Story and Photos by Harald Zoschke
Come to New Mexico in late summer, and you can’t escape its state fruit: What oranges are to Florida, chile is to New Mexico. The famous pepper is one of the defining ingredients of New Mexican Cuisine. While our perceived chile pepper color is red, a significant part of the harvest is picked, processed and consumed as “green chiles” (note the “e”). To easily remove the undesired outer skin, the pods are quickly roasted in rotating drums using powerful propane flames, which also helps developing the typical “roasted green chile” flavor. In fact, the smell of chile roasting in New Mexico has something addictive about it.
Although some chile products may come from Mexico, “Green Chile” is typical for New Mexico and New Mexican cuisine. Often it is advertised or sold as “Hatch Chile,” but that’s just a generic term for a number of pepper varieties developed by the New Mexico State University. Varieties include Sandia, NuMex Big Jim, NuMex Joe E. Parker, NuMex 6-4 and many others.
All varieties differ a bit in flavor and heat. The grandfather of these peppers, New Mexico No. 9, was developed by NMSU scientist Dr. Fabian Garcia almost 100 years ago. Learn all about the varieties on FieryFoodsCentral, here.
And this is where the famous chiles are growing, in the southern part of New Mexico. The varieties where adapted to the soil, climate and special irrigation techniques used in this region. Hatch chile or just green chile – with peppers so famous, it is no wonder that they show up in all sorts of products.
Here are my personal picks, food and non-food, as well as my favorite dishes featuring the famous New Mexican pepper. By the way, I’m a German foodie who lives in Italy and loves the American Southwest and its distinctive cuisine.
New Mexican Chile Food Products
To take care of those green chile cravings while traveling, treat yourself with a Green Chile Peanut Lollipop, handmade in Albuquerque, New Mexico by Brenda’s Nutty Pops. Nice green chile flavor, and the peanuts give this caramel monster an interesting texture.
From Wackym’s Kitchen in Dallas, Texas come these Hatch Chocolate Chip Cookies that we discovered on a recent Southwestern road trip. Back home, I hated myself for buying just one box of these chocolaty crunchy cookies with a nice burn. My wife Renate thought they were too hot, but I found them “just right.”
One of my favorite restaurants in Las Cruces, New Mexico is the Pecan Grill. Besides great food, they also make great beers, including a Green Chile Lager. It has a nice golden color with a mild but distinctive chile flavor. My advice: get their nice sampler first, then decide which beer(s) to stay with.
Another great green chile beer is Rio Grande Pancho Verde Chile Cerveza from the Sierra Blanca Brewing Company from Moriarty (close to ABQ). This beer has the unmistakable aroma of roasted chile, and like Pecan Grill’s brew, it is not too hot. According to the brewery, the whole chile is used to infuse the beer with green chile flavor. Whenever in town for the National Fiery Foods & BBQ Show, I get myself a six-pack of this tasty beer. (Be sure to try their IPA, too.)
Fat Man’s Beef Jerky near Roswell, NM makes all kinds of interesting chile-flavored beef jerky. My good friend Dave DeWitt was kind enough to send me the green chile version in a birthday package. Very tasty, with the chile not overpowering the beef flavor.
Dave also sent me Chile Pasado. Literally, “chile of the past” – this is roasted, peeled, and sun-dried green chile. The dried peppers have a very long shelf life that way, and to use them in cooking, they’re simply rehydrated. Also, chewing on a dried piece of chile pasado is almost like vegetarian jerky!
If you live in New Mexico or surrounding states, you’re fortunate to have your fresh green chiles roasted in late summer, so you can freeze them for use throughout the year. Or you can order frozen green chiles from New Mexican producers. When visiting the Hatch Chile Festival we even found this clever newspaper ad by a local UPS store, offering shipping of fresh and frozen green chile!
Speaking of frozen stuff, we even found delicious green chile ice cream at the Hatch Fest, served by beautiful young ladies.
When strolling through Hatch, my lovely wife Renate spotted these NuMex Big Jim peppers. Well, I keep telling her: “Size isn’t everything.”
If home is further away though, one of the next best things is green chile preserved in chunky salsa. Authentic stuff comes from El Pinto, the same folks that run the famous restaurant by the same name in Albuquerque. I found those “single servings” come in handy and there’s no more partial-jar leftovers getting moldy in the fridge.
