Monday, August 12, 2013

Is it Chile in Here, or is it Just Me?

Recently I've been "hatching" up a plan for Red Green. No, not the Canadian comedian you see on PBS if you're a night owl. This Red Green refers to the most common question heard here in New Mexico restaurants, "Will that be red or green?" What they are referring to is chile, specifically that which grows in a little town called Hatch. If they're grown anywhere else, they are called Anaheim peppers and even though the ones grown in Hatch are the same variety, they have a distinctive taste due to both the climate and soil in the town.

This time of year (August-October) every grocery store, Wal-Mart and produce stall in the state of New Mexico has a huge "raffle cage" out in front of them. There will be a line of customers waiting for their turn at the cage. What are they doing, you ask? They're waiting to get their Hatch chile roasted. See, they toss 40 lbs. of it into that cage, light up a propane burner underneath it and the employee who drew the short straw gets to turn, turn, turn that cage until the chile within is blistered and blackened. Why would you want to torture the chile like this? First, it brings out some of the sugars (think carmelization). And, second, it's the only way to peel the darn things.

The problem, for me (and thus the reason for this post), is that they only roast it for you when you buy a 40 lb. sack. And while we do eat a LOT of chile, we have no way to store 40 lbs. of it all at once. Not only that, but the flavor tends to change over the season, so if you have 40 lbs. of early chile and it's ridiculously hot (which happens far too often), you're stuck with it. But if you wait, they can run out (which also happens far too often). My solution was simple: Buy a pound or two every couple of weeks - and roast it myself.

Chile roasting is supposed to be easy: Take raw chile, apply dry heat until skin is blistered, drop into bag to steam the skin loose & freeze until ready to use. But there seems to be as many ways to roast chile at home as there are ways to consume it.

1. The stovetop in-a-pan method. In a dry pan, over medium-high heat, place chiles, heat & turn until skin is blistered and blackened. THE PROBLEM WITH THIS METHOD: The chiles are not really flat, so getting heat to all of the skin just doesn't happen. This makes them really hard to peel.

2. The stovetop open-flame method. Hold a chile at a time over your gas burner until roasted. THE PROBLEM WITH THIS METHOD: Incredibly time-consuming. Plus even though I use tongs, it's uncomfortably close to the flame AND I inevitably drop every single one several times.

3. The grill method. Place the chiles on a grill set to high-heat. Flip every so often until done. THE PROBLEM WITH THIS METHOD: I'm not allowed to touch my husband's grill. Otherwise, this method would probably work very well.

4. The oven broiler method. Cover pan with foil. Place chiles on pan. Broil 7-10 minutes per side until roasted. THE PROBLEM WITH THIS METHOD: I had to have my husband point out where the broiler was on the oven. (I thought this drawer was specifically designed for storage - seriously, I've never used it on any stove, ever.)

So, here's how I'm doing it tonight...
5. The high-heat oven method. I am placing my Hatch chiles directly onto my top oven rack, setting the temperature to 450°F and counting on 20 minutes for the first side (which takes into account the oven warm-up time).
You may notice that the two chiles in the back are fairly red. The longer the chile ripens on the vine, the redder it gets until it's fully red (that's the difference between green & red chile). While the red is "sweeter,"it's also hotter. Also, note the aluminum foil lining the oven floor - these guys can and will drip while they roast.

After 20 minutes, they look like this - dry & starting to blister all over:

A quick flip (with tongs or mitts, guys - don't touch the chiles with bare hands after any heat is applied; the oils released will irritate your skin & Heaven forbid you forget and rub your eyes), and back in the hot oven again for 10 minutes...

Voila! Home-roasted Hatch chile.
If you aren't sure if they are roasted enough, feel free to give them a minute or two more; you can't really overcook chiles like this. Don't worry if large areas are seriously black; it's just the skin and it will come off when you're ready to peel them. Just make sure that about 75% of the skin looks like an Irish descendent who fell asleep on a Caribbean beach.

Now, while they're hot, drop them into a sturdy plastic bag...
A freezer-type zip bag works great. DON'T use a "sandwich" thickness bag, it could melt. However, a nice clean grocery store bag will also work, or a roaster bag, or even a brown paper bag / lunch sack or glass casserole dish with a lid if you worry about plastic chemicals getting into your food. The key here is to hold in the heat and the resulting steam; the steam helps pull the skins off and it's a critical step.

After 15-20 minutes of steaming, you're ready for storage. Depending on how soon you plan to use the roasted chiles you may want to store in the refrigerator or the freezer, freezing being the recommended method for storage past 2 weeks. Separate the individual chiles into zip bags, 1-3 chiles to a bag (depending on your use; we use a chile at a time, about 3 a week, so we put about 3 chiles into each bag - your use will vary). Label and freeze the individual "serving" bags and store for up to a year.

To use each bag, thaw by placing a bag in cool water for 20-30 minutes. Under cool, running water, use gloved hands* to pull the skin off each chile (it will just slide off), then pinch off the stem end and dispose of it, and if desired, split open the pod portion and rinse the seeds out (the seeds add extra heat and bitterness). [*If you do not wear gloves while handling roasted chiles, beware; you cannot rinse off the chile oil with water or soap. Using milk, lard or vinegar may help, but until you know how you will react and until you build up a tolerance, this stuff is seriously potent.]

How to use it when it's ready:
Chop or slice and add to, well, just about anything. Eggs, Mac & Cheese, Burgers, Spaghetti, Salads (Tuna, Pasta, Potato). Turn it into Jelly or Preserves. Add it to Bread! If a recipe calls for celery or bell peppers, consider substituting roasted chile and open up a world of flavor!

Now, if I could only figure out how to bottle that fresh roasted chile smell!