Now more than ever, green chile is the defining flavor of New Mexico. Unfortunately, our most famous crop is being counterfeited by producers across the United States and as far away as China.
New Mexico chile production has taken a tumble in recent years because of foreign growers marketing hot peppers as coming from New Mexico or even Hatch — the center of chile production in the state — when it is actually grown hundreds or thousands of miles away. Local chile acreage has declined from about 35,000 acres in 1992 to just 9,600 in 2012, according to the New Mexico Chile Association’s website.
In April 2011, Gov. Susana Martinez signed the New Mexico Chile Advertising Act, which outlawed advertising any pepper as New Mexico chile unless it was grown in New Mexico.
Just days ago, the New Mexico Chile Association launched a certification program and website to protect local farmers and the reputation of the state’s signature crop. Farmers, restaurants, grocers and restaurant supply companies can join in the program and guarantee that their chile is local. This will put “Certified New Mexico Chile™” in the same ranks as Champagne, Idaho Potatoes™ and Vidalia Onions™.
One of the first companies to join the certification was Bueno Foods, according to a press release from the association. To check for companies participating in the chile certification program, visit Getnmchile.com.
Newcomers to the state, or those not lucky enough to have their abuelas’ recipes, might enjoy some hints to increase their enjoyment of the addictive pepper.
Simple enough: Put it on everything.
But seriously, we’ll look at fresh green chile for now.
Chiles are among the easiest vegetables to grow in a small garden. Decent soil, sufficient water, pollinators such as bees and plenty of direct sunlight are all chile plants need to produce pounds of peppers.
In the coming weeks, Albuquerque will be filled with the aroma of chiles roasting. Be sure to ask if the chile is locally grown. Or, if you are lucky enough to have several plants growing, harvest, roast and peel your own.
Use caution when handling chiles or any other peppers: Wear gloves when peeling, seeding or chopping and wash hands well after handling chile. Locals all know the pain of touching an eye or other sensitive body part with a chile-covered finger.
Roasting and peeling fresh green chile
The tough, waxy skin needs to be removed before eating chile.
The traditional way is to char the skin, allow the chiles to cool and then peel them. This can be done in the huge rotating drums, or over a gas or charcoal grill. Start your grill, and then lay the chiles over medium heat.
Pay close attention, as chiles are delicate and can burn through to the delicious flesh beneath. Some folks put the roasted chiles in plastic or paper bags, but the best way I have found is to use a large metal mixing bowl.
Cover the bowl with foil or film wrap and allow cooling. The steam from the peppers will help release the skin.
Separate the chiles by size, saving long straight chiles (such as Big Jims) for chiles rellenos. While wearing gloves, remove the skin and discard. If a chile gets torn, remove the stem end and the seeds and use for strips or chopped chile.
As soon as the chiles are peeled, refrigerate, freeze or just start cooking. Roasted chile is not fully cooked and should be handled like any other raw food and stored appropriately, then cooked to 165 F.
Green chile sauce
Traditions vary over whether green chile sauce should include tomato. The Frontier Restaurant’s sauce includes it; many other restaurants do not.
Try it both ways and decide for yourself.
2 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup fine-diced onion
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock (low sodium or homemade)
3 cups chopped, roasted and peeled green chile
1 cup diced tomato (optional)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt and pepper to taste
½ teaspoon dry oregano (optional)
In a large saucepan, melt butter over medium to medium-high flame. Add onion, stirring until translucent and soft. Add garlic and allow to soften, but not brown. Dump in flour and mix until it blends to a paste. Add stock slowly to dissolve flour and bring to a simmer.
Add chile, tomato (if using) and let return to a simmer. Chile tends to become spicier as it continues to cook, so check for flavor, and then add the remaining ingredients.
Serve over nearly anything.
Green Chile Stew
There are many thousands of recipes for this dish. One per New Mexican, as the joke goes.
One way to start is by doubling the sauce recipe and adding more stock plus pork, beef or chicken as well as potatoes. To thicken once the meat is cooked through, make a slurry of half cup cornstarch and half cup of cold water or stock. Whisk well, or shake in a sealed jar. Add to simmering stew and stir. The heat will activate the thickening properties of the cornstarch. Adjust seasonings to taste. Experiment with different proteins, or substitute posole for the potatoes.
Simply select the longest, straightest Big Jim chiles and make a small slit, parallel to the length near the stem end. Remove most of the seeds.
Take shredded cheddar, Jack or other semi-hard cheese and roll it into a cone shape roughly the size of each chile and stuff it through the slit.
Make your favorite beer batter. Batter and deep fry.
Stuffed, unbattered chiles will last for months in the freezer.