New Mexico’s green chile, the real deal

New Mexican green chiles are grown all along the Rio Grande Valley.
(Norm Dettlaff / Associated Press)

I just got back from a week in New Mexico, and that usually means, by rough calculation, having consumed approximately 21 meals based on chile, most of it green. That’s not including snacks. This time the number was far lower. And for the first time I can remember, I didn’t have to smuggle hardly any home in my luggage, either.

That’s certainly not because I’ve lost my affection for the fiery stuff, but rather because it’s becoming so readily available in Southern California. Green chile roasts are now regular fall events here, held at farmers markets and supermarkets alike. And I can even pick up quite good frozen green chile at my local grocery store. After decades of doing without, suddenly I have plenty.

Let’s be clear: I’m not talking about the fresh Anaheim-type chiles you usually find in the supermarket. Though they may sometimes be labeled “New Mexico chile,” trust me, any true New Mexican considers that the gravest of insults. They’re nothing but anorexic bell peppers.

If you’ve never had a real New Mexican green chile before, probably the closest parallel would be imagining a poblano with the heat ramped up by a factor of about 10. There’s that same sweet green pepper flavor but paired with a kick that’ll make your head sweat.

That’s no exaggeration. Back in the 1980s when I was a restaurant critic in New Mexico and eating green chile on an almost hourly basis, my wife learned to gauge the heat of the pepper by the following scale: If it was a little hot, my forehead would turn red; if it was pretty danged hot, the top of my head would sweat; and when it was truly incandescent, I would break out in hiccups. I spent most of those three years with hiccups.

Sauce and more

You might think that an ingredient that packs that kind of punch would be used sparingly, as an accent. Not in New Mexico. Probably the most common application is as a sauce for enchiladas -- basically, pure green chile, perhaps cooked down with stock and thickened with a roux.

If you want to go the full New Mexican route, you’ll order these enchiladas stacked rather than rolled, and made from blue corn tortillas layered with shredded cheese and white onion. The final fillip -- rarely listed on the menu but almost always available for the asking -- is a fried egg, over-medium, thanks.

Thin the sauce a little and throw in chunks of carrot, potato and chunks of lamb or pork and you’ve got green chile stew -- a lunchtime staple. Stuff the chiles with cheese, fry them in an egg white batter and serve them soaked in sauce and you’ve got chiles rellenos.

One of my favorite New Mexican dishes, particularly at this time of year, is calabacitas -- a zucchini and fresh corn sauté sparked with a healthy dose of green chile. The way the sweetness of the squash and corn balances the fiery pepper is perfect.

Green chile is often served even more plainly: On this last visit I was helping my sainted sister-in-law prepare for a big family party and she asked me to peel and chop a bag. Job done, I asked her what she was going to do with it. “Nothing,” she said -- it went to the table just as it was, mixed with a little garlic and served as a condiment for cold cuts. Indeed, there is probably no finer complement to a nice medium-rare cheeseburger than a big spoonful of green chile.

Those, of course, are just the classic uses. A newspaper I once worked for in New Mexico ran a semi-annual contest for green chile recipes and every year published a cookbook with the more than 150 entries.

While it may be true that not everything sounds absolutely delicious, the collection does stand as evidence for the exuberant affection New Mexicans feel for their pet pepper. How else would you account for dishes such as veal parmigiana with green chile, or a lemon Jell-O mold with green chile?

Giving red its due

All of this attention to green chile is not to dismiss red, which is the same pepper, fully ripened. It really is impossible to overstate the importance of these two ingredients in the area’s cooking.

The state legislature, which does show an occasional sense of humor in between corruption investigations, officially decreed a New Mexico state question: “Red or Green?”

While the green is almost always served fresh, the red is almost always served dried (though you can occasionally find dried green, which has a fine delicately smoky flavor, and for a few weeks, usually in October, fresh red, which tastes like fresh green, only sweeter).

Most of the time you’ll find red chile dried and finely ground, just waiting to be simmered. If you have whole pods, cover them with hot water and then work the pulp in your hands, separating out the tough skin and the seeds. (At this point, it’s imperative to warn that any time you work with these chiles, red or green, you must wash your hands thoroughly before touching your eyes or any other sensitive body parts.)

Bueno, the company that sells the frozen green chile in local supermarkets, also packs a very good frozen red pulp that’s ready for cooking.

Most of the time you see green chile in California, it’s specified that it’s from Hatch, which is a small town in the southwestern corner of the state. (Notice that when you see something called Ortega green chile on a menu, it’s always canned -- that’s the name of the company, not the chile or the growing area.)

Hatch does grow a whole lot of chile, but it’s not the only source. Indeed, chiles are grown all along the Rio Grande Valley and because of differences in soil, climate and specific strain, the flavors can differ fairly dramatically, though due to the concentrating effect of drying, this is usually more evident in red chile than in green. When I was teaching cooking classes, I had a student from an old New Mexico family who swore she could identify at least a dozen chile sources tasted blind.

My personal favorite is the heritage variety from Chimayo, just north of Santa Fe, which is brick-red with a glorious pungent smell of earth and chile. This trip, I found a farmer selling it at the Santa Fe farmers market (quite a wonderful market, by the way). I took a whiff and just had to buy a bag to bring back home -- no matter how easily available the regular red might be here.

I’m not sure when I’ll cook with it. For now, I’m getting too much pleasure just holding it up to my nose and inhaling. Living at the beach and still having good chile: How could life be any better?