Back in the mid 80’s in my early days as a working chef I was into all things ‘Southwestern’ and I made several pilgrimages to the mecca of this food movement… Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was a heady time when chefs like Robert Del Grande, Stephen Pyles, John Sedlar and Mark Miller were creating exciting dishes that took the soul-satisfying flavors of Mexican cuisine and presented them in a more contemporary form… not unlike what we do today at JFAT creating ‘comfort food for foodies.’ Southwestern food ended up being a bit of a fad, although if you visit Santa Fe today there are still several restaurants purveying this style of cooking. However, it introduced me to some uniquely New Mexican dishes like Sopapillas. They are called ‘little pillows, but the name really means “holding soup’ and they were created 200 years ago in the Albuquerque area. Dine in most Mexican restaurants today there and you’ll be served this airy fried dough served warm with honey as their version of bread… delicious and addictive.
Named after the original growing area in Hatch, New Mexico; these chiles are truly a Southwestern favorite. No other chile is prized more than this variety which grows in the Hatch Valley, just north of Las Cruces. The secret of their flavor is said to be created by the intense sunlight and cool nights in this valley result and the locals aren’t bashful… they claim it to be the best chile on the planet and that Hatch, New Mexico is the ‘Chile Capital of the World.” They even host an annual Chile Festival where the Hatch Chile Queen is crowned after which she does the ‘big S, little S’ wave.
T-shirt Says It All
I can’t say I agree totally but I will admit that it’s #2 on the list of my favorite chiles. What I like about it is that it’s got just the right amount of mouth buzz. It’s not mild like the wannabe ‘Anaheim’ chile but it’s not too spicy like the habanero, where any flavor gets lost in the extreme heat. It’s meaty, has a good spice level, and a distinctive touch of sweetness, not unlike the Pasilla chile, and freezes well.
“SOAPBOX ALERT” I’m so over people bragging about how they can eat super-hot chiles… what’s the point? I like spicy food as much as the next chile-head but if you go TOO far you’re just blasting away your taste bud’s ability to taste anything but the heat… all the flavor in the dish is destroyed… why bother?
So I’m talking about Hatch chiles because once a year, in the midst of the harvest season, our friends at Gelson’s hold a month-long offering of these fresh chiles and also do a special one day roasting event in their parking lot, where if you buy a case they will roast them for you.
Serious BTU’s on their roasters
I visited their Monarch Beach store last week and had a great time. The staff that was there represented a 4th generation family of farmers from New Mexico and you could tell how proud and excited they were to be able to share their love for their chiles with all the gringo visitors. Amidst the piled cases of fresh chiles they had salsas and jams all made with these famous chiles.
Crew Setting Up
Cowboy hats, handlebar mustaches, and blasting country western music notwithstanding, the star of the event was the sound and aroma of the chiles as their skins were charred in the rotating jet-fire blasted cages… it’s a perfect segue into the Fall season. I bought 50 pounds and put them in my freezer so look for some winter specials at JFAT featuring these spicy-sweet beauties.
My Mother Load
If you haven’t enjoyed these uniquely American chiles you should do yourself a favor and buy some fresh ones while they still last and roast them at home or enjoy them frozen… either way they are a true New Mexican treat!