe to be a good fit here, which I then present to one of the owners and together we decide whether or not to incorporate it into one of our menus. It’s been very rewarding to watch the scope of dishes we serve expand and reflect my approach to fine Mexican cuisine. I am lucky to be able admit that I really do love what I do for a living."

Apart from his busy kitchen schedule, Felipe enjoys his home life with his wife, Elva, raising their two daughters and getting everything ready for the arrival of a little brother for the girls. “Sometimes it feels like I am a part-time chef but full time chauffeur, especially for all of my oldest daughter’s activities, but I would not trade it for anything. She also seems to have a natural talent for baking and she does like to help me at home in the kitchen, so I may have a chef in the making! Considering the quick success of the restaurant and all that is happening at home with the new baby due soon, it’s an exciting and fun time for me right now.”

The décor of rusted steel, deep-grained woods and rich leathers in the restaurant section of the Cantina Lounge creates a relaxed atmosphere in which to enjoy Felipe’s amazing food. The room is also equipped with a few extra comforts for the sports fan, like over fifty plasma wide screens strategically positioned around the room and booth seating equipped with personal TVs that are at the diner’s control. A 180-inch drop-down HD screen creates the ultimate sports restaurant atmosphere for big game events. After 10 p.m., the Cantina Lounge bar transforms into a lively nightclub with the help of a DJ or maybe a live band that entices patrons to move to the beat, from dining to a night of music and dancing. The Cantina Lounge is one of Melissa’s valued customers, supported by the hard working staff of culinary produce professionals in our Food Service Department. Though it’s only been a little more than a year, we have absolutely no doubt that Chef Felipe will continue to build on the Cantina Lounge’s already burgeoning reputation for excellence in food and atmosphere, for many more anniversaries to come.

Seafood Relleno
Seafood Relleno
by Chef Felipe Serna
(Makes 5 servings)

Ingredients For the Rellenos:
5 poblano peppers, peeled, stemmed and seeded
½ lbs. wild salmon, cut into ¼ inch cubes
½ lbs. Mahi-Mahi, cut into ¼ inch cubes
10 large shrimp,16-20 size, cut in half ¼ tsp. dark chili powder
¼ tsp. cumin
¼ tsp. chipotle powder
¼ tsp. New Mexico chili powder
2 Tbsp. organic red onion, chopped
2 Tbsp. organic green onion, finely minced
2 Tbsp. fresh cilantro
1 Tbsp. fresh Italian parsley
2 Tbsp. butter
¼ lbs. ea. Acedero, Manchego and Oaxaca cheeses, grated and combined
Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Cilantro Lime Cream Sauce:
8 oz. sour cream
1 lime, juiced
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
½ teaspoon salt to taste

Directions:
Combine all ingredients in a blender until smooth.

Preparation
Peel peppers by first roasting to blacken them and then steaming in a sealed plastic bag for 10 minutes. [See Roasting Chili Peppers under Cooking Tips] Combine all stuffing ingredients except for salt, black pepper and butter. Melt butter and cook mixture until seafood just begins to change color, but is still a little undercooked. Set mixture aside to cool to room temperature. Meanwhile, remove peppers from steam bag and scrape all bubbled skin off with a teaspoon. Next, cut out the stem and spoon out all seeds. When fish mixture is cool to the touch, stuff each pepper generously and lay them out on greased cookie sheet. Slit each stuffed pepper to about half way down its top side, folding back the sides to expose the stuffing. Reheat the peppers in preheated 375° oven for about 7 minutes, pull them out to sprinkle 2-3 Tbsp. of cheese on the exposed stuffing and put back into the oven just long enough for the cheese to melt.

Plating
With a spatula, place hot relleno just off center on the plate and add a dollop of Cilantro Lime Sauce on top of the cheese. The relleno can be accompanied by rice and beans, or a vegetable of your choice.