In the United States all states have an official state bird and state flower. In the state of New Mexico (NM), the state bird is the roadrunner and the flower is the yucca. But what about the state “question”? New Mexico is actually the only state to have an official question and that question is - “Red or Green?”. Yep – that’s it – “Red or Green?” In NM every New Mexican restaurant asks you “Red or Green?” when you order your meal. If you’re not asked, then it’s not New Mexican food. It’s probably Mexican or Tex-Mex.
New Mexico Chile – Part I of a 4 part series
So why do waiters ask “Red or green?”? Because New Mexican dishes are typically smothered in a red or green chile sauce. When you order your enchiladas, chile rellenos, huevos rancheros, tamales, or stuffed sopapillas, the next thing you are asked is “Red or green?” – meaning – red sauce or green sauce. If you can’t decide, you can always order “Christmas” and get both. My standard orders are green with chile rellenos, red with tamales and huevos, and whatever I feel like at that moment for all other dishes.
NM chile – chile with an “e” – is a pepper grown in abundance across New Mexico. The most common pepper grown in NM is a long narrow pepper known in some parts of the world as the Anaheim chile pepper. In NM the chile varieties include Big Jim, Sandia, Rio Grande, and some no name chiles developed by small farmers that have spent years of growing and developing the perfect chile. But most of time they’re just called New Mexico chiles.
You may have heard of Hatch chile. Hatch chile is NM chile that is grown in Hatch, NM, a small village in the southern part of the state and one of the largest producers of NM chile. Chile from Hatch has become so well-known that every Labor Day weekend the village hosts a Hatch Chile Festival which draws more than 30,000 people from around the world. Having a population of less than 2,000, that’s a pretty big festival! But don’t get confused – not all of NM’s chile comes from Hatch. Most of the chile does come from southern NM, but a lot of great chile comes from other parts of the state.
Cultivation of Chile
Most of the chiles are picked green, but many are left to ripen on the plant and picked once they turn red. The green chiles are roasted and peeled for green chile sauce or just chopped green chile – my favorite. Red chiles are strung into ristras that are hung out to dry. Some places put them on the roof to dry. With our lack of humidity, chile dries pretty fast here. Once the chile has dried, it is turned into red chile powder or red chile sauce. More on that in Part II – NM Red Chile Sauce.
Roasting Green Chile
Green chile is roasted, peeled, deseeded and chopped. Here in New Mexico you can buy a bushel or 30 to 40 pound sack of chile and either roast it yourself or have the seller roast it. I highly recommend having the seller roast it! The seller usually has a large gas powered roaster that can do the whole bushel at once. The chile peppers are dumped into a large grated container which rotates, tossing the peppers about. As it rotates a gas burner below the container sears the skins of the peppers. It only takes a few minutes, whereas if you were to roast that many peppers on the grill, it would take A LOT LONGER.
If you are interested in roasting chiles on the grill, check out Monica’s post @ The Yummy Life. She has a wonderful pictorial process on How to Roast and Peel Peppers. The chile she uses looks like NM green chile or at least Anaheim peppers and her process is spot on. It’s the same one I’ve used for years.
I do love chile roasting season because it smells so good! This time of year (the fall), with these big roasters going, you can smell chile being roasted pretty much everywhere.
Once roasted, the chiles are peeled, stems and seeds removed, and sometimes the interior veins are removed. The veins, the whitish meat that runs the length of the chile on the inside, contains the majority of the capsaicin, the substance in pepper that provides the “heat”. So to make the chile milder, you can remove the veins. At this point the chile is ready to freeze or use immediately. The whole chile can be used to make chile rellenos and the chopped chile – well, it can be used for just about anything. More on that in Part IV – NM Green Chile.
Which is hotter – Red or Green?
As far as the heat of the chile, you never know until you taste it. I’ve heard many times that red is hotter, but then everything is relative. I’ve had some mouth numbing green chile – believe me! Just last weekend, four of us ate at our favorite little New Mexican restaurant (El Patio) and the green chile was so hot that we were all getting a little sweaty around the hairline. That’s one of the reason why you’ll always see honey on the table at a New Mexican restaurant. A little honey on a tortilla or sopapilla helps to reduce the burning sensation in the mouth.
When you purchase chile, you can usually choose between mild, medium, hot, or very hot. We normally get the medium because once you freeze it, it gets hotter. Don’t ask me the chemistry behind that because I don’t know it. What I do know is that I love my chile hot enough to feel “a little” heat, but not too hot to hide the wonderful flavor of the chile!
Final Note – Chile is addicting! So come back later for more, but before you leave, I’d love your feedback. Just leave a comment below. Thanks!
New Mexico Chile Series
Part II – NM Red Chile: Recipes
Part IV – NM Green Chile Enchiladas
Part V – NM Red Chile Enchiladas
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