The roaster is turning ‘round and ‘round and the Hatch chilies go up and down. Standing in front of the drum roaster, with its dragon's breath bursts of propane and flame, I'm almost mesmerized by the rhythmic movement of the darkening chili pods as they drop damply to the bottom and slowly spin back to the top of the drum. These aren't just any vegetables, as those of you who chase the ephemeral Hatch chili know. The meaty chili pods, about the size of a child's slipper, provide a tantalizing hint of fire and satisfying substance for New Mexican cookery for a few brief weeks at the end of summer.
Harvested in the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico for a few weeks of the late summer, Hatch chilies are a cultivar of the common New Mexico green chili developed at the Chile Institute at New Mexico State University in the 1920s. The Mesilla Valley runs from Las Cruces north to Hatch, nearly forty miles, in the south central part of the state. The Hatch Chile Festival occurs annually each Labor Day weekend and draws up to 30,000 people from around the world to the tiny town of less than 2,000 residents.
Grown nowhere else in the world, the large, almost leathery chilies feature a vigorous, earthy flavor unlike any other chili. Although there are several varieties grown, the types found in Central Texas, where I shop, are typically the milder "A-8" and the fierier "Big Jim."
If you are tentative about trying a new chili, let me assure you that these are closer to "tingle on your tongue" than "tears in your ears." The Scoville heat rating for a typical Hatch chili is no more than 2,500, and often closer to 1,000, while a jalapeño (the state appetizer of Texas) hovers around 5,000, and a habanero pepper can top 250,000. What's the Scoville heat rating, you ask? This system measures the piquancy (or heat) of a chili by referencing the amount of capsaicin (a chemical compound that stimulates receptor nerve endings in human skin and mucous membranes) contained within. The Scoville heat units (often referred to as SHU) indicate the amount of capsaicin present in a typical pepper pod.
Sorry. My inner science nerd bubbled up in between stuffing blue corn tortilla chips and Hatch chili salsa in my mouth. Yum.
What else can you do with the fabulous pods? What about Hatch Green Chili Stew? I make mine with a combination of roasted and unroasted Hatch chilies. To roast them at home, I place the chilies on a meat fork and rotate them slowly over a gas burner until they start to pop, let them cool on a metal rack or paper towel, then peel the tougher outer skin. I throw garlic and onions into a cast iron kettle, braise any meat or tofu I intend to add, then add plenty of chopped Hatch chilies (at least six), along with a chopped potato, cilantro, cumin, black pepper, four cups to six cups of stock, and eventually, a chopped tomato or two. Tomatillos are great if you have any on hand, and canned tomatoes can also be used. For another fun dot of color, I sometimes add chunks of butternut squash. Like the potato, the squash helps to even out the fire of the hotter chilies, while it absorbs the melded flavors in the stew. As ever, the fragrant, slightly spicy meal is better the next day.
I also chop the chilies and add to the center of turkey, buffalo, or grass-fed beef patties that I form myself and freeze for later single serve meals. Hatch chilies can take the place of just about any pepper you might use in stir fries or garnishes. Even though I'm crazy about yellow crook-necked squash fried quickly in olive oil with garlic and onions, with lots of fresh ground black pepper on top in early July when the squash starts coming on, by late summer I'm no longer so enchanted with the same old, same old. Chopping up a hatch chili and sweet potato to add to the mix adds sweet and spicy body and interest to a dish now more suited to the approach of autumn.
But remember, you only have a few weeks to enjoy Hatch chilies at their peak, and the season is quickly coming to a close. If you can't find them, make a note to look for them next August. Your taste buds will thank you. If you can still find any, make sure you procure enough to freeze, well-protected, for later in the year when your appetite needs a spicy nudge. Then, like a postcard from late August, the chilies will take your taste buds back to summer's last hurrah.
Note: Hatch chilies are not available in all stores, and fresh Hatch chilies have a very limited season. Check with your local produce team to find out more.