Taste the Heat of the Southwest with This Late-Summer Favorite
Just when you think summer is beginning to wind down, the season takes a deep breath and keeps pushing. The melons and tomatoes are outstanding. I can’t pick my snap beans and heirloom (thus non-GMO) zucchini fast enough. The tables at farm stands and farmers markets are overflowing with glossy, colorful, fresh sweet bell peppers and what are called frying peppers, which range from the long, sweet Cubanelle (aka Italian frying pepper) to the Japanese shishito, a favorite cocktail nibble this time of year.
Roughly 30,000 passionate fans are packing up and heading toward the annual Hatch Valley Chile Festival, which will take place Sept. 3 and 4 in Hatch, New Mexico. There and throughout New Mexico and West Texas, you’ll find the fresh long green chiles being flame roasted in slowly turning big drums—the aroma is one of the world’s most mouthwatering—then bagged and sold to people who take them home and freeze them for winter stews, salsas, enchiladas, and other dishes.
One bite and you will begin to understand a culture and cuisine that has existed in our country for almost 500 years. The chiles that grow along the northern Rio Grande and its tributaries reflect terroir, as Ronni Lundy wrote in a piece for Gourmet eight years ago. “It is not a stretch to say that there’s a measure of magic in their complex flavor, which is at once hot, fresh, vegetal, and earthy. They seem to taste of the landscape itself—which is stark, breathtaking, and completely unforgiving—so that anything brought forth from them has an extra measure of savor for the effort.”
No surprise, then, that you’ll see people buying 30 pounds or so of freshly roasted chiles at a time. When it comes to freezing your haul to best preserve texture, as well as DIY roasting methods, you’ll find helpful tips and advice from the New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service at The Hatch Chile Store.
For better or worse, “Hatch chile” has become the default term for all chiles grown in New Mexico, but it’s not the actual name of the pepper cultivar. “Yes peppers are grown in Hatch, New Mexico, but they aren’t any better than chiles from neighboring towns. And there is no way tiny Hatch produces all the chiles that get sold under that name,” wrote Robb Walsh, the author, most recently, of The Chili Cookbook, in 2009 for Houston Press. “Farmers from other parts of New Mexico and other states including Arizona ship green chiles to Hatch to be resold. Some Hatch chile producers are reportedly shipping seeds to Mexico and having the chiles grown south of the border, where water and labor are cheaper.”
The latest development on the Hatch chile front regards the use of the name by the Albuquerque-based Hatch Chile Company, which produces those little tins you see at the supermarket right next to the taco shells and cans of refried beans and tomatillos. It’s been at litigious odds with the Hatch Chile Association, a group of producers who want to limit the moniker’s usage to chiles grown in the Hatch Valley. The producers won in a court decision this June.
So what is a Hatch chile when it’s not at home? I’ll turn you over to Walsh, who dived into the subject some years back, on his Texas Eats blog. He is not one to do things by halves.
“The ‘New Mexican’ chile is a pod-type that was hybridized around 1894 by Fabian Garcia at New Mexico State University. He crossed a chile pasilla with a chile colorado to get the meaty vegetable-like green chile he was trying to create. Known as the ‘Long Green Chile’ by New Mexicans and West Texans (until it turns red and becomes the Long Red Chile), it has a pleasant vegetable flavor—you can buy them hot or mild,” Walsh wrote. “Anaheims are the same pod-type—their name comes from a chile cannery opened in Anaheim, California in 1900 by a farmer named Emilio Ortega, who brought the pepper seeds to California from New Mexico.”
But there’s more. “In New Mexico, the Long Green Chile is further subdivided by region of origin,” Walsh went on to explain. “The two most common names encountered are Hatch and Chimayo. Hatch chiles are grown in the southern part of New Mexico (around the town of Hatch) from certified seed sources and are graded according to heat.” Meanwhile, “Chimayo chiles are the older more traditional chiles grown in the Northern part of the state (around the town of Chimayo) from seeds that have been saved from the last harvest. Chimayo chiles are treasured for their superior flavor and unpredictable heat, but they are becoming increasingly rare. Most of the ‘Chimayo chile’ sold around the state (including on the steps of the chapel in the village of Chimayo) are actually cheaper Hatch chiles that hawkers pass off to tourists. The best place to buy certified Chimayo chiles is at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market.”
When I reached out to the Chile Pepper Institute, in Las Cruces, the good folks there got back to me with alacrity. They included Stephanie J. Walker, extension vegetable specialist at New Mexico State University. “‘Hatch’ chile includes several distinct New Mexico-type, long green chile varieties (‘NuMex Joe E. Parker,’ ‘Big Jim,’ ‘Sandia,’ and others),” she wrote in an email. (If all this is making you dream of next year’s garden, you should know that the Chile Pepper Institute is a great source of non-GMO seeds.)
As I wrote last September, chile farmers in the Southwest are facing some serious environmental challenges, including drought and higher temperatures, which compel producers to pump water for irrigation from the aquifers underlying the fields. Depending on the area, the groundwater in the aquifer can range from pure (typically, when it’s being actively recharged from a river) to brackish or saline. “Regarding salinity, while this is often a production challenge in the southwest, we had a good amount of rainfall last year that eased this concern,” wrote Walker.
When I reached her by phone the other day, she added that the monsoon season was late this year. “It’s usually July, but it’s happening now,” she said, “and people are expecting a very healthy chile harvest with great quality.”
Interestingly, mild cultivars will still be mild, but hot ones will be hotter than usual, she added, because they’re responding to the stressful dry heat earlier this summer. I can almost taste that first fierce bowl of green right now. My tears will supply all the salt I’ll need.