The soul of New Mexico


 

by Ari LeVaux

Just south of Truth or Consequences, N.M., the village of Hatch looks like a typical Rio Grande Valley agricultural settlement. The pace is slow. The restaurants, which open at 6 a.m., are closed by 3 p.m. The wind rustles the pecan trees. This is the heart of New Mexico’s green chile country, which arguably, is the soul of New Mexico.

The New Mexico Chile was created just south of Hatch, at the New Mexican College of Agriculture in Las Cruces, by Mexican born horticulturalist Fabian Garcia. After 10 years of breeding efforts, in 1917 Garcia unveiled New Mexico No. 9, which was the industry standard until 1950, when another horticulturalist, Roy Harper, released New Mexico No. 6, which improved upon the No. 9’s cultivation and flavor.

Today’s New Mexico Chile is big, fleshy, early ripening, and hot enough to get and keep your attention, with an intoxicating green flavor that’s nothing like a bell pepper’s.

Popular in chile relleños, green enchiladas, and the “green sauce” that is available upon request to smother your burger, fries, chicken fried steak, etc., my favorite way to eat green chile is in the stew of the same name.

I was eating my way across New Mexico, in fact, from one bowl of green chile to another, when I stopped in Hatch last week, where the chile harvest is in full swing. I parked in front of Hatch Chile Sales, the furthest roaster from the highway. While I talked with Pedro, the owner, a guy came by selling red chile tamales.

Pedro bought a dozen tamales, gave one to me, and then ignited the propane burner of his roaster. He cranked the drum so my bushel of peppers were branded by the hot metal and licked by the fire. The smell of roasting green chile complemented the already warm feeling in the air, a blast furnace of an afternoon even when I wasn’t standing in front of a sputtering, spinning fireball of pepper spray.

Pedro dumped my chiles into a plastic bag and tied it shut, telling me to let them sit in the bag for at least an hour, at which time they will be easy to peel. Freeze the chile in quart portions, and peel under cold water before using.

Across the street was the Pepper Pot, a restaurant rumored to serve the best green chile bowl in town. Since it was after 3 p.m., I had to wait until the next morning to meet the boss, Crazy Melva, and sample her Green Chile Bowl. And what a bowl it was. The subtle yet potent flavor was complete and intoxicating, and it easily unseated the previously No. 1 bowl (served at El Brasos in Cuba, N.M.) as my new favorite green.

Crazy Melva didn’t have time to chat at the moment – she was too busy tearing the local pastor a new one – but when I finally reached her by phone a few days later, she patiently explained her green chile bowl recipe.

“Gotta pen?” she asked.

For 1 pound of green chile (roasted, peeled and chopped), you need a pound of meat. First, combine 1 cup dry pinto beans and 3 cups water, and simmer for three hours, seasoned with garlic salt.

Meanwhile, cook 1 pound pork stew meat in a pan (“if you can’t find pork stew, ask the butcher for pork butt, which is lean. Tell the butcher you want stew and they chop it for you - not small, but kind of little.”).

As the meat cooks, it will release water into the pan, which, in combination with the fat, also released from the pork butt, will help cook the meat. “Don’t add oil or nothing,” she says, “and as soon as the water dries out, it’s ready, don’t overcook it.”

Meanwhile, chop one onion coarsely, and do the same with three big tomatoes (or use a can of chopped - not crushed - tomatoes). Add tomato and onion to the meat and then cook them together for about 10 minutes.

Add 2 cups water and 2 cubes chicken bullion, increase the heat and season with garlic salt. Boil for five minutes, and then add the peeled and chopped green chile. Then, boil ever so briefly.

“Don’t cook the chile too long, or it will disappear,” warns Melva. “Believe me, it will be gone. Don’t boil too much with chile. They will disappear big time! I don’t know why, pero I’ve been here 12 years and that happened a lot. The chile disappears and you have to keep adding more.”

After ever so briefly cooking with chile, set the chile aside and keep it warm. And keep the beans hot. To serve, put a scoop of hot beans in a bowl, a scoop or two of green chile over it, and a warm tortilla on the side. •

 

 

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