The Scent of Green Chile: A Cook’s Passion

The chiles are here.

So proclaims the large sign out front of Whole Foods Market in Monterey, California, near a table piled high with oblong green peppers from Hatch, New Mexico. On a late August afternoon, my thoughts had been elsewhere until this moment, turning over some detail or matter at hand as I crossed the car park, a reusable jute grocery bag tucked under my arm.

chilesAttention grabbed by the sign and the table of glistening chiles piled high, my heart did a happy flip flop inside my chest. There is little in the world of food that so powerfully conjures for me a sense of place, a feeling of beneficial well-being—the goodness of “home”—as do these slender, long emeralds from New Mexico (the ruby ones, too). The scent of them roasting outdoors, rotating in a gas-fired drum at the farmer’s market, is enough to send me doing cartwheels.

Like the piñon incense that I burn, the aroma of these chiles evokes a place that I deeply love, yet their familiar scent also transports me to a certain season there. A harbinger of late summer’s end, the harvest is upon us and autumn soon arriving.

‘Fall’ is my favorite season. Not only for its welcome cool and the painted leaves, a gentle sense of melancholy and turning inwards, but also for food: crisp apples and fresh pears, hefty squashes and tasty game birds, fresh nuts and wild mushrooms. I love the shift in my own appetite and cooking that occurs this time of year, returning once more to warming soups and stews simmered slowly over a quiet flame, the slow-braised dishes that nearly collapse when you dip into them. I ease back towards red wine rather than white (or the dry Provençal rosé I adore all summer long). I hunger for a perfect duck confit. Likewise, my signature Tarte Tatin.

And then there are chiles… glorious chiles. Widely called chili peppers, in the Southwest and along much of the West Coast, “chile” (the Spanish spelling) prevails. Hatch peppers, these green ones are sometimes called—named for the place in New Mexico where they are widely grown. Nowadays they are grown widely elsewhere, including California and Arizona, and there are both hot and mild varieties. Ortega is a well-known brand of canned green chiles (most of them NOT grown in Hatch, NM), serving as a popular condiment in Mexican food and New Mexican cuisine, though as with all things canned, the flavor doesn’t compare to fresh.

Spicy or tame, green or red, regional chiles form the base of salsas and sauces, and add an essential element to traditional New Mexico dishes like posole—typically a lamb stew with hominy (lime-cured white corn) and chiles.

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Right food, right place, right time. It’s a mantra of mine and of good cooks everywhere, celebrating what is in-season, local and fresh. I suppose one could argue that eating New Mexico capsicums on the central California coast doesn’t necessarily qualify as “right place,” though both the food and time are certainly perfect. These shiny jewels are the real deal—from Hatch, New Mexico—they are fresh and in season… and I am buying them for supper.

Yes, they traveled across two states to reach me, but my somewhat flimsy justification is that the overwhelming majority of what I purchase IS grown locally. There is plenty that I repeatedly pass over simply because it has traveled too far; it picked underripe, is no longer ‘fresh’, and its carbon footprint is soaked in jet fuel.

Last autumn, on one of my writing retreats in California, Whole Foods Market briefly had genuine Hatch chiles and I excitedly scooped handfuls into a large bag. They were not marked as ‘hot’ or ‘mild’, and it didn’t matter to me; I adore them all. When I got them home and roasted them, however, I discovered they were quite spicy—far too fiery for my mate’s taste, who was here visiting. (Sorry, love.)

Personally, I’m inclined to buy a bushel and put them in and on everything—from filling a quiche to stuffing them, from salsa to stews. My painted gypsy wagon has rolled far from New Mexico, but this remains ‘soul food’ for me.

Knowing that this evening I am cooking for my mother-in-law (it’s Sunday dinner) who isn’t overly fond of spicy food, and remembering last year’s fiery bite, somewhat reluctantly I decide that I will make them a side event rather than the star of the show. Sigh. I restrain my ecstatic, gluttonous self and place just a few into a small brown paper bag. I will roast them and serve alongside the soft-shell chicken tacos I’ve decided to prepare.

chiles1At home in the kitchen, after placing three of the chiles on a cast-iron grill pan to roast and then setting it atop a medium-high flame, their familiar, slightly pungent scent begins to waft up and fill the kitchen. It’s culinary incense for me… heaven.

Whether as cooks or simply “eaters”, we each have some sort of ingredient or dish that triggers a positive association with time and place—be it childhood nostalgia or an adult culinary appreciation. Other ingredients excite and inspire me—a freshly-caught fish with eyes still glistening, a prized black truffle, a gorgeous pheasant, a bunch of anything fragrant and fresh from the garden—but few have the ability to catapult me to a place that instills a sense of ‘home’ and well-being.

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I blacken the chiles in the hot pan (I could just as easily blister them under a broiler, on a gas grill, or over an open flame), transfer them to a favorite French earthenware tian, and then tightly seal the top with cling film for ten minutes to sweat their skins loose. Peeling away the thin green parchment in long strips with my fingers, I cut away the spicy center ribs and scrape out the abundance of flat white seeds—the elements that contain most of the ‘heat’.

tacos1Stepping out onto the deck with plates of supper in hand, the coastal air is cool enough to warrant my well-worn blue hoodie. First notes of autumn. Seated at the tiled bistro table, I bite into a taco, relishing the interplay of organic corn tortilla, flavorful free-range chicken, and the spicy avocado-tomato salsa (flecked with cilantro, chipotle, and fresh lime; of which I could eat a bowl full). Yet it is the distinctive, roasted green chile that makes me close my eyes and momentarily swoon with delight.

For the briefest moment, I am transported to the high desert plateau of Taos where the air is perfumed with sagebrush; to the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market, my French basket loaded down with fresh bounty from the familiar weekly vendors; to high country where the aspens illuminate the mountainsides, turning them to brilliant, flaming gold. Too, I am tucked indoors at a rustic wooden table, beneath the sheltering, exposed beams of an old, adobe house while piñon logs burn on the hearth of a kiva fireplace.

Yet, simultaneously, I am fully in the moment—savoring a meal of bold flavors beneath the sheltering boughs of the Grandmother Monterey cypress on a cool, end of summer evening.

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What feeds the soul?

I’m always asking that query in this journal, and if you read these posts regularly you know that my answer is usually that it comes through living with our senses wide open, through welcoming those little, ordinary moments of the day—the ones that, if we are paying attention, are really sensual celebrations of being fully human. They are the cornerstones of life as a Soul Artist.

Nature always reflects our soul—it IS our soul—and offers uncountable blessings. Similarly, good and honest food from the mindfully-tended earth (or foraged wild) also nourishes us deeply. As a cook, I am keenly attuned to the grace of the table and savoring nature’s gifts of each season, sharing with others when I can.

Summer in the northern hemisphere is ending, the bright days shorten and begin to thin their light, and a slow turning inward begins. First gifts of a new season arrive daily. Let’s celebrate, I say.

And let there be chiles.

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