Red or Green?

A guide to enjoying New Mexico’s chile year-round

New Mexico’s official state question is “Red or Green?” Red and green chile are the cornerstones of New Mexican cuisine. Chile has a rich history in the Land of Enchantment, but few know of the origins of the chile they enjoy today. Chile made its way from the Caribbean to Spain with Columbus and into the New World with Don Juan de Onate. Over time, through careful selection and hybridization, it became the chile we know and love today.

According to the New Mexico Chile Association, New Mexico’s chile industry is in a steep decline because of foreign competition. To reverse this trend, New Mexicans can support their local culinary traditions and economy by buying chile locally. Taking this sustainable approach ensures that chile is grown under stricter domestic regulations and travels a shorter distance from the field to the plate. Promotions such as “Get Your Fix”  are helping to market New Mexico chile.

There are a number of local chile sources available to New Mexicans. Chile can be grown in backyard gardens, found at farmers’ markets, and can be ordered directly from a number of farms.  New Mexico’s chile farms range in size and use various farming practices; some are small organic farms and some are larger scale conventional farms.

A few local growers:

The early fall months in New Mexico are redolent with the smell of freshly roasted green chile. August usually marks the beginning of the green chile harvesting season. Some green chiles are left on the plant to ripen into red chiles, which are usually harvested from mid-September until the first frost. This harvest period captures the bounty of the season. Providing a local chile supply to New Mexico’s chile-obsessed population year-round is a challenge that can be met by drying, freezing, or canning chile.

Preserving Green Chile
After they are harvested, green chiles are roasted in order to remove their tough outer skin. They can be roasted in an oven, range top, outdoor grill, or most often in a special roaster. Chiles should be roasted until the skin is blackened and blistered. The chiles are then peeled, and seeds and stems removed for freezing. Leaving a few seeds in the chile can add more “heat,” or spiciness to the chile. Wearing latex gloves during this process is recommended.

Green chile can be frozen whole or chopped, depending on how the chile will be used. Chopped chiles can easily be made into green chile sauce which is often used to “smother” a number of traditional New Mexican dishes. Using quality freezer bags or containers and eliminating as much air as possible adds to the longevity of frozen chile, which can be used for a year or more.  Always label frozen chile with the date it was frozen. It is important to heat the frozen chile to 165 degrees Fahrenheit before eating it to destroy any harmful germs which can be found in prepared frozen foods.

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Preserving Red Chile
Red chile is dried instead of roasted, as the skin of red chiles does not need to be removed.  The chiles must be placed in full sun with good air ventilation to dry, but they can also be dried in an oven or food dehydrator.  A common method of drying New Mexico red chiles is on a ristra.

Crushing dried red chiles in a food processor, blender, or spice mill is a good way to make a powder that can be used as a seasoning or incorporated into a sauce. Remember to remove the stems and seeds from dried chiles before processing them. If made correctly chile powder does not spoil, but it will lose potency over time. Keeping chile powder in the freezer can extend its longevity.

Dried chiles can also be reconstituted and incorporated into a sauce which can be frozen or canned. Red chile sauce can stain clothing and kitchen surfaces and appliances, so handle the sauce carefully.

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Canning Red and Green Chile
Both green and red chile sauces can be preserved by pressure canning. This helpful video can get you started. An alternative to canning your own chile is to buy canned chile from local producers such as Tio Frank’s.

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Whether it’s red or green, keeping New Mexico’s chile tradition local will lead to a more sustainable practice, and support the local economy. However you prefer to get your “chile fix,” preserving chile for year-round use captures the bounty of the chile season.

-Posted by Tammira

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