Did you know that New Mexico (NM) is the only state in the U.S. 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
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 chile sauce or green chile 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 the fruit of a a plant belonging to the genus Capsicum and is grown in abundance throughout New Mexico. It’s hard to know exactly when chile was actually brought into New Mexico from Central American, but it’s believed that it was brought by the Spanish immigration starting in the 1500’s. The most common chile grown in NM is a long narrow green chile similar to the Anaheim chile. Through the years several varieties of NM chile have cross-pollinated and hybrids have been created such as Big Jim, Sandia, Rio Grande, Joe E. Parker, New Mexico 6-4, Heritage 6-4. However, some of the smaller farmers and particularly the farmers in northern New Mexico are using indigenous seeds (heirlooms).
Each variety of chile has a heat level (Scoville unit) range. For example, NuMex Big Jim’s are normally labeled a medium heat (2500 – 3500 scovilles) while Sandias or Diablo can be hot to extra hot (5000 – 7000 scovilles). When buying New Mexico chile, you are usually offered just mild, medium, hot or extra hot and not necessarily a specific variety of chile. Like most fruits and vegetables, the seed, the dirt, the water, the altitude, and the climate of the area in which the chiles are grown can all affect the flavor of the chile. (Scoville units provided by Biad Chili Products)
Outside of New Mexico, the majority of chile is either sold as New Mexico chile or Hatch chile. New Mexico chile can be from anywhere in New Mexico whereas Hatch chile is from Hatch, New Mexico. Just a note, there is not a variety of chile called “Hatch chile”. When you see Hatch chile, it is chile grown in and around Hatch, New Mexico, and can be of mixed varieties and heat levels. Even though, outside of New Mexico, most people only see “Hatch Chile”, 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 all of the way up to the NM/Colorado border.
Speaking of Hatch, Hatch, NM is 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!
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. They can also be dried and ground into green chile powder. Red chiles can be picked and roasted and used like green chiles or strung into ristras and hung out to dry. Sometimes you’ll see them on rooftops where they are left to dry. With the lack of humidity in New Mexico, chile dries pretty fast here. Once the chile is dry, it is turned into red chile powder or red chile sauce. More on that in New Mexico Red Chile.
Roasting Green Chile
Fresh green and red chile is roasted, peeled, deseeded and chopped. Here in New Mexico you can buy a bushel or 30 to 35 pound sack of chile and either roast it yourself or have the seller roast it for a few dollars more. If you don’t want to stand by the grill or oven for a couple of hours, then I would recommend that you have the seller roast it. The seller usually has a large gas powered roaster that can do the whole bushel at once in just a few minutes. The chiles are dumped into a large grated container which rotates, tossing the chiles about. As it rotates a gas burner below the container sears the skins of the chile. After a few minutes, all of the chile pods have been roasted and the batch is dumped into a bag and passed on to you to take home and peel.
If you want to roast your chiles at home, it’s very easy to roast them on the grill. Here are two links to check out: Roasting Peppers on the Grill by MJ’s Kitchen and How to Roast and Peel Peppers by The Yummy Life.
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 chile 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 New Mexico 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 than green, but then everything is relative. I’ve had some mouth numbing green chile – believe me! On a visit one fall to one of our favorite little New Mexican restaurant (El Patio), 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 normally 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. You can also add a little honey to your chile sauces and stews if you find them TOO hot to eat. Just be careful not to add too much.
So what’s hotter – red or green? The heat level is determined by the variety of the chile – Big Jim, Sandia, Joe E. Parker, Diablo, etc. For example, Sandia red can be hotter than Sandia green, but both Sandia red and green are normally hotter than Big Jim red or green. One can always reduce the heat of a chile by removing the veins or pith that run the length of the chile on the inside. According to a test performed by Cook’s Illustrated, the majority of a chile’s capsaicin (heat) in contained in the pith. (“Common Cooking Myths, Debunked – All parts of a chile are equally hot.” Cook’s Illustrated. September / October 2013)
When you purchase chile, you can usually choose between mild, medium, hot, or very hot. Most of the chile we buy is medium with a few hot chiles thrown in. And once you freeze it, it does get 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 some heat, but not too hot to hide the wonderful flavor of the chile. Final Note – Chile is addicting! So to help you satisfy your addiction or soon to be addiction, I have provided many recipes and links throughout this website that use either green or red chile in one form or another.
Next in the series
More on New Mexico Chiles and More Chile Recipes