The Road to Green Chile — El Camino de Chile Verde

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by Emily Velde Elías

Notably around Labor Day the Southwest gives a nod to local celebrations that embrace the region’s ripening chile. There is a popular junction of family and festival with this epicurean delight. In this Field Notes excerpt, Tucson Meet Yourself Field School researcher Emily Velde Elías recalls her family’s folklore surrounding chile and the Hatch Chile Festival annual event:

Note 1: A Tradition Begins
There are as many styles of fixing green chile as there are families who fix it. For the past 23-plus years my family has evolved a family tradition while fine-tuning our recipe and sharing roles as festival-goers, recipe preparers and taste testers.

We go to Hatch every year to purchase a favorite variety that will form the base of a year’s worth of chile-inspired family meals and friend gatherings. The first time Richard (husband) and I went to Hatch was over the 1989 Labor Day Weekend. We had married in January of that year. You never forget your first experience with the enveloping scent of roasting green chile, and the scene of different farmers and vendors with their roasters going: Heavenly. Each year the scents and sounds of festival have grown for us,traveling through many mountain ranges and small towns and their festivals of southwest New Mexico, have made us love this region even more.

If you arrive at just the right time to the Hatch Chile Festival you’re able to watch some of the local competitions for best chile varieties. There are also battles of the bands to enjoy, or my favorite, a fiddle competition. Rides like the ferris wheel, tilt-a-whirl or merry go round light up the evenings. When our daughter, Luz, arrived, she especially liked the 25 cent ring-toss-type booths where you can win prizes like stuffed furry, chile-shaped pillows. Hatch is a small town, with very old fashioned, classic fair booths, generations old, I’m sure.

Daughter Luz, Richard, and Emily
Daughter Luz, Richard, and Emily

Note 2: Festival Material Culture
As Luz grew old enough to enjoy the experience, the festival and the collection of chile souvenirs became much more fun. In Hatch you find “everything chile” imaginable: T- shirts, jewelry, hats, key chains, posters, aprons, chile-printed clothing, dishes and kitchenware, bric-a-brac and arts and crafts, to name a few. What interested me most were the home-canned chile pickles, as well as chile jellies and preserves. One year, at the festival, I purchased a copy of Award Winning Recipes from the Annual Hatch Chile Festival, and I’ve found some real recipe “gems” in it.

Note 3: Varietal Quest
Of all materials collected, the most important is the chile itself, of course!

The festival features dozens of fresh green chile varieties and dried red chile in all shades, shapes and sizes. Some family farms also sell the dried varieties in powdered form. New varieties appear each year. A few years ago I noticed the dried green jalapeño powder. The powdered red chile comes in mild, medium, hot and very hot varieties. Visitors may select small quantities (2 or 4 oz. grocery-store sized), enough to make chorizo. Others may purchase a brown paper grocery bag-full of fresh green chile, or several red chile ristras for making red sauce or to give as gifts, as we do. We choose the 40-pound bag size of our favorite green chile to roast and freeze until the next year’s trek.

Note 4: Taste Testing
We purchase and use a variety of the red every year, but the green chile is our obsession!

We tried different varieties of green chile over time and met many farmers happy to discuss the differences between the green varieties. After experimenting through the years, the “Big Jim” variety became our current family favorite. For a time we purchased our chile from the Flores Family farm until the family patriarch passed away. Flores family members referred us to the Ogas Family farm in Garfield which is where we still go for our “Big Jim” green chile.

In the early years returning home from our Labor Day weekend trips, these large bags involved lots of preparation and experimenting. We mesquite-roasted the chile ourselves, embellishing on scent and flavor like never before! Over the years, we’ve gotten better at preparing the 40-lb. bags of chile. Richard has learned how to maintain just the right temperature, quickly roasting small batches of chiles on a small grill and then moving them to a brown paper bag that he keeps closed until I am ready to transfer chiles to the freezer. The brown paper bag is an important part of the process, allowing the skin to continue to lift from the chile.

My task is to fill quart-size freezer bags with about half-dozen chiles, (still with their skins on), to expedite the preparation of small batches of green chile salsa, chile rellenos or green enchilada sauce for week night family meals I like to call “school night” dinners. About six chiles is usually just the right amount for a regular dinner for my family. However, some of the chile from New Mexico is so big and fat, that I only include 4 or 5 chiles in a bag. I also separate out and bag some of the meatiest chiles, and mark the bags “rellenos.”

Richard and Hatch Chile Queen, 1989
Richard and Hatch Chile Queen, 1989

Note 5: Family Table
The tradition of the freshly-prepared green chile is multi-generational. Chile was regularly on the dinner table prepared by Richard’s mom, who inspired us in our own family tradition. We have enjoyed building on her ways and making our own table, in our own way. In our home, there has not been a party table or rarely a family dinner without our chile. Dinners for friends are regularly centered around it.

So many family milestones are centered around our tradition, and our daughter Luz’s growing up is documented in our Hatch Labor Day Weekend snapshots taken over the years. The experiences around the festival became learning experiences growing her pride in her culture. When she was younger I sometimes bought small amounts of milder green chile to fix for Luz, to draw her into the tasting and preparation of dishes because Richard and I like our green chile on the hotter side. Luz has great respect for the chile and seems to be expanding her cooking horizons these days!

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The annual trek to Hatch, the fragrance of a crackling fire and chile-inspired gatherings are nourishing essential ingredients of family tradition. In the re-telling of stories around the roaster and in the kitchen, we have created memories and family folklore. The recipe that follows is the result of tradition lived, and it is a collective family creation:

Recipe: Salsa de Chile Verde estilo Elías
5 – 6 green chiles, roasted
1 – 1 ½ medium sized tomatoes, about ¾ -1 cup chopped
¼ cup finely diced brown onion
About 3 small Mexican or Key limes
½ teaspoon salt or to taste

Peel chile and remove stems. Remove most seeds and veins to reduce their heat. Chop the chile and tomato fairly uniformly, about ¼ inch dice, or a little larger. Add the finely chopped onion. Add juice of two limes. Start with scant ½ teaspoon salt. Toss all ingredients well. Taste to adjust seasoning. Add more lime juice and salt if needed. (Note: If Richard is chopping the chile, he leaves in some seeds. I like to carefully remove them all. Both ways are good.)

Substitutions: Vidalia or other sweet onion is a nice change. It can be diced closer in size to tomato and chile and you could add a little more. If I have scallions that need to be used, same goes for them. Larger limes or lemon juice can be substituted, but you will need less. No lemons or limes in the house? Use a tablespoon or two of vinegar.

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