Explaining the freakish cult of Hatch green chiles

A couple weeks ago, I got a text message: "Hatch Green Chiles being roasted and sold at Columbia Wegmans! Only today and Saturday."

For the many devotees of Hatch green chiles, this was a big deal-like a bunch of deadheads finding out about a shipment of rare Afghani hash (without the warlords). But most people don't understand what is so fucking great about these chiles. You may have had them at the Golden West (which shares its name with an old rock 'n' roll club in Albuquerque), where they make a pretty damn good green chile sauce, even if it is a little heavy on the onions; or at Taco Fiesta in Harbor East, where they have the roasted peppers (not in a sauce) on their salsa bar. But here's the thing about green chiles: They aren't meant to be consumed occasionally at a restaurant. They are a staple intended to be eaten at nearly every possible meal in your own home (and in restaurants).

So what's so special about these things? If you rhapsodize about them, most people assume you are talking about any run-of-the-mill green pepper, from jalapeño to anaheim to ancho. They insist they know what you're talking about, but they are wrong.

The real green chile grows only in the arid highlands of New Mexico and Colorado, but the mecca of the green chile is in the little farming town of Hatch, N.M. When the peppers are harvested in the fall, every local grocery store has a big steel roaster out front, and the entire state is filled with the incredible aroma of roasting peppers. During the decade I lived in Albuquerque, I would buy a 30-pound bag each fall from the local farmer's market. Then I'd take them home, make sure I had a 12-pack of Tecate in the fridge, and spend the day peeling, deseeding, and deveining them for freezing in quarter-pound bags. Once the freezer was thus stocked, the feasting began.

And it wasn't just me! I mean, this was a place where even McDonald's had green chile cheeseburgers. It's practically the state religion. So, in the morning: huevos rancheros with green chile. Or even a bagel with cream cheese and, yep, green chile. Green chile stew, pozole, burritos with green chile sauce, green chile pizza. The stuff is chock-full of vitamin C, keeping everyone warm and healthy as the weather changes.

When I moved back east, I found a place that would deliver frozen Hatch chiles overnight (hatch-chile.com). But one of the great things about chiles is that they are cheap. When you add overnight shipping, it ended up costing $10 per pound. They were already peeled, deveined, and deseeded, so everything you get for your weight is edible. . . . But still, it makes it pricey to eat every day.

So when my friend sent this text, I was ecstatic. Except that I was stuck in the office on the aforementioned Saturday, working on the Best of Baltimore issue. Luckily, a group of 10 or so green chile lovers got together and bought in bulk. I ended up getting about 15 pounds for $25. It took a couple days for us to meet up after they got them, so the chiles had already been frozen. Instead of spending an entire drunken day peeling them, I now take a single bag out to defrost. Then I put on my gloves (if I don't have them, I use a fork and a knife) to scrape off the black skin clinging to the glistening green flesh of the god pepper. Then I make a slice down the middle and lightly peel it open to separate the veins on the inside of the pepper (they are bitter and chewy). Then I cut off the top and scrape out the seeds and am ready to eat.

Lately, I've been making layered enchiladas with a green chile sauce. I take a half-pound or so of the processed peppers and chop them up finely and put them in a saucepan with some butter, chicken or vegetable stock, and some garlic and onion. (If you want to be economical, you can supplement fresh green chiles with Old El Paso canned chiles, found at most grocery stores.) I bring it to a boil and then let the sauce simmer on low heat for a long time, until it thickens (you can stir in a little flour to help the process).

I pour a small amount of sauce in the bottom of a casserole dish and cover it with corn tortillas, grate on a ton of cheese, scoop on some beans (black, pinto, or both), and anything else I have (spinach, mushrooms, fresh corn, chopped tomatoes, chicken, olives, etc.). Then more green chile, another layer of cheese, and keep going until it reaches the top.

You can really do whatever you want, because the real secret of this chile is its versatility. Sometimes it is very hot (you can order mild, medium, hot, or extra-hot, but it is usually something of a crap shoot), and while the heat is great, the roasted flavor of the chile makes it different from any other pepper. The key is experimentation. Get some chiles and go to town.

As a side note, red chiles are the same peppers, left on the vine until they turn red, giving them a slightly sweeter flavor. (These are easier to order because they are hung and dried in ristras.) So by all means, next time you are at Golden West (and though I have my own chile, I still can't stay away from their breakfast burrito), be sure to order "Christmas" (green and red) with an extra side of green. Or do as I do, and bring your own chiles in a bag to add a little more flavor. Only half the people who see you will think the green plant matter in the plastic baggie is weed. The other half will come up and ask you where you got your chiles.

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