PUEBLO–A haze of smoke hangs in the air in southern Colorado during the chili harvest. On street corners and in parking lots the pop of the gas torch signals the season of roasting, when vendors twirl wire baskets searing the thin skins of Anaheim or Pueblo chilies.
“With the Anaheim, you can buy hot or mild. The mild you would use for chilies rellenos,” a husky farmer at the Pueblo festival says, “those Pueblo chilies….you could get a hot one or a mild one. You never know what to expect, but they have plenty of flavor.”
Southern Colorado is green chili country. The altitude makes all the difference, the farmers say. Cool nights and hot days coupled with plenty of irrigation water produce the best. The peppers they grow on the farms surrounding the city of Pueblo, the mirasol chili, won’t grow anywhere else with such intense flavor. That’s because they can control the water, easing off as the chilies ripen. Cool nights lengthen the ripening. Peppers then produce thicker walls and a more robust flavor just before harvest.
AN ANCIENT CROP BECOMES A SIGNATURE DISH
In the small town of San Luis, the vendors stand under the shade of a few trees next to Emma’s Hacienda, the town’s oldest restaurant. There’s enough room for one or two cars to pull in. Families pile out, each carrying large burlap bags. Filled with roasted chilies, the bags are tucked into the trunks and drivers ease out their cars as another driver signals to pull in.
Emma freezes quantities of the roasted chilies for her signature dishes: enchiladas. The chilies dominate every menu and no one tires of that smoky essence, the base of her sauces for tamales and stews, the staples of winter.
At the Pueblo Chile Festival a sandwich features the green chili–the quesadilla. Two flour tortillas are sprinkled lightly with a mild cheese. A plump roasted green chili, usually hot, is placed between the layers. It’s then grilled for a couple of minutes and handed over on a piece of cardboard with a mound of tomato salsa on the side. And while there’s plenty of food at the festival, this simple presentation of the guest of honor shows a roasted green chili at its best.
Green chilies are most easily roasted in the twirling wire baskets. Their fleshy walls are thin and often char under the broiler of a stove. Even broiling on a grill can be risky. In the wire baskets, as they twirl all together, only the skin blisters. The flesh takes on a smoky taste without being damaged in the process.
CHILES RELATED TO TOMATOES, POTATOES AND EGGPLANT
Green chilies, like tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant are related: they are part of the nightshade family. Originating from the Andes, chilies spread far and wide in the New World before being discovered by European explorers. But unlike other family members, the chili pepper developed capsaicin, the heat that begins in the orange veins of the pepper and stretches into the seeds. And chili peppers never excited the European world with the fervor surrounding potatoes and tomatoes.
While red and green chilies are available at the Pueblo Chile Festival, they’re both the same chili. The red chilies have reached maturity, just as leaves lose their green color in autumn, the red chili pepper has lost chlorophyll and turns bright red. In the process of maturing, the red chilies have thinner walls, so they often are dried and ground into powder. The green chilies, with their thicker walls, are prized for their smoky, plump pulp.
Some people are particularly susceptible to a chili burn when handling hot peppers. It’s wise to wear thin latex gloves. If you handle chilies and your hands begin to burn, use rubbing alcohol to remove the peppery oils and, of course, never touch your eyes after working with chilies.
To roast a chili at home, place the pepper on a low flame of gas and turn the chili gradually as each side blisters. If you have an electric over, put the peppers under the broiler and turn the chilies once to blister each side. Place the hot chilies in a plastic bag until cool. The steam will loosen the thin skins. If the skins still do not slip off easily, freeze the chilies slightly and the skins will slide off.
Green Chile Quesadilla
- 2 flour tortillas
- 1 roasted green chili, stem, veins and seeds removed
- ½ cup grated mild cheese, cheddar, jack or a fresh Mexican cheese
Place half the cheese on one side of the tortilla. Stretch out the chili to fan over the cheese. Sprinkle the other half of cheese over the pepper. Place the tortilla on top and grill the sandwich for just a minute on each side. Or, place one tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy skillet. On medium heat, toast the quesadilla for a few minutes on each side until the cheese has melted. Serves one.
Fresh Tomato Salsa
Usually salsa has a chili added. Since this accompanies a spicy quesadilla, the chili has been left out.
