SANTA FE — It has probably been 20 years since I first tasted New Mexico green chiles, poured like gravy all over my breakfast burrito at Cafe Pasqual’s. I immediately loved the slightly grassy, earthy flavor, and the lower heat profile meant that I could eat more of it — whether tossed by the handful on top of a pizza, sandwiched inside a cheeseburger, or simply on its own, roasted, chopped and scooped up, tortilla chip after tortilla chip.Not something you’d do with the jalapeño, the chile of all things Tex-Mex.If you’ve ever been lucky enough to drive through Hatch, N.M., and seen the acres of green chile fields on either side of the road, then you know that chiles are a very big deal here — and the state is as divided (and competitive) as Fort Worth and Dallas. Some people will only eat chiles from the north, and others, just from the south, in Hatch. But there’s no such thing as a Hatch chile.“I think the biggest misconception is people think Hatch is a variety,” says Danise Coon, researcher with The Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University. “There are lots of varieties that are grown in Hatch, all with different heat levels, thickness and length.” Chiles from Hatch are all derived from what’s known as the New Mexico pod type, according to Coon. The hybrid chile that was developed at the turn of the century by chile pioneer Fabian Garcia, who crossed a pasilla chile with a couple of New Mexican native chiles. That chile, New Mexico No. 9, is the original Hatch chile — or chile from Hatch. All others are derived from that chile, including the Anaheim (so-called because of where it was first grown), a much milder-flavored chile due to the high water content. In Hatch, chiles, like the climate, are drier and have a more concentrated flavor. And there are many varieties. Thick-skinned chiles get to remain green, while the thinner-skinned ones are best for red. Some are on the mild side, with a tiny bit of heat, while others are on the fiery side. Most are less than 1,000 Scoville units (the standard measurement of chile hotness), whereas a jalapeño ranges from 2,500 to 8,000. Which makes Hatch chiles — rather, chiles from Hatch — more versatile than jalapeños. A little bit of heat can give a dish brightness, or add complexity to something unexpected, like a chocolate bar with chile (which if you’ve not tried, you must).In Paris, I always kept a stash of green chile in my cabinets in tiny 4.5-ounce cans. Now I buy roasted green chiles in 3-pound bags, and go through at least one, sometimes more, each month.For the Fourth of July this year, I ate green chile cheeseburgers at a cookout, and my hostess also served a bowl of hot green chiles on the side, should anyone need more (I did). A friend of mine is famous for his green chile-apple pie at Thanksgiving. Chiles are so much a part of New Mexico culture that there’s even a state question — “Red or green?” — meaning, do you want that breakfast burrito with red chile sauce or roasted green chile sauce? Because it’s got to be one or the other — or both. Just say, “Christmas.”
Ellise Pierce is the Cowgirl Chef and author of “Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking With a French Accent” (Running Press, $25). www.cowgirlchef.com; @cowgirlchef.