This time last week I was marinating in green chile. The skin on my hands has just about recovered. Each year I buy 25 pounds of fresh chile from Hatch. These are a mix of several varieties of New Mexican chiles, which are a kind of large-pod chile with moderately thick flesh and a high percentage of capsaicin, the heat-causing oil in chiles. I like the complex flavor of Big Jim, but I like the heat of the Sandias. (Even I can’t quite do Lumbres.) In the New Mexico garden, I would grow a mix of three parts Big Jim, one Sandia. I might be able to do that again here in Vermont when garden things are a bit more orderly. For now, I order direct from Hatch — where the bulk of New Mexico chile is grown in endless fields along the Rio Grande. (Which apparently flooded recently. How’s that for weird weather!) And this year I went for more heat. I feel the need for capsaicin in these old joints.
Roasting chiles is a whole process. The key steps are heating them until there is slight caramelization in the flesh (a bit blackened) and cooling them quickly so the skins peel off easily. You need a heat source that is as hot as you can tolerate, and you need a large basin of water as cold as you can make it in August heat.
In New Mexico, they put the chile pods in a large tumble roaster — a wire cage on an axle with a long crank handle — then use propane flames roughly the strength of an arc welder to blast them all black in seconds. (Ok, maybe that’s hyperbole… maybe…) Then they dump the roasted pods into waiting buckets of water, sending up redolent clouds of steam. Chile roasting stands are set up in parking lots, at outdoor markets, in random spots along roads. You drive by with windows rolled down — because it’s monsoon season, you know — and are suddenly ensnared by chile scent. I’m sure there are chile-related traffic accidents.
Out here in New England, lacking a tumble roaster or even a decent outdoor grill, I oven roast the chiles. I set the oven to 425°F and place the rack at the top of the oven for maximum heat. I use baking sheets with edges, not the totally flat cookie sheet variety, because chiles leak a lot of moisture in a short time. The pods will be visibly smaller with puckered skin when you take them out. I fill the largest mixing bowl in the kitchen with cold water and have it near the sink to be refilled — and re-chilled — many times.
Then it’s just a matter of laying out trays of chiles and shuffling them through the oven and water basin. I like evenly blackened chiles, so I roast for 15 minutes, turn them all over and roast for another 15 minutes. Then, I dump the roasted pods in the water basin immediately after pulling them out of the heat. It still takes a bit of work to get the skins off of some of them, and I try to remove seeds without stripping the capsaicin-rich stringy flesh that holds them to the pod. So my hands get a full immersion in chile oil. But it feels so good on the arthritis, I hardly notice the burn.
And it will burn. If you don’t like the heat on your palate, you’re probably not going to like the heat on your hands either. It is not like an ordinary chemical burn in that it is not causing damage, but it is causing fiery pain. So for the first few times you attempt chile roasting, wear nitrile gloves (not rubber or anything else that will impart odd flavors). Also, prepare for chile cough. If you feel a tickle in your throat, leave the room immediately. Get as far from the oily aerosols as possible. Don’t breathe in more. You will cough forever if you stand there, trying futilely to control it. I used to wrap a bandana around my face. These days, if you want, just use your face mask. Lucky for me, my tiny kitchen has excellent air flow and a really strong ceiling fan. For the first time ever, I got through a day of chile roasting without the cough striking once.
I froze ten pints of roasted, peeled and chopped chile out of the 25 pound box. I think that’s about average for New Mexico chiles. Sometimes, I will just blanch the pods and freeze them whole — mostly to make rellenos (chiles stuffed with cheese or other things). But it really is more useful to roast, peel and chop before freezing — it’s all recipe-ready that way. Just dump the pint-sized ice cube into a stew pot or the middle of a roasting chicken and let it suffuse your dinner with chile as it melts.
I did leave a pint or so out of the freezer. I mixed the New Mexico chiles with some local jalapeños, also roasted. I had intended to make corn & black bean salsa with all this fresh Vermont corn, but the chile-addict wanted to Eat Chile Now! So I made corn & black bean vegetable stew instead. That way I also got to use more of these rather flourishing summer squash. I still used the lime-tomatillo base I would normally use for salsa, rather than the red tomatoes I would put in the stew pot. I put in some fresh parsley and sage from the herb bed (no cilantro in this heat, sadly) and a Penzey’s spice mix that works very well on corn and beans, Southwest Seasoning. I stewed it all for about 45 minutes. To serve, I topped it with shredded cheese and toasted pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds). I paired this stew with a raspberry-walnut zucchini bread and my favorite Stowe hard cider, High & Dry.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021