What we talk about when we talk about green chile

chiles at the farmers market
Fresh chiles at the Westwind Gardens stand

Growing up in the Southwest, I took green chile for granted. I didn’t even really know what it was, other than a ubiquitous, delicious, spicy stew that was served in a bowl with tortillas on the side, over eggs, over a burrito, or countless other ways. The dish is sometimes mild and unctuous, sometimes possessed of a searing chile burn. There were also the green chiles themselves, which I also took for granted, and which are served in all kinds of ways, all over Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.

In my mid-20s, I taught myself how to cook Mexican food from cookbooks. Good Mexican food was one of the things I really missed from home and couldn’t find in Seattle. But what I learned from Elizabeth Lambert-Ortiz and Diana Kennedy was regional Mexican cooking, not the Southwesternized Tex-Mex that I’d grown up eating. Nevertheless, I loved the cooking I was learning, and was fascinated by the threads that connected classical Mexican cooking to the food served in taquerias and Mexican restaurants all over the country.

As I learned more about cooking Mexican food, I often wished I could make the green chile of my childhood, but I had no idea where to start. I assumed it was Mexican in origin, so every time I found a recipe for something green (mole verde, chile verde, verde de Oaxaca), I’d try it, hoping that I’d found the authentic green chile recipe. The results were often delicious, but they were never anything like New Mexico green chile.

A few years back I was talking to my friend Eben, who still lives in Colorado and who shares my enthusiasm for green chile. He said he thought the chiles themselves, the particular green chiles of New Mexico, were central to the flavor of the dish. It made sense to me, but where to get some? (I lived in Oakland, California at the time.) Later that year Eben surprised us with a Fedexed, dry-iced package full of the chiles we needed, blackened from fire-roasting and packed into labeled bags. A few experimental rounds with a very basic recipe procured from the internet proved that it was the chiles that we’d been missing. Holly quickly became a devotee of the dish, as well, and over time we’ve perfected our recipe.

I’ve since learned that the chiles needed for this recipe are very particular indeed. Any kind of chile, roasted and peeled, has a wonderful, deep flavor. But the New Mexico–type green chiles have a distinct flavor of their own, and the green chile we make with them exists primarily as a vehicle for that flavor.

The chiles in question were developed in the early 20th century by a horticulturist at New Mexico State University named Fabián Garcia,1 in an effort to produce a chile variety that would better resist common diseases and provide abundant and consistent fruit. In doing so, Garcia developed what is now known as the New Mexico pod type. Called “NuMex” to indicate its origin at NMSU, the type comprises a host of varieties, including Big Jim, Joe Parker, Sandia, and Española.2 The Jim and Joe varieties are milder, and the Sandia and Española hotter and spicier. They all have the same deep, fruity, rich flavor, with a fleeting but powerful heat. The NuMex varieties are dependable, grow well in various climates, and provide us transplants with a sturdy and delicious treat. I suspect that folks living in the Southwest also have their own favorites among the heirloom chile varieties, too, which seems a subject worth further exploration.

The chiles Eben sent lasted us a couple years, carefully doled out from the deep freeze. They even came with us to Portland in 2005. But the chile situation still looked pretty barren out here, until one day in 2007 when we walked into the PSU farmers market and caught the unmistakable aroma of roasting chile flesh. We followed our noses and discovered the Westwind Gardens stand, where they sell an amazing variety of chiles — including, God bless them, four varieties of New Mexico chiles — all grown organically in nearby Forest Grove. They bring their chiles to market and fire-roast the chiles right there in front of you in big gas-fired rotating drums.

chiles at the farmers market

chiles at the farmers market

chiles at the farmers market

We go through ten or fifteen pounds each winter. This summer they ran out of the milder NuMex varieties: partly due to increased enthusiasm, one presumes, from similar transplanted Southwesterners who have finally found their manna; and partly due to timing and the way they planted their rows. I managed to squeeze in an order for their last 20 pounds of Joe Parkers and am safely past the fear of a winter without green chile.

