Now the rudbeckia are opening. The topmost leaves on the maple trees have a faint wash of orange overlaid on green. And the roadside stands of goldenrod are beginning to turn into fields of sunshine. It is just shy of the season of Lughnasadh. We’ve nearly made it through July, and now the blessedly cool nights will be lengthening quickly. Day length is already about 45 minutes less than it was at the beginning of July. But then in August the slide picks up speed, so that by September the nights are about 90 minutes longer. Ninety more sunless minutes to cool off the house, the garden, the body.
Today, however, is not that day. It was over 90°F in the heat of the day and the forecasted low says the temperature will remain above 70°F. Fortunately last night, with a similar forecast, it got down to at least 57°F when I was recording the weather in the morning. Hopefully, the lows will continue to defy prediction. Because 70° is not cool enough to shed the day’s heat in this house… Nights like that, no sleep happens at all.
Of course, Murphy’s Law was once again validated. It has been cool for much of the summer. This is the first heat wave we’ve experienced, and this is the hottest day so far this year. So predictably, the 25 pound box of fresh Hatch chiles showed up two days ago and absolutely must be roasted today… in 90°F heat.
I ordered these chiles in April as, I thought, a back-up to the bumper crop of Big Jims I would be growing in the front yard hügelkultur mound this year. Turns out it was a very small bumper, somewhat less than a Matchbox car, so it is a very good thing I was cautious or I’d be eating only canned chile this year. Not that I’m opposed to the newly proliferating cans of Hatch chiles in grocery stores everywhere, even my Vermont co-op. (I put that down to Breaking Bad… or perhaps signs that I’m not the only New Mexican in climate change diaspora…) But there is a big difference between the machine processed stuff and chile that is fresh roasted — in texture, in flavor, and in heat.
For one thing, the canned stuff usually needs some acidic preservative that alters the flavor and the heat — because acid neutralizes the chile heat (that’s why when you have a burning mouth, milk or lemonade work better than water to calm things down). For another, I can control what varieties go into the home-preserved chile. I tend to grow Big Jim and NuMex, with a slightly higher proportion of the less fiery but more flavorful Big Jims. When I buy fresh chiles, I order a mix from Hatch Chile that is about the same as what I grow. For some reason, there is no canned variety that mimics my preferred blend, though I think it is probably what most New Mexicans taste in their minds when they think “green chile”. It is almost identical to the blend that Albuquerque’s Garcia’s Restaurant chain uses, and it’s very close to the frozen “Hatch Autumn Roast” from Bueno Foods. For many New Mexicans those are benchmark flavors.
For the uninitiated, Hatch is the name of a southern New Mexico town, nestled into a bend in the Rio Grande south of Elephant Butte reservoir (hence the now mostly dry part of the river…). This is the place that grows most of the planet’s green chile, the overgrown-poblano-like pods that have heat and flavor unlike any other pepper. Big Jim chiles are moderately hot, but can carry a wallop depending on July’s heat. The hotter the weather, the more oil is produced, ergo the hotter the chile. NuMex chiles are hotter but, I think, do not have as complex a flavor as Big Jim, which can taste smoky, nutty and somewhat pungent like garlic or onion, again depending on the weather while ripening. The colder and cloudier it is, the less flavor in the pods (which does not bode well for this year’s harvest here in Vermont).
There are several other varieties of chile grown in Hatch. Nearby, New Mexico State University has made an industry out of breeding cultivars. Both Big Jim and NuMex came out of the NMSU breeding program many decades ago. Recent inventions tend to be focused on heat though. And while I need that capsaicin kick, I like being able to taste the other flavors (or, you know, anything at all…), so I don’t go in for the ghost pepper assault that appeals to those (mostly non-New Mexicans) who chirrup on about Scoville heat units. I’m not into testosterone contests, nor do I think pain is a flavor…
Anyway, 25 pounds of fresh chile showed up and needed to be addressed with all due haste, or it would quickly rot into a grey miasma of noisome slime, which, in addition to being horrifying in the kitchen, is a monumental waste of money… among other things. So, on literally the hottest day of the year, I was roasting chiles.
