Food & Drink » Food

Flash in the Pan

Along the Rio Grande chile trail


On the front porch of Hatch Chile Sales in Hatch, N.M., Pedro Atencio turned on his roaster and went to work on four bushels of fresh, green New Mexico chile peppers. The pungent smell of roast green chile filled the air. When they were done, Pedro removed two chiles from the roaster and put them in a small plastic bag, explaining, “I’m not stealing your chile. I roasted two extra for grandma’s cheeseburger.”

Back on the porch, Pedro emptied the roaster’s contents into a large plastic sack and tied it off. “Let them steam half an hour,” he said, “then put them in small bags and freeze them.”

You can’t place an order in a New Mexico restaurant and not be asked the question, “Red or green?” It regards the color and flavor of the sauce poured over your hamburger, fries, burrito, steak, baked potato, chimichanga—you name it. While completely different in flavor, the two options are based on the same chile pepper, which turns from green to red in late summer. Greens are roasted; reds are dried.

In addition to growing more chiles per capita than anywhere else in the world, the lower Rio Grande Valley is also dominant in pecan production. But unlike chiles, which are a major part of the local culture, pecans are almost entirely for export. I asked Pedro, who also sells pecans, if any local recipes incorporate them. He shook his head and shrugged.

“That’s a good idea,” he said. “But we just sell them.” 

Across the street from Pedro’s stand, the Pepper Pot restaurant serves up some of the finest green chile soup anywhere. The owner, Melva, gave me the recipe last year, which you can find online (see “Feeling the heat in Hatch,” Aug. 30, 2007).

The chiles in Melva’s “Green Chile Bowl” have the bright color of fresh green chile. When I asked her why, she told me about a new development in Hatch. Big Jim, whose father, the original Big Jim, helped develop the green chile variety known as the Big Jim, recently started using a water bath to cool the chile after roasting. This halts the cooking immediately, and removes the skins. It’s the same idea as plunging steamed broccoli, or any other greens, into an ice bath—it prevents overcooking, preserves the nutrients and fixes the beautiful color.

Before heading to Big Jim’s Chile Express to investigate—and buy another eight bushels—I tried a side-by-side comparison of Melva’s green and red chile soups, hoping to figure out which I like better.

The green bowl is like jazz, each component doing its own thing, in its own space, all in support of the green chile. The red chile is a wall of unified flavor that’s hot, sweet and sustained.

Melva, who identifies as a “red chile girl,” gave me her recipe but then warned: “I’ll give it to you, pero don’t tell nobody because I’ll kick jur ass.”

I could already taste the green chile scrambled eggs I’ll be making back in Missoula as we drove north with 12 bushels of goods packed in a cooler with dry ice. At the Santa Fe farmers’ market, midway up the Rio Grande Valley, we met Don Bustos, a farmer who once received a Department of Homeland Security grant to put local produce in Santa Fe school lunches. He’s a champion of the northern New Mexico Chimayo chile, a local variety that’s evolved in this region over centuries.

“Our chile is flavored,” he said, “by the soil, the cool nights, the sun and the rain—not like those weeds they grow in Hatch.”

After tasting some roasted Chimayos, I’d have to agree that the flavor is more profound, and I wished I had room in my cooler.

I asked Bustos if he’s a red or green chile guy, and he shook his head at the question.

“It totally depends on the season, the dish, everything,” he said. “You can’t make a posole without red chile, for example.”

Bustos was interested to hear about Big Jim’s waterbath technique, and he hadn’t heard of any recipes with chile and pecans.

“It’s a good idea, though,” he said.

A woman at the market overheard my pecan question and told me that roast green chile and pecans are amazing in apple pie, edging me closer to my goal of putting chile and pecans together in the same bite.

Further north in Taos, where the Rio Grande begins its run through the state, I got another clue to my nutty quest. Relleno’s Café serves a poblano pepper stuffed with apple, pear, raisins, tomato and beef, drenched in a walnut brandy cream sauce. It’s absolutely spectacular. Substitute pecans for those walnuts, and there’s another piece of the Rio Grande puzzle.  

If you want to get in on the chile action in western Montana, Caroline and Steve Bull roast fresh chile in a propane fired drum roaster, hecho en New Mexico, at the Hamilton farmers’ market. And if you can wait a few more weeks for their chiles to turn red, shoot me an e-mail and I’ll see what I can do about hooking you up with a recipe. Pero, if you tell Melva I told you, I’ll kick jur ass.

Ask Ari: Conspiring to create a convivia

Q: Hi Ari,

I recently moved to Missoula to begin work with the Farm to College Program at the University of Montana. It was suggested that I contact you about a “slow food” convivia in Missoula. I am wondering if there is a local slow food organization here and if so, whom can I contact?

—Hungry Hungry Tortoise

A: For those who don’t know, slow food is a movement dedicated to taking time to cook and enjoy good food—the opposite, if you will, of eating fast food in your car. The movement’s mission is to “catalyze a broad cultural shift away from the destructive effects of an industrial food system and fast life; toward the regenerative cultural, social and economic benefits of a sustainable food system, regional food traditions, the pleasures of the table, and a slower and more harmonious rhythm of life.”

Convivia is the term for a local chapter of the slow food movement; the word comes from Latin, meaning, “living together” or, in this case, feasting together. Convivia members congregate regularly to savor the flavors of home.

In addition to gathering for feasts, slow food convivium (that’s the plural form) also serve as networks for finding local ingredients, preserving local or heirloom crop varieties, recipe sharing and other types of slowcavore support.

I wrote about slow food a few years ago and got a flurry of letters from people interested in a western Montana slow food convivia—I even got a note from the Indy’s own George Ochenski. I know of a convivia in Bozeman, but nothing closer to Missoula. So consider this a call to interested parties to step up to the plate. If anyone wants to get a local convivia started, shoot me an e-mail and I’ll share it with the Hungry Hungry Tortoise. We’ll see what we can do.

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