Flash in the Pan 

Coast-to-coast green chili

Across the American Southwest in late summer, temporary roasting stations will sprout from the landscape. They appear in parking lots, farmers markets and empty fields, and even on the side of the road. What's being roasted is green chile—or "chili," as it's spelled outside of the region. Many peppers are green, but green chili refers to a type of long, thick-fleshed pepper that first appeared in New Mexico in the late 1800s. In practical terms, green chili isn't considered edible until it's been roasted, a process that typically occurs in a device that looks like a flaming hamster wheel. As the hot metal drum turns, an intoxicating smell emanates from the roaster.

I became addicted to this smell, and chilies' herbal, pungent flavor, at an early age, but most of my life has been spent outside the Southwest. The popularity of green chili is spreading, and you can find it freshly roasted in surprising places, from Montana to Massachusetts. This is great, but when it comes to green chili, I need more control over my destiny than the occasional chance encounter provides. So I've developed methods by which I can fill any house with that magical green chili smell, and flavor my food properly, wherever I am. I can roast Anaheim peppers in an electric oven in suburban Connecticut, and they will smell and taste right.

Anaheim peppers are descendants of New Mexico chili seeds that were brought to California in the early 1900s. They tend to be milder than New Mexico chili, and less pungent. Honestly, they're a less desirable substitute, but they do the trick. And while New Mexicans choose to eat the majority of their chili crop, rather than export it, the Anaheim pepper is available almost anywhere.

Turn on the broiler—electric or gas—to high, with a shelf positioned at the top level. Arrange the chilies on a cookie sheet so none are touching. Broil for 6-10 minutes per side.

When the chilies are blackened and blistered on top, turn them over, and repeat. When blackened and blistered all around, I remove the cookie sheet and flame the chilies with a propane torch, so the skins catch on fire and smolder. This brief step is not absolutely necessary, but the presence of real fire and flaming peels adds extra depth and complexity to the flavor of the chili. If you have a gas grill, hold the hot chilies with tongs and briefly flame them over a burner.

The next step is to "sweat" the chili, which means enclosing them so the heat continues to cook them. Sweating loosens the skins for easy peeling, while the aroma of burnt peel permeates the chili. In New Mexico, the sweating technique of choice is to dump the hot chili into a plastic bag and tie it off. I'm not crazy about this technique, as there are potential health issues with keeping hot food in non-food grade-plastic, and the plastic bag method tends to overcook the chili.

click to enlarge ARI LEVAUX
  • Ari LeVaux

When roasting green chilies at home, I sweat them by covering the cookie sheet with foil for about 30 minutes. Then I transfer the chili to a vessel of ice water. This process, called shocking, fixes a bright green color to the chilies, and preserves their structural integrity so they can handle stuffing without disintegrating.

After roasting, sweating and shocking my chilies, I freeze them in quart bags with the skins on. Many people peel their chilies first, but the skins are reservoirs of flavor, and leaving them on yields a better product. I'll peel the chilies later, after thawing them—the one exception being if I grill the chilies, in which case I'll leave the skins on so they can burn fragrantly before I peel off the remains.

Many sauces are made with green chili, but most aficionados are content to simply add it chopped to whatever they're eating. Practically anything savory you could put in your mouth, be it a cheeseburger, scrambled eggs, chicken soup, coconut curry, or a piece of cheese, will be improved with green chili. This is well-known in New Mexico, but elsewhere the closest most people usually get to a green chili is in the form of a chili relleno, a roasted green chili stuffed with cheese and cooked in a batter-like egg meringue. Alas, all too often this dish is made with an unroasted Anaheim.

To prepare a chili relleno, make a two-inch, lengthwise slit at the wide end of a roasted green chili. Remove the wad of seeds there, and rinse out the remaining seeds to tone down the heat, if necessary. Push some cheese into the slit. Mozzarella and Jack are two popular choices, but any cheese, preferably grated, will work.

Allocating one egg per chili, separate the yolks and beat the whites until stiff. Stir the yolks and gently fold them into the whites. Lay a stuffed chili on a hot oiled pan, slit-side up, with chopped garlic, and scoop some big lumpy spoonfuls of the meringue on top (you can also bed the chili on a scoop of meringue placed in the pan first, for total enclosure of the chili). I prefer to not flip the thing. Rather, after cooking for a few minutes on medium heat, I add a teaspoon of water and put a lid on the pan to steam the meringue stiff. Season with salt and pepper, and serve.

There are many ways to fancy up this simple dish. You can prepare the pan with little pieces of bacon before you add the chili and garlic. You can top the chili with a fried mix of onion, sweet corn and zucchini—a mixture called calabacitas—before adding the meringue. And you can push corn chips into the meringue as it cooks, so they stick out like dinosaur scales. You can even skip the cheese. You can even skip the eggs—it won't be a chili relleno, at this point, but it will still taste good. The one thing that isn't negotiable, either in this dish or in this lifetime, is the green chili.

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