- 1 cup chopped fresh tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon chopped onion
- ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 1 teaspoon of sugar
- Pinch of kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon of lime juice
Chiles, Cheese and Rice
- 1 cup rice, basmati preferred
- 2 cups water
- ½ cup chopped green roasted chilies
- ½ cup grated cheddar or Monterey jack cheese
- Salt and pepper to taste
Place rice and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. As soon as the water boils, turn down the heat to a simmer. Keep the lid on and allow the rice to cook for 40 minutes. When the rice is done and can be fluffed with a fork, stir in the cheese and chilies. Season to taste. Serves four.
- 2 cups milk
- 4 eggs
- 2 cups dried bread cubes, preferably a crusty French loaf
- 1 cup grated cheese: a mild cheddar, jack, mild goat or Brie
- 1/2 cup roasted, chopped green chilies, mild or hot, depending on taste
This dish must sit for at least two hours or overnight before baking. Butter a 9-inch by 12-inch baking dish. In a large bowl, beat the eggs and milk together. Add the bread cubes. Place the chilies in the bottom layer of the baking dish. Pour the bread, egg and milk mixture on top. Sprinkle with the grated cheese. Cover with a plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours. When ready, preheat the over to 350 degrees. Cook the strata for about 50 minutes, or until a knife inserted comes out clean.
Green Chile Soufflé
- 3 tablespoons butter or oil
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 1 1/2 cups hot milk
- 6 eggs
- 3 roasted green chilies, minced
- 1 cup grated cheese, cheddar or jack
- Pinch, cream of tartar
Preheat the over to 400 degrees. Prepare an 8-cup soufflé dish with a thin coating of oil or butter. Sprinkle some of the grated cheese along the sides. Separate the eggs. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of cream of tartar until stiff. Place egg whites in the refrigerator. Make a roux by mixing the butter and flour together in a heavy skillet on medium heat until it forms a paste. Allow to cook briefly so that the flour is cooked through. Begin adding the milk in a slow stream, stirring continually until the sauce thickens. Add the remaining cheese and allow it to melt into the sauce. Remove from the heat, allow to cool a bit, and add the egg yolks one at a time. Fold the sauce mixture into the beaten egg whites. Fold in the green chilies. Bake for about 45 minutes. Cooking time may vary with different altitudes, but bake until the top has browned and formed a crust. Serves four as a main dish.
Green Chili Polenta
- 1 cup polenta
- 4 cups water
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup grated mild cheese (cheddar, jack or a fresh Mexican cheese)
- 4 roasted green chilies, minced
Bring water to a boil and add salt. Pour in the polenta slowly, stirring constantly. Continue stirring slowly as the polenta absorbs the water. Cover and cook at a simmer, stirring every five minutes for the first 15 minutes. Continue to cook for 40 minutes. When the polenta is creamy, stir in the olive oil, grated cheese and chilies. Pour into a baking dish. As it cools, cut the polenta into squares. Sprinkle more grated cheese on top if desired. Serve with fresh tomatoes or a tomato sauce. Serves four.
Warmed Tomato Sauce
- 4 ripe tomatoes, sliced
- 1 garlic clove, sliced
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon fresh oregano
Sauté the garlic in the oil. Add tomatoes and oregano. Heat through only.
Poblano Chiles Stuffed with Cheese and Corn
- 4 large poblano, Anaheim or Pueblo chilies roasted with skin and seeds removed, stems in place
- 1/2 cup low-fat cottage cheese or mild goat cheese
- 1/2 cup Monterey jack, or queso con fresco cheese
- 1/4 cup chopped scallions
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro, leaves only with stems discarded
- 1/4 cup corn kernels, frozen or fresh
For the sauce:
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 tablespoon of chopped garlic
- 1 28-ounce can of juice-packed tomatoes or four large tomatoes, blended so that they form a smooth tomato sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon of oregano, dried or fresh
Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.
To stuff the peppers: roast the poblano, Pueblo or Anaheim chilies. Make a slit down the side and extract the seeds. Keep the stem intact. Combine all the ingredients and pack the chilies very full. Lay each alongside in a heavy baking dish.
To make the sauce: heat the olive oil on medium heat in a saucepan on the stove. Sauté the garlic and onion until limp, but not browned. Add the tomatoes, cumin, oregano. Pour over the stuffed chilies and bake until it is bubbling in the oven. Serve with rice and pinto or Anasazi beans.