The New Mexican diet revolves around two colors of chile. Red chile is the fully ripened form of the pod, and is usually dried and made into a sauce. Green, or unripe chile, is typically fire-roasted and added to food in either whole or chopped form. Ordering in a New Mexican restaurant inevitably requires answering the question, "red or green?" Diners who can't make up their minds can choose "Christmas," which means both, but I face no such dilemma. The correct answer is green.
When a green chile is roasted, it transforms into a god among foods. The skin burns and blisters as the pod collapses into a smoldering pocket of pungent flavor, with an aroma that colonizes your soul.
When I returned home to Montana after six years in New Mexico, I did so with a certain amount of anxiety over the impending winter. I wasn't concerned about the cold, dark days as much as the question of how I would get enough green chile into my freezer to survive winter in style.
People eat spicy foods for many reasons. A recent study correlated chile consumption with longer life, but it isn't clear that this fact, per se, is motivating anyone's quest for fire. Some eat it to prove their toughness. Some do it for the endorphin rush. Some eat spicy foods because their meal feels naked without it. I enjoy a certain amount of spice, but that's only one dimension of the chile pepper experience—
Hatch, NM is considered by many to be the Mecca of green chile, to the point where the pepper is frequently referred to as Hatch chile in places outside New Mexico. But contrary to legend, there is nothing magical about chile from Hatch. There is, however, a lot of chile, both green and red, from the Hatch area. It's a great place to grow chile profitably, thanks to a favorable mix of a long growing season, rich Rio Grande soil and cheap labor courtesy of the nearby border. It's also true that some of the more popular New Mexico green chile varieties, like the Big Jim or Joe Parker, were bred with Southern New Mexico in mind. But that doesn't make it the best chile.
Giant, fleshy pods like Big Jims are great for stuffing in recipes like chiles rellenos, but my favorite green chile is the relatively petite, thin-walled Alcalde, an heirloom variety from northern New Mexico. It's got the flavor that makes me wilt, and made me dread leaving New Mexico. So ahead of my move north, I mailed Alcalde seeds to farmers in Montana who'd agreed to grow them for me. Now, as my freezer is filling with quart bags of roasted Alcalde chile, I'm calling the operation a success.
When a green chile is roasted, it transforms into a god among foods.
Alcaldes are hardly the first New Mexico chile to be successfully grown out of state. The Anaheim pepper came into being when seeds of another NM-style chile, the New Mexico No. 9, were abducted from Hatch in 1894 and brought to Southern California where they flourished. Today, Anaheim peppers are grown almost everywhere. Wherever they are grown, roasted Anaheims will legitimately invoke the spirit of the high desert to bless your kitchen.
Other peppers can be roasted as well. Jalapeños, poblanos and even bell peppers will undergo a similar, magical transformation. Cherry bombs and Hungarian wax peppers, which can be roasted while red and yellow, respectively, are good too, as are roasted sweet peppers. But the NM styles are the best.
I found a Montana farmer with a barrel-type chile roaster like they use down south; he uses it to roast Anaheims. These spinning mesh drums can roast green chile by the bushel, and they provide New Mexican farmers markets with a unique brand of aromatherapy in late summer. But if you don't have access to one of these, chile can be roasted on the grill. The broiler, however, is not ideal, because they should be licked by fire in order to achieve maximum flavor.
Roasting on the grill, be it gas or charcoal, requires vigilance and a good set of metal tongs, as the chiles must be turned often to avoid burning. At first they will swell, as their water content heats. The moisture will then vacate the pods—sometimes with a little pop, sometimes with a hiss—at which point they will collapse.
When they are browned and blistered all around with no remaining patches of tight skin, transfer them to an unscented, food-grade plastic bag to "sweat," for at least 10 minutes. This makes the chile easier to peel.
Sweating is a ubiquitous part of roasting chile, but I've often wondered if doing so exposes people to toxins from the heated plastic. I contacted Paul Bosland, director of the New Mexico Chile Institute at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, and asked him about this. He referred my question to two colleagues, none of whom knew of any issues related to sweating green chile in plastic.
Chiles are often peeled before freezing, but I freeze mine with the skins on which adds a layer of protection against freezer burn. Plus, those skins contain much of that roasted flavor.
If I'm using thawed roasted chile as a condiment, first I re-roast them—ideally on a grill but in this case the broiler is OK—in order to get those peels smoldering again. This reactivates the chiles' freshly-roasted flavor, and fills the house with that special smell.
Rich foods bring out the best in roasted chile. Lay one on a cheeseburger. Chop one into a bowl of stew. Scramble one into eggs. Hold one in your hand and take little bites while you eat whatever is for dinner. Use chiles that are as hot as you wish. As long as you don't eat my green chile, everything will be cool.