The Artful Kitchen: Color Me Green

radicalmeasures

by Judyth Hill

It’s not envy, it’s pure heaven. The Artful Kitchen explores the unique and unforgettable New Mexico green chile.

hill_peppersChile, that is — green chile. Straight up and hot. I’ve an ongoing yen for that sultry seduction of complicated heat. And this affair has always been torrid.
I’ll never forget my first time.
I was an oh-so-sophisticated New York girl whose mother’s idea of bedtime stories mixed “Eloise,” Gourmet magazine, and menus from the very latest places with “Good Night Moon.” My sister and I had a sushi and wasabi habit by the ages of eight and six.

hill_pepperChile, that is — green chile. Straight up and hot. I’ve an ongoing yen for that sultry seduction of complicated heat. And this affair has always been torrid.

I’ll never forget my first time.

I was an oh-so-sophisticated New York girl whose mother’s idea of bedtime stories mixed “Eloise,” Gourmet magazine, and menus from the very latest places with “Good Night Moon.” My sister and I had a sushi and wasabi habit by the ages of eight and six.

I knew the blaze of Szechwan, the lusty salsas of Mexico, the warm sear of curry. I thought I had eaten my way up and down the Scoville scale, that culinary barometer of peppery heat. It wasn’t until I loaded the ’66 Valiant with my books and dishes from Nana, to exchange Manhattan’s Upper West Side for the wild blue yonder of New Mexico, that I met the One.

With my newly acquired Sarah Lawrence education, I was practicing for my literary life by cocktailing at the Bowling Alley Bar, slinging Schlitz and Oly to the leagues on the lanes. First night off, I visited the restaurant, and ordered the de rigueur Margarita with salt and a chicken enchilada.

“Red or green?” the waitress queried, pencil poised.

“Red or green what?” I asked.

“Chile,” the reply.

“Chili?” from me.

“Hmm,” she said. “East Coast. I’ll bring you a taste.”

She brought two pleated little paper cups—something red in one, green in the other. Going for green, I sipped, then flipped. A flavor winging right through delicious, straight to crave; nearly a temperature, almost a mood, an itch and the scratch that satisfies.

It was a Moment.

This was not Tex-Mex, that stalwart, oft-mistreated bastion of the Western Cook-Off: no cumin, no kidney beans. Not Upscale South­western; Mark Miller hadn’t invented it yet. Not Mexican, though visions of pico de gallo often dance in my head. Not California Hybrid — though you could probably eat a Teva sandal with enough mango salsa.

Enter the mysterious, addictive world of chile (with an “e”). You, too, may find a dish among the myriad serving possibilities of green chile which you will crave with alarming regularity.

Trust me—this is the beginning of a romance with the sauce, made from the fruit (anything that bears its seeds inside is technically a fruit) of a member of the genus Capsicum: the pepper plant. There are 150 to 200 varieties of this plant, grown all around the world and spread by trade and cultivation. Some measure up to hundreds and thousands on the scale of gustatory heat. The hottest of peppers, habeñeros, hailing from the Caribbean and Yuca­tan, have been rated up to 300,000 units, while the common green bell, still in the same family, has nary a bark, let alone a bite.

The origin of this fabulous fruit is shrouded in mystery. The chiltepin is the closest strain to the ancient species of wild chiles that originated in Brazil and Bolivia long before the advent of Homo sapiens. The seeds of the tiny fruit were probably spread by birds all across South and Cen­tral America and then to the Southwest many thousands of years ago.

The arrivée Spanish took to the fiery fruits with a passion and began to cultivate and use many varieties. From Mexico, they imported the early forms of the jalapeño, serrano, ancho and pasilla.

One variety fared exceptionally well in the colder climate of New Mexico, a long green chile that ripened on the plant and turned red in the fall. These medium-fleshy peppers with a heat that ranges from nearly mild to very, very potent are the lynchpin of the culinary felicity that is New Mexico cuisine. They have a clear, sweet yet pyro-picante flavor that rings with the same intensity as the colors of South­western sunsets.

Now grown mainly in southern New Mexico around Hatch, chiles are picked green from late July through September; the rest of the crop ripens to red and is harvested from October to December.

The pungent, alluring smell of roasting chiles has become as sure a sign of autumn in New Mexico as the glowing gold of the aspen meadows, the fields abloom with purple asters, amd store aisles of fresh notebooks and pens.

Where I live, we wait in neighborly camaraderie, chatting and sharing recipes, while our just-purchased bushels of the new crop are roasted. These we tote home, peel, bag and freeze.

The roasted, peeled pulp freezes beautifully for use throughout the year as the basis for the main dish, sauce, condiment and overall sybaritically pleasurable eating experience of green chile.

Some green roars, some purrs. Go easy if you are still at the courting stage. The chemical that produces their fiery flavor, capsaicin, withstands both freezing and cooking, and it’s this characteristic that has earned both culinary terror and respect. That on-fire feeling causes the brain to produce endorphins, natural pain killers and stimulants — the reason, many say, we get so addicted to love, oops, I mean chile.

If you do overdose on a too-picante dish, the best coolant is not water or beer, but dairy products. A heaping spoonful of sour cream is customarily served on many dishes. An icy glass of milk will work well, and ice cream cools the tongue and the revved-up system divinely.

Before refrigeration, green chile was probably a harvest treat, and red was what you ate all winter; most traditional native cookery reflects that. Now, we have the exquisite pleasure of year-round greenability.

This chile business could easily become a driving force in your daily dining considerations. Eggs demand chile; huevos rancheros smothered in green is the best hangover cure on the planet. A burger without chile is unthinkable. You will come to understand why cosmic totality is frequent­ly referred to as the “whole enchilada.”

Your answer to the Ultimate Question: a resounding “Green!” u

Poet and chef Judyth Hill recently moved to Mexico. She teaches online writing classes. (See Comings and Goings.) www.Rockmirth.com

 

Authentic New Mexico green chile

is available from www.buenofoods.com

(800) 952-4453.

 

To get them locally (and avoid shipping costs), contact Eric, the grocery manager

at Albertsons: 801-966-8298,

3871 W 5400 S., Salt Lake City