Last year I decided to make a pot of New Mexico green chile for my entry into my friends Cora and Craig’s annual Chili Rumble. The event’s focus is on Texas-style chili, of course (note the different spelling, very important), and thus my crock-pot sat on the Non-Traditional table. I knew it was a good batch, but I was surprised when my chile not only won in the Non-Traditional category but also received the most votes overall.

As we begin thinking about what to cook up for 2010’s Chili Rumble, I thought it’d be nice to offer our (award-winning!) recipe for New Mexico green chile. The following recipe replicates my memory of green chile from Colorado and New Mexico. It does require New Mexico-type chiles, which can be hard to find if you don’t live in the Southwest or are lucky enough to have a nearby grower specializing in this precious fruit. Do look around at local farmers markets in late summer to see if there might be a nearby grower. When we visited Seattle’s University District, we noticed at least two vendors roasting chiles on site, some of which were labeled “Hatch-type” and were indeed NuMex varieties such as Big Jim and Sandia.

New Mexico chiles are often called “Hatch” or “Hatch-type” because the town of Hatch, New Mexico, is the center of a major chile-growing area. Hatch processes and packs their chiles for distribution, as well, so you may be able to go to the grocery store right now and buy a can of Hatch green chile, already roasted, peeled, seeded, and chopped. However, for the purposes of this post, I purchased and sampled a can and found the chiles to be rather insipid and acidic, presumably from the heat and additives — citric acid, calcium chloride — used in the canning process. Fresh or frozen are definitely the way to go with these chiles.

If you really want to make the leap, you can always buy chiles online from various sources, although it can get expensive fast. If you have a decent-sized garden and a good growing season, you can always grow your own.

You can cook this dish with other kinds of roasted green chiles that are more available to you — poblano, for example, with a few jalapeños to provide heat. It won’t have the same New Mexico flavor, but it’ll be good, and probably better than using the canned version of the genuine article.

Beyond the chiles themselves, the other ingredients are fairly flexible, so long as you fill the various roles necessary for the flavor of the dish. The roux is crucial to the texture of the finished dish, though I’ve seen recipes that use a masa harina thickener instead. The potatoes provide a flavor contrast to the intensity of the chiles; some folks add white beans at the end, but you can leave out potatoes/beans entirely if you want.

The meat and stock provide body to the dish. Here we use pork as the meat (which is traditional) but you could also use chicken or, I suppose, beef. To make this dish vegetarian you’d need a vegetable stock with some real depth and body, and beans or potatoes, or perhaps cooked hominy. In fact, the cooking water from hominy would make a good starter for a tasty vegetable stock.

You will notice that the quantity is rather large. This is a party-sized pot of chile. You could easily feed ten or twelve people, or more, depending on appetites and whether you accompany the chile with rice and black beans, or just serve corn tortillas. You can also cut the quantity in half.

Leftover green chile freezes well, and can be used as a sauce over other Mexican dishes such as enchiladas, burritos or sopes. Our favorite thing to do with leftover green chile is to smother a cheese omelet with it. Once you get hooked, the chiles themselves will start sneaking into all corners of your cooking. Of course, you can use them in recipes wherever you’d use jalapeños, chipotles, or poblanos. We also use them in waffles, scones, muffins, cornbread, bread, and last year we even made green chile ice cream, which was just beautiful — delicate and piquant.

Green Chile

This recipe needs at least two days to properly develop its flavor. I have outlined a three-day process below, which is how I often do it because each day’s task is kept fairly simple; I do “day one” at night, then pick up the recipe the next day. But the first two days of work can easily be combined into one day’s cooking. Most of the cooking time is spent simmering unattended, but you will need to check the heat and stir the chile to keep it from sticking to the pot, especially after you add the roux at the end. A slow-cooker would be ideal for the long simmering, provided it is large enough for the quantity you’re making.

ALWAYS WEAR GLOVES when you are working with hot chiles of any kind. No, washing your hands is not enough. Really. Ignore at your peril. I use dishwashing gloves to peel and seed these chiles.

