Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Question of Taste: Chile Roasting Season

The New Mexico State Bird is the roadrunner. This little fellow is quite an amazing creature. One would expect that any flightless bird might become dinner for a rattlesnake, but the fact is that roadrunners kill and eat rattlesnakes. They are so fast, that they can pick a rattlesnake up by its tail and slam its head on the ground before the snake has a chance to strike. Quite a feat, I would say, and one which earns a real feast.

Which brings us to the New Mexico State Question. Now most states don’t have a state question, but this one is asked so frequently, the legislature had no choice but to adopt it. The question we would now ask the roadrunner is, “Red, or green?” No, we are not checking to see if the roadrunner is color blind, we are asking him what kind of chile he wants with that rattlesnake. And why not? New Mexicans put chile on almost everything.

Chile Rellenos are whole green chiles with eggs. Green chiles are heaped onto omelettes, burritos (of course!) and meats of all kinds, added to soups and stews, and in New Mexico, even McDonald's offers a chile burger. I once had a roommate who put green chile in tuna salad! Now red chiles are served as a sauce, and are not chunky like green chile. Contrary to popular opinion, red chile is not necessarily hotter than green, and in fact, the hottest chile pepper is green. In the mood for a mixture? Then your answer to the state question is “Christmas!”

The average New Mexican probably has a freezer loaded with chiles, or buys any of numerous brands of green chile refrigerated or frozen. And in their pantry is generally a variety of chile sauces. My favorite is chipotle, made from jalapenos specially roasted to develop a delicious smokey flavor. And then there's the hardcore chile addict, who has a year’s stash of the peppers roasted fresh annually.

Throughout New Mexico, supermarket parking lots are turned into chile roasting stations after the chile harvest. Green chiles are purchased in large burlap bags, and the chile lover takes his or her place in line to wait for their batch to be roasted. The aroma of chiles roasting can be smelled blocks from any supermarket, and for those who live in New Mexico towns, it is a constant for several weeks.

I remember sitting in a Taos supermarket parking lot a couple of years ago, waiting for my cousin to finish her shopping. I was parked just next to the chile roasting “paddock,” watching the ritual, and listening to the sounds of the tumbling chile roaster. Now, my cousin loves chile, but does not have enough room in her freezer to store it in such quantity, so freshly roasted, still-sweating chiles are generally not a staple at her house.

As a woman walked by with her chile stash, I asked her if they perhaps sold any smaller batches, explaining my cousin’s situation to her. Well, this kind soul became my cousin’s “Chile Angel,” offering to sell me a couple of gallon zip lock bags of the still-warm peppers for $2.00. I jumped at the chance, knowing I would be rewarded with a big smile on my cousin’s face when I told her the news. She made those chiles last (it was an amount that she could freeze), enjoying them in numerous dishes for most of the following year.

The subject of chile brings up so many questions, I’m going to write about them in ongoing blog entries... sort of a running FAQ. In the meantime, it’s time to make cornbread and chipotle pinto beans. ~Aimee

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