The state of Wisconsin has a long tradition and history of cheese production. Who would blame Henning’s Cheese for creating a Hatch Chile Cheddar Cheese! Very tasty with nice chunks of green chile. I really enjoyed it.
When in season, also Texans are getting their share of green chile. Across the state, Central Market locations are among those stores celebrating “Hatch Chile” every year in August, offering a wide range of products kicked up with the tasty green chile. As a German, I love sausage, so it doesn’t come as a big surprise that one of my favorites was their green chile sausage, which we grilled with friends.
Also at the Whole Foods markets in the Southwest, late summer means “Hatch Everything”, which even includes burgers. And the pure stuff of course, freshly roasted daily…
New Mexican Chile Nonfood Products
Being so famous, the popular pod can also be found in various non-edible incarnations. Would you be surprised to find chile soap in this state? Of course, also here the legitimate question is “Red or Green?” – What can I say – we got both. (If you want both red and green chile in a restaurant, show you’re “in the know” by ordering “Christmas.”)
The chile cookie cutter allows you to create cookies in the shape of New Mexican chiles. Cover them with a red and or green sugar glaze, and literally have a great Christmas! We gave such a cookie cutter to our Italian friends, and they used it to cut out polenta and toast those chiles golden-brown as a nice plate decoration for a spicy dinner.
If you fly out of Albuquerque, New Mexican-themed souvenir shops will haunt you with chile stuff until your very departure. “Red or Green?” was once more the question, as I could not resist buying this kinda kitschy souvenir. Normally these shake gadgets have “snow” – this one had chile flakes!
Since I’ve been there, I got the t-shirt. Over here in Europe, many people don’t get it, as the “chile” spelling isn’t common here. But I love that shirt, and the strange looks I get when wearing it.
My Favorite Green Chile Dishes
My wife and I love Southwestern cuisine, so that’s all we’re eating when visiting New Mexico. Particularly I’m in love with chiles rellenos, so my first action is to scan the menu for those stuffed breaded peppers.
Chiles Rellenos #1: At the Pecan Grill, the rellenos come pecan-breaded, which gives them a crunchy and flavorful crust, and they’re stuffed with white cheddar. This plate and one of their beers is a great treat.
Chiles Rellenos #2: This is the classic, breaded and fried golden. Here it comes on a combo platter with enchilada, taco and rice. I could eat that right now… unfortunately, I’m about 5,000 miles too far away.
Chiles Rellenos #3: All you can eat, like a few years ago at the Cactus Café in Deming, NM. Baaaad deal for the owners when relleno-loving Harald pops in for lunch!
Also from the afore-mentioned Pecan Grill, “Green Chile Chicken Lasagna”, a “newmexicanized” version of the Italian classic: “Rotisserie chicken, roasted tomatoes, green chiles, ricotta, mozzarella & Parmesan cheeses layered together in green chile Alfredo sauce” (quoting their menu here). Mine came with an extra serving of green chile. Yum.
Once more Pecan Grill: “Green Chile Stew”, a New Mexican classic. Green chile, pork and potatoes, topped with cheese. I grow NuMex peppers in my yard, roast them on my gas grill and freeze them just to cook this stew in the winter. And I’m coming pretty close to the original!
Another great place to eat New Mexican chile stuff is Tomasitas in Santa Fe. A nice touch is their warning sign at the entrance!
Another fantastic restaurant for chile lovers is Garduños in Albuquerque. You know you’re at the right place when you see their chile handles on the entrance door…
The Frontier Restaurant on Central Avenue would be enough reason for me to relocate to Albuquerque. Their Western Omelet with green chile keeps you going all day. Don’t forget to get some of their tortillas, made fresh on location with an interesting machine while you watch. OMG.
Don’t you agree that often the simple pleasures in life are the best? At the Hatch Chile Festival, we just love to eat freshly roasted green chiles, wrapped with cheese in a tortilla.
Finally, a still life with green chiles that I shot at Dave and Mary Jane’s house in Albuquerque. To me, there’s something magical to New Mexican green chiles.
All for now – gotta go! Hatch me if you can …