It’s a tradition that goes back centuries and is celebrated each fall, bringing families together to prepare and preserve this fruit of the desert. Here’s an in-depth look at how and why it’s still done today.
This celebrated crop can be found throughout the U.S. in supermarket produce isles or in cans (usually in the Mexican food section). The smell of roasting green chile alone is enough to bring New Mexicans running, so what is it about these chile peppers that makes them such a big deal?
History of Green Chile in New Mexico
To understand why chile is so important to the southwest, we need to take a little trip back in time. Chile plants were first cultivated in central America many thousands of years ago. Once the Americas were discovered, the chile plant was traded as a commodity throughout the world (including the far east) on established Portuguese, Spanish and British trade routes. When the first tasting of chile occurred by Columbus and his men, it is said that Columbus himself called them “peppers” because their spicy flavor was similar to the black peppercorns that Europeans were familiar with back home, so the name ‘pepper’ stuck.
When Spanish conquistadors and troops made their way north to what is now New Mexico from Mexico in the late 1500s and early 1600s, they also brought chile plants/seeds with them and shared them with the pueblo people. When Spanish settlers moved in afterward, chile cultivation took off thanks to the beautiful New Mexico climate and rich soils along the streams and rivers. As growing of this staple crop continued for hundreds of years, regional varieties were developed, and harvest time in the late summer to early fall became a celebrated event all around the state. Chile peppers are now a unique part of New Mexico cuisine and culture, especially in the small town of Hatch, known for growing the world’s best chile crop :0)
Harvesting and Preparing Chile Peppers
Green chile peppers that are left on the vine will ripen into various shades of red. Like bell peppers, both red and green chiles (ripe and unripe) are harvested for their slight difference in flavor. Green chiles have a brighter taste which is complemented with the great smoky flavor that comes with roasting. Roasting also helps by burning off the tough waxy peel that you really don’t want to eat (it’s like chewing on a thin piece of plastic). The chile is then made into sauce or chopped up and added to any recipe your heart desires.
Red Chile has a sweeter, more ‘earthy’ type flavor. It’s usually picked, dried, then either ground to powder or tied together in a hanging strand called a ‘Ristra’ that is proudly displayed on porches all throughout the region. A ristra does serve a purpose (besides looking pretty); a few are picked off at a time as needed and ground up to make into red chile sauce. The famous New Mexican question you will be asked when you order food here is, “Red or Green?” and the answer depends on you. If it’s your first taste, answer with, “Christmas” and you’ll get both red and green chile sauce to satisfy your culinary curiosity. “Which one is hotter?”, is often asked by restaurant patrons to help them decide.
Chiles range in hotness from mild to crazy-fire-hot depending on the unique variety you choose to cook with. Don’t judge a chile (or sauce) by its color; just because it’s red doesn’t mean it’s hotter. But be warned- any chile sauce will probably be ‘hot’ if you’re not accustomed to eating spicy foods. I personally stick to the mild varieties- Poblano and Anaheim. You can visit here or here for more in-depth resources on chile varieties and their level of ‘heat’.
If you’re lucky enough to live in NM, buying a bushel (or two or three) of freshly picked green chiles and having them roasted in a barrel roaster is as easy as visiting literally any local grocery store. I happened to purchased a 40-pound burlap sack of anaheim chile this year at Wagner farms in Corrales. The chiles were emptied into a barrel roaster through an opening and then blasted with propane fire as the barrel slowly spun them around.
The tasty flesh inside the chile takes on an amazing deep smoky flavor while the skins both protect the insides from burning and turn a charred black color. Once the chiles are done they are emptied and tied up tight into large plastic bags. The roasted chiles will be very warm in the bag and need to stay inclosed in the bag for at least an hour. The chiles need to ‘sweat’- the steam inside the bag will further loosen the peels so they just slip right off, making it easy for you to enjoy your freshly roasted green chile!
If you see green chile in your grocery store but no barrel roaster around- no problem! You can roast them yourself at home under a broiler by lining a baking sheet with foil, placing the chiles in a single layer and broil them, turning and moving chiles frequently, until all skins are charred black. You can also place them on your grill over direct heat (again turning and moving frequently to char all the skin) or even over a gas burner on your stove with grill tongs. If using any of these methods, be sure to ‘sweat’ the chiles after roasting by placing them in a container with a well-fitting lid or a zipper locked bag for at least 15 minutes.
After sweating the chiles, it’s time to preserve or eat them. If you’re not going to eat them right away, the easiest way to preserve them is to freeze them. Many families and friends gather together in the kitchen to prepare large batches of chiles by working together to peel and remove the seeds and stems, chop, then freeze in zipper-lock bags. If you do this by yourself be prepared to spend several hours (ask me how I know…) Those that don’t have anyone around to help will likely skip the peeling and seeding and just put the chiles straight into smaller freezer bags to be thawed, peeled, and seeded as needed. I just wanted to get all the work over with so I peeled and seeded mine right away.
All Chiles contain various amounts of capsaicin, the chemical that gives the chile it’s hot kick. This chemical is actually found in the ‘veins’ or ‘ribs’ inside the chile pods, not in the seeds as many folks think. However, when your chiles are roasted, that capsaicin is spread throughout the inside of the chile and the seeds, so it’s best to wear gloves when working with chile peppers so the chemical doesn’t spread to your face, eyes, or anything else.
I gently run water in the sink to help wash the skins off; placing a colander underneath will prevent your sink from getting clogged up with peels and ruining your garbage disposal if you have one. Then I have a large bowl nearby for the peeled and seeded chile. Once done, large handfuls go into quart-sized zipper locked baggies and right into the freezer for later. Now my family can enjoy roasted green chile all year round!
Wondering what recipes to whip up for your freshly roasted green chile? Check these fabulous recipes out to get you started!
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