Tuesday, September 18, 2007
The Spice of Our Lives
You know how some people say, "It feels like home?" Here in New Mexico, we say, "It smells like home."
For about four to six weeks every year, starting around the middle of August until the end of September, the air in New Mexico is filled with the smoky sharp smell of roasting green chile. So much so, in fact, that if you happen to arrive at the Albuquerque International Sunport during late summer/early fall, it's the first smell that hits you as you get off the plane. Not jet fuel. Not the musty smell of too many bodies crammed into too much filtered air space for way too long. The chile smell trumps it all.
That's because this is the time when chile farmers across the state begin harvesting their crop, a staple of New Mexico's economy for over one hundred years and part of our culinary culture for way longer than that. Today, New Mexico is the largest producer of chile in the United States and one of the top in the world. Our farmers are responsible for producing over 60 percent of the chile consumed in the United States, one of which is a variety of cayenne variety shipped primarily to hot sauce makers in Louisiana. Another one-third of our chiles go into making paprika. Over 8,000 acres of chile are harvested each year – that's mucho dinero right there, Party People.
But not only is chile a vital part of our economy, it is also a fruit unique among all other fruits, a vital part of our culture and our blood. New Mexico State University in Las Cruces has an entire research program devoted to its cultivation. It is here in the university's Chile Pepper Breeding Program (the only one of its kind in the world, by the way), that some of the most distinctive New Mexican chiles have reached their fruition: Big Jim, Rio Grande, Sandia. As well as the chile that in 2006 was deemed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the hottest in the world, Bhut Jolokia. To give you an idea of how hot it is, the average jalapeno measures in at about 10,000 Scoville Heat Unites (SHU). Bhut Jolokia measures in at 1,001,304 SHU.
In addition to containing in one pod more vitamin C than an orange, chile also has addictive properties. I've seen what happens when people withdraw from the stuff and I know what it feels like myself. Giving up smoking was easier than living without chile the few times in my life I've had to do so.
(A quick note in case you're wondering about spelling: here in New Mexico we spell chile with an "e." That's the Spanish word for the fruit. In fact, nothing will mark you as an out-of-towner, gringo, or complete moron quicker than spelling it any other way.)
So, anyway, as you can imagine, when the chile's been picked, I'm a roastin' and a stuffin'. Here's how it goes:
1. Hit any local grocery store or street corner – nine times out of ten, someone's roasting there.
2. Pick a bag, any bag. Most run thirty to fifty pounds.
3. Pay your roaster (most bags run between ten and twenty dollars).
4. Wait fifteen to twenty minutes for your chile to roast.
Here's what the chile looks like before it's roasted.
And this is what it looks like afterward.
A note of caution: once your chile is roasted go immediately home. Do not stop anywhere else, not for gasoline, not for a shoe sale at Banana Republic, not for a little old lady crossing the road. The longer that chile remains in your car, the more likely you are to have a Pulp Fiction moment, only not with blood and brains, but with scent. Which will take, like, one bazillion years to air out.
Once home, pull out your box of these:
You think the smell is sharp? Try what happens when chile hits a hangnail or, God forbid, your eyeball. DO NOT TOUCH YOUR BARE SKIN WITH THIS STUFF. Unless, you know, you're into that kind of thing . . .
Proceed to stuffing your freezer bags. I leave my chiles unpeeled before stuffing, but that's up to you. I find it much easier to peel them once they've been frozen and thawed. Simply hold under a bit of running water and the skin slips right off.
Here's what my kitchen counter looks like when I'm done. A dozen or so small bags for Moi and S.B., three large bags for friends. Let them cool an hour or so, then plunk them into the freezer. To use, defrost overnight in the fridg'.
I do this every year. It's one of the things that connects me irrevocably to home and one of the reasons why I can't leave New Mexico. Yes, I could do as my childhood friend now living in St. Louis does and that's ship it in. But I'd miss the smell greeting me at the airport, the inevitable debate in line at the roasters between those who pitch for Chimayo and those for Hatch, the beauty of the ritual itself, one of the most cherished in the culinary world.
So, yeah, we New Mexicans are pretty over the moon about our chile. We put it on everything. We make door knobs in its shape. We celebrate it with hoity-toity, internationally famous fiestas (which, I must admit, I joyfully attend each year). We've even made an Official State of New Mexico Question out of a common refrain at local New Mexican restaurants: "Red or Green?"
Referring, of course, to your choice of red or green chile sauce. Red, unlike green, is not roasted. It's left to hang on ristras to dry, after which it is reconstituted, mixed with garlic and other spices, and Cuisinart-ed into a smooth sauce.
Moi? I'm mostly a red gal, which I order with rolled enchiladas, in posole, over menudo, and over toast with slabs of cheddar cheese. Green I reserve for mornings over eggs and in an enchilada casserole dish that has been passed down for several generations among the Hispanic families in my hometown. Another option is to order Christmas style, which is both red and green together. But that's way too much of a mucky mess for Moi.
Want to learn more and enjoy some real purdy pictures while doing so? Then please pick up a copy of home girl Carmella Padilla's The Chile Chronicles: Tales of a New Mexico Harvest.