The annual green chile harvest has begun, which means the smell of roasting green chile will soon permeate the American southwest. The fragrance of chile smoke is sweet and earthy, like incense, but serious potency lurks in the pungent scent of those blackened skins. It's the smell of chemical heat.
Green chile comes from the first harvest, in July, of the New Mexico chile, a type of long green chile pepper that has flourished in New Mexico after Spaniards imported chile seeds from South America. Since then, chile has burrowed deeply and inextricably into the New Mexican palate.
The two forms of chile, red and green, both come from the same plant. Green chile is harvested while red chile is allowed to vine-ripen into a deep shade of red.
These two forms of chile are processed in completely different ways and have dramatically different flavors. Red chiles are sun-dried and woven into decorative ristras, which hang around looking pretty until the chile is needed. Green chiles, which are still fleshy and full of life at the time of harvest, are flame-roasted in propane-fired steel tumblers, liberating that seductive wind-born New Mexican nerve agent: green chile smoke.
Although New Mexicans have been enjoying roasted green chile in summertime for as long as they've had chile, it's only with the advent of modern preservation techniques—freezing and canning—that green chile has become a dominant player in New Mexican food.
Red chile has been New Mexico's culinary lifeblood for years, and done much to forge the identity of this region, but it isn't indigenous to New Mexico. Foods made from dried red chile, from Moroccan harissa to Thai red chili sauce, are found in many countries on most continents. And while cooks in other regions could roast and eat their chiles when green, they don't.
The addition of chopped green chile to a cheeseburger creates one of the most beloved local delicacies. Or it can be combined with tomatoes, onions and garlic into a simple, chunky sauce full of green flavor and watery heat. This sauce is added to most other local dishes, from enchiladas to burritos to huevos rancheros.
In New Mexico's mountainous north, many sub-varieties of chile have adapted over the years to the specific climates and soils of their home valleys. This kind of haphazard selective breeding managed to produce some wonderful chiles, like the Espanola and Santa Cruz varieties, but also some crops of irregularly shaped chile that were vulnerable to disease. Chile evolution took a turn to the more scientific in 1907, when Dr. Fabian Garcia, at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, began breeding a chile with the heat and flavor of a jalapeno, the size of a bell pepper, and traits like disease and drought resistance that would enhance commercial production. In 1917 he released his masterpiece: the New Mexico No. 9.
Many variations created by several breeders followed. The New Mexico No. 6, released in 1950, was aimed at middle-American palates by dispensing entirely with the chile's trademark heat. It worked. No longer scared of chemical burns, millions of new chile eaters emerged from America's woodwork. Some of these No. 6 seeds found their way to southern California, where they took hold and became known as the Anaheim pepper. While California went on to produce a sizeable chile industry, the nation's leader continues to be New Mexico. And most of the state's chiles are grown in the lower Rio Grande valley, especially around Hatch, just north of Las Cruces.
Sandia, Rio Grande, Joe Parker and the foot-long Big Jim are just some of today's popular varieties in the Las Cruces lineage. Northern growers of niche chiles like Santa Cruz and Espanola are prone to dismiss these southern varieties for having lost their flavor as breeders focused on more commercially important factors like size, yield, resistance and mellow heat. Somewhere along the way, the commercial varieties lost their green flavor as well. Cognizant of this dilemma, researchers at the New Mexico Chile Institute in Las Cruces have collaborated with Biad Chile to develop the NuMex Heritage 6-4. It isn't the sexiest name, but it's supposedly got five times the flavor of the average Hatch chile.
While the hair-splitting will continue in dusty New Mexican think-tanks over which chile is best, it's actually the roasting, more than the variety, that's responsible for the magic of green chile. And the good news is, you don't need a big metal propane-fired roaster to roast chiles on a domestic scale. Nor do you need the newest-fangled variety of chile; you can roast any chile you might have growing, though fleshy chiles are superior. In the average American market, where you won't have Sandias or Joe Parkers to choose from, a combination of jalapenos and Anaheims will create a nice approximation.
Preheat the oven on broil, with a baking pan or skillet in the oven. Make a lengthwise slit in each chile to allow steam to escape, and then place the chiles on the hot pan under the broiler, about 4 inches from the heat. Start checking on the chiles after about three minutes. As they begin to blister, turn them. Keep checking every two minutes until the skins are burnt and blistered all the way around. Remove the chiles, place them in a bowl, and cover with a damp towel. After they've cooled to room temperature, pull or rinse off the peels. If it's a hot chile and your audience isn't especially heat tolerant, consider cleaning out the seeds and internal membranes.
Your roasted chile is now ready for use. Chop it up and add it to your cheeseburger, scramble it into some eggs, or stuff it into a chicken and bake it. The use of roasted green chile with non-New Mexican ingredients is a young art, so go ahead and experiment. Put it in coconut curry or on pizza. This is how you become a part of green chile taking over the world.
Ask Ari: Powdered power
Q: Dear Flash,
I've always been frustrated by the fact that garlic leaves are too tough to eat. They have great flavor, and I hate to see it go to waste. Well, this year I did an experiment with my garlic crop: After harvest, I began drying thin-sliced portions of the plant, including the leaves and stems. Then I ran the dried bits through a coffee grinder. The resulting powder sprinkles easily on food and gives a great garlic taste! I love it!
Now I'm wondering how far I can take this, as I gaze at my stash of harvested plants drying in my garage. I'm thinking of using the rest of the stalks, and the roots, too. Any thoughts on my research?
A: Wow, that's a very creative maneuver. Good work.
As for using the rest of the plant, and depending on the size of your crop and what plans you have for it, I advise caution. If you grew enough for year-round consumption, I would recommend leaving the harvested plants intact for about a month, which allows the bulbs to fully cure into a form that will store until next June.
Unfortunately for your powder stash, once you allow them to cure like this the roots and stalks and remaining leaves will wither and lose their pungency, and won't be much good for grinding into powder. But if you attempt to powder your plants now, while they're still green, you'll risk losing your root crop to early spoilage. And that's not really much of a choice.
But I suspect you have a small crop—why else would you be going to such extreme contortions to preserve as much garlic material as you can? If so, go ahead and powder it, because if you have any garlic cloves left by October you'll probably be planting every clove you can salvage, in hopes of a larger crop next year. I know I would.
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