It’s time for Southern California to once again be blanketed with the perfume of roasting green chiles -- Hatch chiles, to be specific.
Grown in a small, hot, dry valley in an out-of-the-way corner of southwestern New Mexico, Hatch green chiles are becoming a treasured regional ingredient in California, along the lines of Georgia’s Vidalia sweet onion on the East Coast.
More than 70 chile roastings are scheduled at supermarkets and other locations in Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties. They’ll continue into September.
Green chiles, which range in temperature from spicy to incendiary, are to New Mexican food what tomatoes are to Italian cooking. They are ubiquitous in sauces and are delicious when stuffed and fried for chiles rellenos.
At the roastings, the green chiles are generally sold by the bushel. They’re tumbled in a contraption that looks something like a giant bingo drum suspended over a propane flame. After the chiles have turned in the roaster to char the skin -- just a few minutes -- you get to take them home. Green chiles prepared this way can be frozen as-is to be pulled out and used later. They must be peeled before using.
Because of the popularity of the chiles, Hatch growers are threatened by unscrupulous sellers who use that name to sell peppers grown in other areas. So Hatch chile growers have banded together to ask the government to recognize their crop, similar to what has been done by Vidalia onion growers and Napa Valley winemakers.
Duane Gillis, whose family has grown Hatch chiles for five generations and who is president of the Hatch Chile Assn., says his group has appealed to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to recognize Hatch chiles as a special product coming from a certain place. (Particularly infuriating is a canned chile product sold under the “Hatch” brand by a company based in Georgia.)
“Any chile grown in the Hatch Valley has a unique flavor because of our warm, dry climate,” says Gillis, whose great-grandfather began farming in the area just after the turn of the last century and whose sons are now starting in the business.
“The main thing Hatch chile is known for is the sweet flavor. Even though it can be very hot, it has a sweetness that no other place does.”