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Hot New Mexico Chiles

Sandi chiles in an Albuquerque chile roaster.
Photo credit: Nolan Hester

Natural Wonders

“What kind of chile?”

“Only Sandia hot for now,” says David Salazar at the green chile stand on an Albuquerque street corner. His customer hesitates: Sandias are not for the tender-tongued.

But more varieties are arriving on street corners and parking lots from New York to California this August as New Mexico delivers its best chile pepper harvest in a decade. Ideal weather—dry early in the season and at harvest—has kept at bay bacteria and fungi that have hurt crop yields in recent years.

New Mexicans (and former New Mexicans) crave the seasonal aroma of roasting chile as eagerly as others anticipate Christmas, which is fitting since New Mexico chile comes in green and red. Canned, frozen and powdered chile are available year-round, but it’s the roadside vendors and their barrel-shaped roasters that sprout from early August until late September that tell New Mexicans fall is on the way.

Salazar, who has worked for his family-owned Chile Traditions (1-877-VERYHOT) since childhood, closes the sale. His brother-in-law, Ricardo Alatriste, empties a 30-pound gunnysack of green chile pods into a mesh metal barrel and flicks a switch. Propane burners roar, and the motorized barrel begins to turn, tumbling the chiles over the flames until their skins blister and blacken.

It used to be that if you left the state, you had to beg your old friends to FedEx a box of chiles, then roast them yourself in your oven broiler or backyard grill. While the acrid smell is perfume to New Mexicans, out-of-state neighbors may wonder if your house is on fire. Thanks to a new state marketing initiative and a bumper crop, residents of other states are beginning to share the street-corner tradition.

sandia chiles“More and more fresh product is being sold in other states,” said Stephanie Walker, extension vegetable specialist at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, “because people come to New Mexico, and if they leave, they have to have their chile.”

In fact, New Mexico’s agriculture department has launched a promotional campaign to teach out-of-state vendors how to use roasters.

If promoting New Mexico chiles out of state seems antithetical to the eat-local movement, green chile aficionados insist that New Mexico’s hot days and cool nights produce a flavor that can’t be duplicated elsewhere. The much-marketed Hatch chiles, for example, come from fields around the town of Hatch in southern New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley.

Once roasted—whether by a vendor on a street corner or yourself at home—the steaming chiles are put in a closed plastic or paper bag for about 40 minutes until the steam loosens their skins and they cool enough to be handled, peeled and added to stews, enchilada sauce, scrambled eggs, burgers or pizzas. (There is not much a New Mexican won’t mix with chile.)

Chile roaster Ricardo Alatriste

Or you can stash them in zip bags and freeze for later, when the thawed skins are easily shucked under running water. A 30-pound bag will get the average New Mexican through the winter.

Green and red chiles come from the same plants; those that ripen longer in the field turn red. Rather than being roasted and eaten fresh, red chiles are dried and sometimes tied in strings called ristras. Like fresh green, dried red chile can be used to make sauce for enchiladas, making “Red or green?” so ubiquitous in restaurants throughout New Mexico that the legislature declared it the official state question. (Hint to the uninitiated: Green is usually hotter than red.)

Naturally, the chile itself is the official state vegetable, even though, technically, it’s a fruit. And, yes, “chile,” not “chili,” is the official state spelling.

Chiles evolved heat to keep from being eaten by rodents and other mammals, according to The Chile Institute at NMSU. Like flavor, heat levels are influenced by location and weather and can vary from place to place and year to year.

Pepper heat levels are measured in what is known as Scoville Heat Units, or SHU. Bell peppers are rated at 0 SHU. Milder New Mexico chiles include Big Jims (500-2,000 SHU) and Nu Mex Joe E. Parker (800-900 SHU).

As for those Sandias? They’re rated at 1,500-2,000 SHU.

sandia chiles

Freshly roasted Sandia chiles

Photo credit: Nolan Hester