I have something to confess: I am horribly, horribly addicted… To Hatch green chiles! I’m not alone. There are hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans (That square state next to Arizona that the weather man stands in front of while pointing at California and Chicago.) who as badly hooked as I am.
My only beef with the TV show Breaking Bad, set in New Mexico, where I used to live for many years, was that Walter White was a high school chemistry teacher cooking drugs. A Hatch chile grower in New Mexico would be far more believable. Hatch chiles may be one of the most habit-forming foodstuffs on Earth.
Try Hatch green in one of my recipes, and you’ll understand why even McDonald’s puts a Hatch side on their menu in many of their New Mexico locations! Oh, and if you know anyone starting up a HatchAnon 12-step program, don’t tell me!
Hatch chiles have amazing taste and aroma. Their flavor that is hard to describe accurately. Spicy, savory, they are unlike any other chile. They are often-mistaken for their cousins, the Anaheim, but their aroma alone tells you the difference, and can put the broadest of smiles on the faces of New Mexicans, and those fortunate enough to have developed a Hatch habit.
Green chile stew, for which I have a killer recipe, is, at the core, just potatoes, pork, salt, onion, a little garlic and Hatch chiles. My riffs are more in how you prepare the meat and potatoes, but you let the Hatch do the talking in the dish.
People may flock to the North every Fall to see the leaves turn, and I’ve never been up to Hatch at that time of year, but in one of America’s oldest cities, Santa Fe, New Mexico, you mark Fall by watching the EZ-Up tents of the farmers in from Hatch rise in parking lots along Cerrilos Road, the main thoroughfare through the newer part of town.
Custom built roasting tumbler-cages are unloaded, and set up.
Then the pickup trucks fresh off the farms back up with sacks and sacks of Hatch chiles.
The phenomenal smell of roasting these green gems wafts into the street. It’s the best advertising in the world, as people grab their 10, 20, 30 lbs, and have them roasted on site.
Buyers take the roasted chiles home to process the gems into frozen packs, whole and chopped, that will last until the next harvest.
Chiles have long been part of the crops of the region which was first settled 9200 BCE. The Spanish marched into the region in 1598 and chiles as part of the food life of the region evolved.
In 1894, pioneer horticulturist Dr. Fabián Garcia, at Las Cruces College and the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts began cross-breeding of fourteen lineages of pasilla, colorado, and negro chiles from across New Mexico and Southern Colorado’s old Hispanic and native American Pueblo communities to improve them as a cash crop for canning and export. The first chile released in 1913 was called ‘New Mexico No. 9’.
One of the things that makes New Mexico chiles unique, though, are the valleys and mesas where they are grown.
Real Hatch chiles, not to be confused with the Texas or Mexican attempts at growing the same species, are a rare commodity that only emerge from the soils of the Hatch Valley in New Mexico.
The soil in Chimayo makes their red chile what it is, several growing regions in Southern New Mexico produce outstanding crops that are so unique that you will never taste anything like them anywhere else. In the green chile game, though, the soil, the climate, and the altitude/rainfall, not the seeds, are what makes Hatch green chiles, well, Hatch.
BEWARE OF LABELING GAMES.
Chiles have been grown in several parts of New Mexico, Texas and Arizona, some for thousands of years, but the chiles that call themselves “Hatch” should come from Hatch, New Mexico. Chiles that are grown around New Mexico will be labeled as “New Mexico Chiles” which can be excellent, but still are not fully “Hatch.”
There are a lot of companies touting Hatch, including one that uses the “Hatch” name as a brand that you’ll see in specialty markets and a growing number of supermarkets as well. They’re grown in other places outside of New Mexico, including Mexico and, for a few manufacturers, yes, China.
Production in Hatch, in spite of their product’s huge popularity, has been on the decline in recent years because of problems finding enough labor due to a lack of visas, and because of the carpetbaggers buying cheap chile from elsewhere to undercut the price of the real deal with product that just doesn’t taste the same.
The Hatch growers have been involved in legal actions to prevent an Albuquerque-based company from using “Hatch,” because, they contend, the brand using the Valley’s name buys chiles from growers not only from other parts of New Mexico, but from other farms in Texas, Mexico and elsewhere, a fact which the company doesn’t exactly deny:
“Most of the HATCH Select branded green chiles are sourced from local chile growers near the Village of Hatch and throughout Southern New Mexico.”
Yet when you look at the ingredients list, where it is a federal crime to misrepresent a product, and the company has to comport with a 2012 New Mexico law that protects the growers’ product and the consumers.
The suit by the growers in Hatch alleges that companies either buy a small amount of Hatch and mix it in with other chiles, or just plain out use chiles from other places. So, if it doesn’t outright say it’s grown in the Hatch Valley, or labels ingredients as “green chiles” or “New Mexico green chiles” buyer beware!
