In the Southwest, the green chile harvest is well underway. Throughout New Mexico and my home state of Colorado, locals are ransacking the roadside stands, where roasting drums rumble incessantly, and stacking their freezers with bag upon bag of the long, blackened pods. Soon and often, they’ll be chopped and added to omelets, burgers, quesadillas, breads and countless other dishes, and even used by home brewers in beer. But above all, they’ll be reserved for batches of, well, green chile.
Though you will sometimes see the word spelled “chili,” the strong preference for the Spanish term in these parts is only natural. A majority here take “chili” to mean the spicy beef stew (with or without beans) so beloved in Texas, while green “chile” refers not only to any number of unripened strains of Capsicum annuum but also to a concoction whose versatility partly explains its significance to Southwestern cuisine.
Green chile recipes come with many variations
Other than the peppers themselves, its list of ingredients is up for fierce debate. It may be vegetarian or contain pork, though if you ask three cooks which cut is best you’ll get four answers. And while garlic, salt and pepper are virtually non-negotiable, just about every other potential component has its champions and detractors, from onions, tomatoes, tomatillos and chicken broth to herbs and spices like cilantro and cumin.
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Green chile can be thin or thick; it functions as a filling, sauce and/or stew at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even if they’ve heard of it before (and many haven’t), newcomers to the Southwest are often startled by green chile’s ubiquity.
For that matter, many New Mexicans — who consider the stuff their birthright — balk at the notion that Coloradans have a century-old green-chile tradition of their own. (Case in point: the good-natured controversy that occurred between state officials after Denver Mayor Michael Hancock included green chile in his 2014 Super Bowl wager with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.) In their view, the Colorado version, based primarily on crops from Pueblo, could only be a pale imitation if not an outright theft of their richer heritage, centered on the famed Hatch pepper and extending to an appreciation for red chile — made with the dried pods — that Coloradans don’t especially share. (In New Mexico, when you order any dish “Christmas-style,” you’ll get it with both red and green chile.)
Michael Bartolo begs to differ with that assessment. According to the Colorado State University researcher, DNA testing has shown that “what’s grown in the Pueblo area is unique. It’s not really related to anything grown in New Mexico.” In fact, “its nearest relatives are from the Oaxaca region of Mexico.”
While the term “Hatch chile” is a catch-all for several varieties grown in and around the town of Hatch, N.M., “Pueblo chile” is basically synonymous with two types: the Mirasol, named for the way its root points toward the sun, and an adaptation called the Mosco, Bartolo’s own cultivar. As Bartolo explains, “Over 20 years ago, I collected some seeds from my uncle, Harry Mosco, and began making selections over about five years. I was looking to increase yield and produce a lot of big fruits with thick meat, making them more amenable to roasting.” He adds that Pueblo crops benefit from higher diurnal temperature shifts than their New Mexican counterparts, which aid in the development of sugars for fruitier flavor profiles. (And Bartolo has “new varieties in the pipeline as well,” including one called the Pueblo popper: “Imagine a large, roundish pepper that doesn’t have a huge amount of heat, to be used more for stuffing.”)
Truth be told, the likelihood that most people could taste the difference between chiles grown on either side of the state line is slim to none. So don’t worry: If roasting stands don’t exist where you live, you should still be able to find one cultivar or another that will suffice, including Anaheims (which were brought to California from New Mexico, though they tend to be milder than their Southwestern cousins).
Here is a basic recipe for green chile, one that emphasizes the flavor of the key ingredient itself. To that end, I personally prefer pork loin over fattier cuts. On this template, however, you can begin to build more complex variations as you please.
- 2 pounds pork loin
- 8 garlic cloves
- 2½ to 3 cups whole roasted green chiles
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 6 tablespoons flour, divided
- 1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Place the pork loin in a good-sized pot and add water until it’s submerged by about 1 inch. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a high simmer and cook 1 hour.
- While the pork is cooking, mince the garlic and set aside. Remove the roasted skins from the chiles. (You can wash them off, but you’ll lose essential oils in so doing, and they crumble away easily enough without rinsing.) Destem, deseed and chop the chiles crosswise; set aside.
- Once the pork is ready, set it aside to cool, reserving the cooking water. (Transfer it to a pitcher if possible.)
- In another large pot, heat the vegetable oil on a medium-low burner or flame and add the garlic. When it’s golden brown, add 4 tablespoons flour and begin whisking constantly for a few minutes, until it’s a coppery color and smells nutty. It should be thickening as well; if not, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour a little at a time until it’s somewhat thick and bubbling.
- Continue to whisk vigorously as you add the reserved liquid to the pot in a thin stream. Next, add the chiles and the tomatoes. Then shred the cooled pork by hand and add it to the pot; finally, season with salt and pepper.
- Reduce the heat to low and position the lid to cover the pot loosely. Cook at least one hour, adjusting the seasoning to taste as you go.
Main photo: Green chile. Credit: Ruth Tobias