Of his vacation in Sayulita, Mexico, last year, Steve Propst remembers: swimming, surfing, fishing, sightseeing and an all-star plate of chile rellenos.
"Chiles the size of footballs," said Propst, smiling, as he stuffed white cheese into chiles the size of Nerf balls.
Propst and his wife, Karen, had gone to the tiny Mexican village north of Puerto Vallarta for Thanksgiving, 1986. They stayed in a villa overlooking the bay and discovered, through friends who lease a house there, one of the town's culinary secrets.
"There was this lady who'd cook you dinner in her home," recalled Propst, as he puttered around his cramped, Laguna Beach kitchen, preparing his own Sayulita-inspired chile rellenos.
"She didn't have a sign outside or anything--it wasn't a place you could find on your own. It was a word-of-mouth kind of thing, where if you knew about her, you could arrange for her to cook you dinner. You just had to give her a couple days' notice.
"Karen and I and a bunch of friends went to her house for dinner one night. She served us out on her patio. Her family was wandering around while we were eating--it was real informal, but the food was incredible. I think there were 12 of us that night. She charged us $50."
Born and reared in Manhattan Beach, Propst, 31, got started in the kitchen at his mother's side.
"From the time my sister and I were old enough to handle utensils without hurting ourselves, we were cook's helpers," he said, describing his mother as a "very adventurous cook," as likely to serve spicy lamb curry with 15 condiments as soothing homemade lentil soup.
After college in Oregon, Propst embarked on a series of jobs "with the theme of wood," he said: from sawmill grunt to construction worker to cabinetmaker. By 1985, he had his own woodworking shop in El Segundo, with a small staff and a large architectural client they supplied with fine cabinetry and high-tech furniture.
"Then I decided I wanted to get out of cabinetmaking and become a lumber broker," he said. "I still liked designing and making furniture, but to tell you the truth I got into the idea of making more money."
Now happily brokering lumber--and stashing bucks--Propst looks forward to the day when he and Karen, a flight attendant, can afford to build their own home. Meanwhile, they take turns cooking light dinners for each other during the week and feasts for their friends on the weekends.
With two cooks in the house, who cleans up?
According to Propst, "Whoever loses the fight."
CHILE RELLENOS SAYULITA Ingredients Sauce
1 small onion, cut julienne-style
1 Tbsp. butter
1 dozen large tomatillos
1 small (8 oz.) can Mexican red chile sauce
1 tsp. honey
chili powder, salt, pepper to taste
6 large green chiles (fresh or canned; fresh must be blanched first)
6 oz. Monterey Jack cheese
2 cups light cooking oil
5-6 egg whites
Prepare sauce first: saute onion in butter until clear. Remove stem and core from tomatillos; chop and add to onions. Add remaining ingredients and simmer while preparing rellenos.
Clean chiles and stuff with slabs of cheese. Heat oil in a deep frying pan. Beat egg whites until they peak. Using large serving spoon, float dab of egg white on hot oil; cook for about 30 seconds or until it starts to turn golden around the edges.
Place stuffed green chile in center of egg whites and spoon more egg whites on top. Brown on both sides. Remove from oil. Repeat for remaining chiles.
To serve, place chiles on plates and pour several spoonfuls of sauce over top. Sprinkle with chopped olives and grated cheese. Serve with rice, refried beans and tortillas.