In New Mexico, this step is managed for you. Grocery stores, farm markets, and random street corners all sprout knots of grinning denim-swathed men in splendid hats who pour 30 pound bags of fresh chile into a rotating mesh drum over an open gas flame that likely doubles as an arc welder in the spring construction season. A few turns of the barrel and the chiles are redolently charred. They go back in the burlap bag, much reduced in volume. You take the steaming pile home and dump it in cold water to make peeling easier — and to cool the pile’s interior to something less than the surface temperature of the sun. Then you start the long process of peeling, chopping and packing the chile into freezer containers. The only complication in this whole business is trying to keep the chile oil out of your throat. Because once that happens, you’ll be coughing for the rest of the day.
New England is not noted for its chile culture. So I have to be the guys with the flame thrower. I’ve used a charcoal grill, but this made quite a bit more mess than I am willing to endure, and I lost a large number of precious chiles. Now, I use the oven set to 450°F. I have to do many batches of pods laid out on cookie sheets, so it takes many hours. I try to imagine spiritual elevation and inspiration coming over me with all the sweat, but my imagination falls rather short. Like my temper… So I suggest you complement the whole process with the latter chapters of Ellen Melloy’s Eating Stone and a well-chilled bottle of “Girls-are-Meaner” from Wines of the San Juan.
Also, if you don’t have a sitting space in your kitchen, I sort of recommend making a temporary one. Fifteen minutes isn’t long enough to go do much of anything else, but it’s way too long to stand!
The process is simple. Wash the pods and remove the stem. Don’t clean out the whole seed cavity, as that fleshy stuff that holds the seeds is also where all the capsaicin is. But the stems turn sort of gross after all this abuse from heat and cold, so I cut them off. Lay the clean pods on a cookie sheet. I highly recommend using a silicon pad or parchment paper because after a few batches, there is a charred mess. Cook them at as high a temperature as your oven will maintain for many hours without meltdown.
Don’t use the broiler. I know this seems like it would be closer to the flame thrower, but the few times I’ve tried it the chiles turned black on the outside but didn’t cook much at all on the inside. You need that arc welder and the tumbler to get the insides done before the outsides turn to charcoal.
Cook on one side for 15 minutes. Turn over the pods, then cook on the other side for another 15 minutes. As soon as they come out of the oven, dump them in cold water. This both cools them and causes the skin to separate from the flesh.
At this point, you can peel them and chop them and then pack the chopped chile into freezer containers. But last year I discovered by accident — another round of chiles that showed up at an inopportune time — that dropping them whole and unpeeled into freezer bags works just as well. Better for me actually because I can thaw the pods and then stuff them with my home-made ricotta to make rellenos — which you can’t do if the chiles are, you know, pulverized.
I bag up 12 pods in a gallon bag. This is an amount that I can use within a week of thawing, no problem. But I cook with a lot of chile, so you might want to store them in smaller amounts.
And that’s it.
I have 12 bags of chile pods in my freezer now. This ought to last me a year, supplemented with that canned Hatch stuff. And since the oven was on and the kitchen was already roasting, I decided to use up the last of last autumn’s frozen corn and the last of this year’s strawberries in baking. I’ve got two loaves of cranberry double corn bread and four dozen ginger strawberry muffins in the freezer also. Oh, and four pints of the first of the season’s blueberries that I got at the farmers’ market. All in all it was a productive, if sweaty, day. And I finished Eating Stone. And the wine… So I feel it all balanced out in the end… Murphy be damned.
Maybe this heat will inspire my own chile plants to get on with it already… After all, it’s almost August. We’re going to be dealing with first frost anxiety before you know it…
©Elizabeth Anker 2022