Another big chile producer, Bueno, guarantees their frozen chopped chiles are produced in New Mexico, and labels Hatch-sourced frozen chopped chiles correctly. Trader Joes‘ gets buys of frozen hatch that is really good, and very authentic. Look in your local TJs in the fall. Likewise the Fresh Market chain in the Eastern U.S. gets a batch of Hatch into their stores, bagged and pre-roasted, every Fall.
If you want the real deal, I’ve been buying fresh chiles for years from the Hatch Green Chile Store, going back to the time that they used to call themselves Berridge Farms.
Young Guns is another great source, based in Hatch. They also bring you chiles right off their farm. I have not tried any of their product as of this writing, but other chefs and home chefs swear by them.
If you become totally hooked, check out the Hatch Chile Festival, every fall in New Mexico, usually around the first weekend in September, where you’ll meet fellow addicts, including, on occasion, me.
If you’re not sure, go to the GetNMChile.com, the site that tells you whether the product is legit.
PICK YOUR TEMPERATURE
Hatch chiles come in several different subspecies each with their own heat index. How hot they are is also a factor of how the weather is in New Mexico as they’re being grown.
The dryer the year in Hatch, the spicier the chiles, I’ve found. So you look at the climate data. Hatch is high altitude and generally a drier climate. Last year, when this was written, the peak growing months were very wet.
Rainfall frames your buying decisions here. I like hot chiles, but I have family where half do not. A medium chile works about fine.
PICK YOUR CHILE
So, based on the weather, buy:
- The Joe Parker (Medium) in a normal year;
- The 1904 (Mild) in a dry year;
- and Big Jim (Medium-Hot) in a wet year.
Like the heat? Order:
You can lower the temperature a bit by stripping some or all of veins connecting the seeds out of your roasted chiles, but it robs them of some of the flavor experience. The seeds don’t pack heat. The connective tissues to the seeds, which often dry on the seeds, do.
YOUR ANNUAL BUY
Chiles grow, as you might guess, seasonally. So what you do to get the rare Hatch chiles is: Order ahead.
Which is another reason that I like doing business with Berridge Farms, owners of the Hatch Green Chile Store online. They work off of pre-orders starting in the fall after the previous harvest, and give you a good deal for helping them know more precisely how much to plant and pick.
TYPES OF GREEN CHILE TO USE, WHERE, WHEN, WHY.
Fresh is best, because the character of home-roasted green chile comes not only from the small yet beautifully integrated natural fats/oils resident in the chile, and their texture, which, when roasted, is denser and “meatier” than its cousin, the Anaheim, or the waterlogged and biting bell pepper.
Frozen by the supplier before shipping is next down on the list because, freezing maintains character, but the larger batches of chopped chiles for frozen that are processed and bagged, or put into small plastic containers, often lose some of the oomph that you get in fresh chiles that you freeze yourself.
Fresh/Frozen/Pre-Frozen are great in/on:
- Stews and soups
- Breakfast burritos
- Egg dishes
- Topping for burgers
- Home fries
- Pastrami gravlax or even just a nice scottish smoked salmon
- Green chile jam
- With cheese and spinach as a filling for croissant
- Mixed into a bagel dough or cornbread batter with a bit of queso blanco
- An amazing steak sauce addition or steak topping!
The small tins are convenient, but you trade off both taste and texture. The only fully legit ones that I’m aware of are Trader Joe’s
Dried will bring a little of the heat and some of the flavor, but it only works well in things that can set for a while to marinate and absorb some of the character. It’s good in:
- Brines for jerky
- Green chile tortillas
- Breads where the moisture of the chile is a disadvantage
- Rubs needing a “rustic” rough look
- Ground into house-made seasoning blends
It works in a dried seasoning blend, but the taste is really muted, so there is a big tradeoff here, other than saying you have Hatch Chile in your BBQ rub.
HOW TO ROAST & BAG YOUR OWN
- Barbecue grill
- Kitchen-grade cooking (not dishwashing) gloves
- Large double-lock ziplock-style food grade bags
- BBQ Tongs
- Cutting board
- Skins bowl or trash can
- 1.2L or similar size (smaller) double ziploc-style bags.
- Heat up the grill.
- Inspect your chiles. Discard any rotten ones.
- Put batches of chile on the grill. Turning occasionally as the skins char, make sure that all sides of each are roasted. The skins have to be charred enough that most of the rest will peel off when it cools.
- When the chiles are roasted, remove from the heat and put in the ziplock bags. Seal to keep in the steam. This finishes the cooking process.
- Repeat until all chiles are cooked.
- When the bags cool enough that they’re not scalding hot, put on your gloves. The steam will have finished the process of lifting off the skins. Remove the chiles from the bag and peel the skins off, removing as much char as you can. Put each on a plate and continue to the next.
- Remove the tops. You can either bag them whole, then, or chop them.
- Double bag to reduce freezer burn. Bleed all of the air out of the outer bag.
- Freeze any bag not being used within seven (7) days.