Green chilis

Early in my career as a human being, I lived in New Mexico. And even before I was a dietitian, I was fascinated by their cuisine, particularly their chili. As Texans when we hear chili, we think of a meaty, spicy stew with or without beans, relatively homogenous texture and brown in color. In New Mexico the word chili refers to a particular type of pepper known as hatch chilis and they are an integral part of New Mexican cuisine. In the Land of Enchantment, if you ask for chili, they respond with the question green or red? When you order a hamburger, they ask if you want chilis on that. The dish Green Chili is a spicy mixture of pork or beef, stewed with onions, garlic, tomatoes and of course green chilis. It is hearty, delicious and colorful and with the meat and vegetables has a varied texture.

New Mexican chilis grow from green to a ripened red. The green chili flavor is described as lightly pungent similar to onion or garlic with a subtle sweet, spicy, crisp and smoky taste. The ripened red retains the flavor but adds an earthiness and bite that mellows the front heat and delivers more of a back heat. The spiciness varies with the variety of pepper and growing conditions. Generally, red chili is spicier than green but either can be spicy to palates not accustomed to peppers.

Many types of chili peppers were first grown by pueblo Indians. When the Spanish arrived, they adopted chilis into their cuisine and continued developing different cultivars. Today’s green chilis of New Mexico are grown in various areas of the state. The name Hatch refers to the Hatch Valley which stretches along the Rio Grande’s southernmost bend before crossing into Texas and Mexico. The unique soil, along with hot days and cool nights give these peppers their complex flavor and meaty texture. They have come to be treasured by chefs and today’s home foodies.

This month’s recipe, Green Chili comes from what my roommate Bob – a native of New Mexico – learned from his mother. Like all recipes there are variations. Potatoes go well in the dish. Bob typically used ground beef in Green Chili and reserved pork for Red Chili. Both make wonderful burritos. A traditional chili would use more fatty cuts of pork, but I find that pork loin is just as tasty and much lower in saturated fat.

When I returned to Texas in the mid-seventies, there were no green chilis in the grocery stores. Today, we find a wide variety of peppers although I don’t find locally hatch green chilis. Poblano or Anaheim peppers make a reasonable substitute and are less spicy. You can find roasted canned green chilis year-round and you can get them mild. I wrote this recipe to use either fresh or canned chilis. Roasting the fresh chilis greatly enhances the flavor of the dish. Bob would roast them one by one on the burner of a gas stove, turning them as they blacken. Or you can lay them out on a sheet pan and roast until the skin is charred. Turn them to char both sides. Then put them in a bowl while hot and cover them with plastic wrap to loosen the skin. Peel and chop them with the seeds. If you want to skip the roasting step and you are using poblano or Anaheim peppers, you can sauté them with the onions. Just remember roasting any vegetable adds more flavor to your dish.

It’s 700 miles to New Mexico. But we can order Hatch Green Chilis online directly from the growers. The season for green chilis is July through September. So now is a good time to make this flavorful, hearty stew from the Land of Enchantment. If you can’t go to New Mexico, how about bringing a little of it to East Texas.

Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with years of experience practicing nutrition therapy in local hospitals and clinics, teaching nutrition and developing healthy recipes. He is a Nacogdoches resident and he helped create the popular TV show Memorial Cooking Innovations celebrating the world of food and health. Memorial Cooking Innovations currently runs in 62 cities and is locally available on Sudden Link cable channel 2 in Nacogdoches.

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