Ingredients

2.5 lbs pork shoulder, country style ribs, or other good stewing cut, trimmed of sinew and hard fat and cut into 2–inch chunks
2.5 lbs peeled, seeded and chopped NuMex Joe Parker, Big Jim, or other mild chiles
8 oz peeled, seeded and chopped NuMex Sandia, Española, or other hotter chiles
1 onion, peeled and quartered
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 cup dry white wine or water

2 quarts chicken, pork, or vegetable stock, or a combination
1 tsp dried Mexican oregano (see note)

1 pound potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1/2-inch dice
6 Tb butter
1/2 cup flour
2 tsp salt plus additional salt and pepper to taste
Chopped cilantro leaves, optional

Method

Day One

Preheat oven to 375°F. Place the pork, onion, and garlic in a heavy roasting pan. Season with a little salt and pepper. Roast, turning once or twice, for 30-45 minutes or until pork is nicely browned and sizzling. Remove the contents of the roasting pan to a mixing bowl. Chop the onions and garlic into small pieces and return to bowl. Put the roasting pan on the stove over high heat and deglaze the pan with white wine or water, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan to collect all the browned bits. Pour the resulting liquid into the mixing bowl with the meat and onions.

Either place the contents of the mixing bowl into a container with a lid and refrigerate overnight, or continue with Day Two below.

Day Two

Place the meat, onions, garlic, and deglazing liquid from Day One into an 8-quart stockpot or slow cooker. Add all of the stock, the Mexican oregano, 2 teaspoons salt, and all of the green chiles except a pound or so of the mild chiles. Set aside the remaining chiles for Day Three.

Bring the contents of the pot to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer slowly, covered, for two to four hours. Check the chile now and then to ensure that it is just barely simmering, not sticking to the pot, and not reducing in volume too much.

Remove the pot from the heat, allow to cool slightly, and taste for seasoning. Adjust seasoning if necessary; cool completely, then place the entire pot, covered, in the refrigerator overnight.

Day Three

Remove the pot from the refrigerator. Scrape the fat from the top of the chile and discard. Put the pot on high heat and as soon as it is warm, remove the pork pieces and the onion pieces with a slotted spoon. (It may be easier to pour the contents of the pot through a colander into another pot, and pick the pork and onion pieces out of the colander.) Trim any excess fat from the pork and chop the meat into smaller, bite-size pieces. Return the meat to the pot. Add the chiles you reserved on Day Two, potatoes, and a big pinch of chopped cilantro. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, covered, for two to three hours. Taste the chile now and then to ensure that it is well seasoned with salt and pepper; it should be rather salty and taste powerfully of the green chiles themselves.

A half-hour before serving, prepare a roux in a small saucepan or high-sided skillet. Heat the butter over medium heat until it melts, then whisk in the flour. Cook the flour in the butter for three minutes, whisking constantly and thoroughly, then add one cup of broth from the chile pot and whisk until completely mixed. Add another three cups or so of broth and mix completely. Then add the contents of the saucepan to the chile, and mix thoroughly to blend the thickened broth into the chile.

Cook for another 30 minutes or so. Taste for seasoning.

Serve in bowls with hot corn tortillas on the side. Garnish with additional chopped cilantro if you like.

Rice and black beans are a nice addition but entirely optional; the only essential accompaniment is the tortillas.

Note

Mexican oregano is not an oregano at all; rather, it is a type of verbena. It is generally available dried; I have never seen it sold fresh. It can be hard to find. I ordered a rather large (3 oz) container from Angelina’s Gourmet via the internet, and I think I will be set for a couple years, or until the herb loses flavor. I have been trying to find a plant for a few years now, with no success.

Footnotes

 1. Presilla, Maricel E., “A World of Peppers,” Saveur 122, September 2009: 31.

 2. New Mexico State University Chile Pepper Institute, “The Story of Chile Peppers,” aces.nmsu.edu/chilepepperinstitute/documents/the-story-of-chile-peppers.pdf. Further information on New Mexico-type chile cultivars is provided in another NMSU document, Research Report 763, available at aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/research/horticulture/RR-763.pdf

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