Autumn brings lots of favorites, like football games, delicious pumpkin treats, and our best weather of the year, but nothing says fall to a New Mexican like the aroma of roasting green chile. How did this delicious pepper become so entwined with our culture that we celebrate it each year with roasting stands at almost every grocery store and a popular festival in Hatch? Let’s talk chile and find out!
Chili or Chile?
Let’s clear this up first: if you’re in New Mexico, then “chile” is a pepper and “chili” is a dish made with peppers, beans, meat, and other ingredients. Don’t mix them up!
The first chile plants originated around Bolivia and seeds were spread by birds, who can eat chile with wild abandon since they don’t have the receptors that tell them chile is hot. They spread the seeds throughout South America and eventually to what is now the United States. Chile was first used for medicinal purposes, as capsaicin is used now, then these early culinary pioneers began cooking with the pods and developing different varieties depending on their needs. Now there are thousands of types of chile peppers, from the heatless bell peppers to the super-hot varieties like Bhut Jalokia.
The NMSU Connection
Chile has long been a staple in many types of food, but our beloved green chiles were temperamental and had varying heat levels until Fabián García, a member of the first graduating class of New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (today’s New Mexico State University), began experimenting with developing a new pod type. In 1921, he released New Mexico 9 with a reliable pod size and heat level. Almost 100 years later, we are still grateful! Our state is renowned world-wide as the home of the best chile (despite any recent claims by Colorado’s governor!), thanks to the research performed by Fabián García.
His legacy is honored today at NMSU at the Chile Pepper Institute, which continues with chile research and education. It includes a Chile Pepper Research Garden at Fabián García Demonstration Gardens, which can be visited daily from late June to October from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. and is located at 113 West University Ave. The Chile Pepper Visitor Center and Gift Shop is stocked with seeds, frozen green chile, chile powders from mild to wild, books, merchandise for chile lovers, and even a brownie mix with Bhut Jolokia powder — hot stuff! You can find it at Gerald Thomas Hall, Room 265, 945 College Avenue, with parking meters behind the building. It is open Monday – Friday from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
While you see “Hatch Green Chile” on produce, cans, and menus, Hatch is a valley and a growing area, not a variety of chile. According to the Chile Pepper Institute’s website, “This New Mexican pod type was first commercially grown in the Hatch Valley and eventually spread to other areas around New Mexico. Varieties that fall under the New Mexican pod type include: NuMex Big Jim, NuMex Joe E. Parker, NuMex Conquistador, Española Improved, Sandia, Anaheim, and New Mexico 6-4. Any one of these varieties may be found in a grocery store or farmers’ market labeled as ‘Hatch’ chile. Also to be labeled as a Hatch chile pepper, the pepper must have been grown in New Mexico.”
Red or green? This is such an important issue that it is our state question: Red or green? Of course, the official answer is meant to please lovers of both the spicier green chile and the sweeter red chile: Christmas — some of both. But the answer isn’t always so easy to give. As chile matures and turns red, it develops more sugar and becomes sweeter. However, the green chile sauce you get on your enchiladas or the layer of chile on your burger may be hot or mild depending on the variety, when it was picked, or even the luck of the draw as sometimes sister chile pods on the same plant may be of different heat levels (despite Fabián’s efforts). A good question to ask the server who poses the question is “Which is hotter, your red or your green?” Usually it’s the green, but sometimes it’s the red. But it comes down to which distinctive flavor you prefer and if you’re not sure, you can always give the official state answer and try them both!
How hot is hot?
Chile pepper’s heat comes from the chemical compound capsaicin. Chile peppers’ pungency (spiciness or heat) is ranked by Scoville Heat Units (SHU), developed in 1912 by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville. Scoville’s ranking system is used for comparing the levels of heat produced by different types of chile. For example, bell peppers get zero on the scale since they pack no punch, the popular jalapeño pepper can range from 2,500 to 8,000 SHU, the Bhut Jalokia, which was once the top of the chart under pure capsaicin, hits you with 800,000 to 1,000,300 SHU, and the current leader in the contest for the world’s hottest chile, the Carolina Reaper, has 2,200,000 SHU.
Wow! That was a spicy bite of chile! How do you cool your scorched mouth? The experts at the Chile Pepper Institute say the best way to do it is not with a glass of water, but with a dairy product. There’s chemistry behind the answer, but trust the experts and have some milk, sour cream, or cheese with your chile if you find it too spicy.
Who grows it best?
Turns out chile growers are pretty competitive! The New Mexico Chile Association is hosting the first Great New Mexico Chile Taste-Off September 21 in Socorro. Commercial growers who farm anywhere from one acre to hundreds are invited to participate to see if they can go home with the bragging rights for growing our state’s tastiest chile.
Chile roasting and freezing
You’re walking from the parking lot towards the grocery store and that delicious and unique aroma hits you, then leads you straight to the chile roasters. How can you resist? You buy a bag and have it roasted for you on the spot, take it home, and . . . then what? Some folks put the roasted chile directly into plastic bags and right into the freezer, then peel them when they’re ready to use with the goal of helping preserve the flavor. Others peel them straight from the roaster by rinsing them with water, then freezing them. The chefs at the Santa Fe School of Cooking say instead of rinsing the chile, put them in a bowl or larger container while still hot, cover with a towel to create steam, and use the moisture from the steam to help slip the skins off the chile. Gloves are recommended, especially if you buy hot chile, and a chile lover warns, “Don’t rub your eyes!”
Chile addict Judith Tanner advises, “We put a dozen, unpeeled, into a gallon Ziploc bag. Make sure you lay them nice and flat and remove as much air as you can. With them flat, you can stack the bags in the freezer. Chop some of the chiles and put them into a small bag, ready to use.”
Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail
Green chile and cheeseburgers go together so well that the state has even developed a Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, so you can eat your way from one end of the state to another. See the complete list at newmexico.org/things-to-do/cuisine/culinary-trails/green-chile-cheeseburger-trail.
One stop on the trail, the popular and eclectic Sparky’s BBQ in Hatch, is in green chile central, so it’s no surprise they put it in about everything they make, from their popular green chile cheeseburgers to chicken sandwiches, tacos, burritos, and even their lemonade. Teako Nunn says they go through 100 pounds of chile a day, a combination of Young Guns and Vegetable Products, both grown and processed in Hatch Valley. He says that’s what makes their green chile so consistent and flavorful. “No Colorado chile here!” he proudly states. He says about their burgers, “Simplicity is the key to our green chile cheeseburger. We use top-notch ground chuck, a secret family seasoning, world famous Hatch green chile, and one slice of American cheese. By staying simple, it allows all the primary flavors to shine!”
Hatch Chile Festival
The village of Hatch goes all out to celebrate their most famous crop. It takes place Labor Day weekend, which means this year’s festival is probably over by the time you’re reading this, but mark your calendar for next year so you can visit booths with delicious chile-centric foods, enjoy spicy entertainment, craft booths, a chile ristra contest, and see the Hatch Chile Festival queen be crowned. It’s only $20 carload, so grab your fellow chile-loving friends and head to the Hatch Airport next Labor Day weekend.