Autumn is my favorite season in New Mexico. The weather is flawless. There are usually balloons rising with the sun in the morning sky, and the air is punctuated by the wafting aroma of roasting chile. The familiar fumes are a form of aromatherapy to locals and a sign that autumn has arrived. There are roasters in the parking lots of grocery stores. Roasters at the Grower’s Markets. Roasters on random corners. Collectively, they induce a statewide Pavlovian response in August and September, as New Mexicans celebrate the harvest season by consuming copious quantities of chile and preparing for winter.
When it comes to stashing chile for winter, most New Mexicans rely on picking up their supply of chile at one of many vendors, grower’s markets, etc. They pick their stash, have it roasted, and then tote it home to be prepped for freezing. Some peel it and seed it before putting it into the freezer. Others shove 6-10 chile in a freezer bag, with skin, seeds, and all. I fall into the latter group. Peeling and seeding the winter supply is a full day endeavor and the skin comes off just as easily after the chile thaws. Besides, my seasonal chile hoarding involves more than frozen chile, as you will see below. I budget time to replenish all stockpiles.
Whereas I occasionally rely on one of the many chile purveyors in Corrales or on North 4th Street in Albuquerque to buy and roast in bulk, I prefer to gather my winter supply gradually, picking it from my backyard and roasting it on the grill. It is a time-consuming process, but the chile doesn’t get beaten up. The skin slips off in one piece, like removing a sock. That said, it is faster to have the one of the many chile roasters take care of that step if you are buying in bulk.
In addition to the frozen chile supply, I stockpile 6-packs of chile rellenos. The rellenos are ideal for one-pan, quick, delicious meals throughout the winter. When it comes to rellenos, there are endless variations in terms of cheese, savory stuffings (like beef, chicken, or pork), etc. My chile relleno recipe is pretty basic, using a thin pancake batter as adhesive for panko or a blue corn/rice crispy mix (when I’m making gluten-free rellenos). Many people use pancake batter alone; however, I prefer crispy fried foods. It is a matter of taste.
I stuff, batter, and coat the rellenos, lining them carefully on cookie sheets, then putting the cookie sheets in the freezer until the rellenos are frozen. Once they are chile and cheese ice cubes, I use wax paper to separate the individual rellenos, and vacuum seal them in packages of 6. An added perk to freezing your rellenos before frying is the coating sticks to the chile rather than floating off in the oil.
This year I have been dehydrating chile. After using Paulita’s dehydrated green chile for baking and seasoning last year, I wanted to make my own supply. Cheaper solution for those of us who consume copious quantities of chile and why not? I have a dehydrator. Frankly, I was surprised. A bushel of chile, heavy after being roasted, dehydrated to just over a pound in less than an hour. Though I am still experimenting with using it in lieu of the frozen chile, early signs are this will become part of the annual preparations. In fact, dehydration will expand in scope so I can ship chile to my friends around the world. Otherwise, it is quite expensive to ship. If you want to try it for yourself, Paulita’s is available online.
Smothered and covered means something different in New Mexico than it does in Georgia. In New Mexico, that reference usually involves green chile and some form of cheese. Personally, I use Café Pasqual’s recipe. If you visit Santa Fe and have an opportunity to eat there, you really should give it a go.
Café Pasqual’s Green Chile sauce recipe is delicious and freezes well. It is like New Mexico gravy, ideal for huevos rancheros, smothering burritos, mashed potatoes, and stacked enchiladas. Frankly, it is good on anything and everything that you might want to smother in chile. Based on the recipe posted, I make double or triple batches in the fall. Depends on the amount of chile on hand.
I allow the sauce to cool to room temperature and thicken before sealing it in freezer quart bags, usually 2-3 cups. I freeze them on cookie sheets so they are flat and easy to store.
Having individual packs ready to go makes for quick huevos rancheros smothered in green for Sunday brunch.
Most people use dried red chile pods to make their red chile. That is the purpose of making red chile ristras every autumn. However, I prefer to use fresh red chile. The sauce is a much brighter red and it is silky smooth compared to sauce made from dried pods. Unlike green chile, roasting red chile is optional. Roasting changes the taste of the sauce a bit so it is mostly a matter of personal taste and whether a roaster is accessible and convenient.
Whether you are using fresh chile or pods, the first step is softening the pods so they can be pulverized in a blender. Some people remove the stems and seeds. Whereas I remove the stems, I leave the seeds, because they will be extracted when I run the pulverized red chile through a sieve later in the process.
Step 1: Boil the chile pods. About 15 minutes if you are using dry chile. About 5 minutes if you are using fresh chile. Save the water.
Step 2: Puree the chile in a blender with about a cup of the water.
Step 3: Strain the mixture, using a fairly fine mesh strainer. This will extract seeds and skin.
Step 4: Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a skillet. Add 2 tablespoons of flour. Whisk to create a smooth roux.
Step 5: Add the chile to the roux, stirring constantly until it is very smooth.
Step 6: Spicing is minimal and should be adjusted to personal tastes. My combo involves 1 teaspoon garlic salt or a large clove of minced garlic, ¼ teaspoon cumin, ¼ teaspoon coriander, ½ teaspoon beef, chicken or vegetable bouillion, ½ teaspoon of salt for each blender full of chile processed.
Red Chile Ristras are commonly used as a decorative item in New Mexico, but the tradition is purely utilitarian. Ristras were created to store red chile for consumption throughout the winter. The ristras that I make are purely decorative. However, I don’t treat them with anything and they are hung outside, allowing them to dry completely. If the chile supply ever runs out before the next harvest, the ristras are backup.
- Approximately ¾ – 1 bushel of red chile, pick mature red peppers that are firm and free of defects or blemishes. Look for long, strong stem that are well attached to the pod.
- Twine or bailing wire
- Cotton string
- Corn husks, cut into strips (optional for decoration)
The process is easier to see than it is to explain. Here’s an article with step by step illustration, which is primarily useful for learning to tie the knots properly. Below is a video from Santa Cruz Farms with instructions and more insight into the history and tradition.