Chile Legacy in the Southwest
People in the southwest have been growing chiles (Capsicum annuum) for at least four centuries. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, pueblo indians grew chile with seed procurred from Mexican tribes via trade. Each pueblo continues to cultivate their own peppers. Each has a distinct pungency, sweetness, taste, and heat. For example, the Zia Pueblo pepper has a bitter-sweet flavor when it matures. Chimayo’s red chile is legendary, though smaller than other red chile varieties.
New Mexico chile (or New Mexican chile) is a group of cultivars developed by pioneer horticulturist Fabián Garcia at New Mexico State University in 1894, then known as the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. Dr. Garcia’s selective breeding began with 14 lineages of ‘Pasilla’, ‘Colorado’, and ‘Negro’ cultivars, from across New Mexico and Southern Colorado’s old Hispano and Puebloan communities. His initial variety became quite popular in California and became known as the Anaheim pepper due to the popularity of the crop in that region. However, the seed was developed in New Mexico. Anaheim chile was the predecessor of many strains developed based on Garcia’s research; some hotter, some more disease tolerant or drought tolerant, some bigger.
For New Mexicans chile is synonymous with good food, home and family, which is appropriate, because that ultimately characterizes Hatch as a community. It’s a small town, with long-standing agricultural roots, where neighbors know one another and farming is a way of life. Chile isn’t the only thing they grow in Hatch, but it is what has put the town on the map. The sandy loam soil along the banks of the Rio Grande, and New Mexico’s hot, arid climate make for a fiery, flavorful fruit.
Hatch green chile is recognized by foodies and culinary aficionados around the world. Often the term is used as if it is a variety of chile. That isn’t accurate. The farmers around Hatch grow numerous varieties of chile, varying in potency from mildly spicy to wildly hot. They take pride in the piquancy of their peppers, declaring themselves the “chile capital of the world.”
Green Chile Chicken Enchiladas
Green Chile Chicken Enchilada casserole is comfort food. This recipe is based on the method I learned from my grandmother, the best cook I’ve ever known and a green chile connoisseur.
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1 small onion
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 1 1/2 cups of shredded chicken, roasted for flavor
- 12 corn tortillas, white or yellow
- Grapeseed or sunflower oil for frying
- 1 can of Swanson’s chicken broth
- 1 cup roasted and peeled green chile, chopped (available online from Hatch Chile Store)
- 2 cans of cream of chicken soup (you can make your own if you have time to go gourmet)
- 1 cup of shredded sharp cheddar and 1 cup of Monterey jack cheese, mixed together (feel free to vary cheeses based on preference)
- 1 bunch of green onions, chopped
- Preheat the oven to 350F.
- Sauté the garlic and onions in a teaspoon of olive oil until soft, about 10 minutes. Set aside.
- Heat the grapeseed or sunflower oil in the same skillet until smoking. Briefly fry each corn tortilla for 3-4 seconds per side, to make them more pliable. Put a layer of the corn tortillas in a baking pan.
- Mix the shredded chicken, the chopped green chile (available online at the Hatch Chile Store), the cream of chicken soup, the chicken broth, the chopped green onions, the garlic/sauteed onion together in a bowl. Then spread a layer across the corn tortillas in the pan. Top with a layer of shredded cheese.
- Repeat the layers two or three more times. Top with the remaining cheese.
- Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the cheese is melted and golden and the smell of the chile is wafting through your kitchen. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes, and serve.
Please leave your recipe modifications, or any questions that you may have, in the comments.
If you live in an area where the only green chile available is canned, you can order outstanding frozen green chile from the Hatch Chile Store. Hatch Chile Store ships frozen red and green chile nationwide year around. They have mild to hot varieties available and sell whole green chile as well as chopped. Each package is 1 pound, which is approximately 2 cups.