The Hottest Commodity

Once green with envy, Texas now joins New Mexico in championing the chile

Roasting chiles at Central Market's Hatch Chile Festival
Roasting chiles at Central Market's Hatch Chile Festival (Photo By John Anderson)

"Austin chile lovers come out of the woodwork when they smell New Mexico green chile roasting," says Hill Rylander, market master at Austin's Historic Farmers' Market. That irresistible smoky aroma has long been the call to action for New Mexicans, who rush to put up their year's supply. Chile has been an indispensable part of daily life and livelihoods there for more than 400 years. When Central Market's team learned five years ago of this unique regional foodway and the significance of the chile tradition, it seemed "the perfect opportunity to expose our customers to it," says Melissa Porter. "Austin foodies are interested in all things food-related."

Still, she admitted that she finds those "truly addicted to chile have either lived or traveled extensively in New Mexico." Among the dedicated chile buyers, "there's a real fellowship atmosphere of a shared experience and a shared passion," she explained.

John Zapp, co-owner of Chuy's, came to love New Mexico's green chile in the early Eighties while on ski vacations there. Although Chuy's began its Annual Green Chile Festival 14 years ago, "it's still a relatively new thing here in Austin -- a novelty." Bobby Skov agrees. In bringing his green chile to Westlake Farmers' Market, he was surprised by the small quantities most locals bought. Austin's green chile vendors find that they still get inquisitive looks from Texans who are puzzled by how to use or cook green chile. Their customers generally buy a pound or two to try -- a far cry from the 40 to 80 pounds most New Mexicans get each fall. But things are heating up as they come back for more.

Rylander's another Austinite who found himself hooked on chile while visiting New Mexico. Six years ago, an article in The New Yorker got him boiling mad. It commented that Texans didn't know chile, and only thought it was a bowl of brown. "So I went to New Mexico myself to learn what all the fuss was about. I fell in love with New Mexico chile. It really is extraordinary." To share his passion, Rylander personally brings chiles from Hatch each year. He began offering three-pound sampler bags at the Market, along with information sheets and recipes gathered from the best local chile cooks. "I'm happy to report that Texans are discovering green chile," he said. "We're beginning to sell more 35-pound burlap bags, just like it's sold in New Mexico. Last year, chile was selling so well we had to make a second trip to New Mexico to bring in another load."

If you're wondering what all the excitement is about, you'll want to check it out now, as fresh New Mexico green chile is available only during the fall harvest. It's a special breed of annuum grown nowhere else in the world, and connoisseurs consider New Mexico's chile the finest. It's large -- at least 6 to 7 inches long -- with a distinctively robust and earthy flavor not found in any other chile. About 30 cultivars are found within this breed, and each one has its fans. Some have been bred for greater heat or flavor, thicker flesh or larger size to yield more meat, smoother shape for better roasting, thinner walls for easier drying, or beneficial growing features.

New Mexico chile is grown in the oldest chile-growing region in the country, all along the Rio Grande -- most on just under 20,000 acres from Hatch to Las Cruces in the southern counties of Luna and Doña Ana, said David Lucero of the New Mexico Dept. of Agriculture. It's all tasty, but some prefer the older races in the state's older northern growing regions, others the chile from the Mesilla Valley, others that are grown west around Deming or as far south as El Paso.

Austin's Historic Farmers' Market
Austin's Historic Farmers' Market (Photo By John Anderson)

New Mexicans hotly debate the merits of various chiles, growers, fields, and years, much like oenophiles appraise the vintages of fine wines. Many are surprised to learn that these debates are justified. Every aspect of chile -- its flavor, color, size, texture, shape, and heat -- varies not just with the variety but with the soil, water, and climate during the growing season. The French concept of terroir, embraced by gourmands around the world, uniquely applies to New Mexico's chile. It's more sensitive to the terroir than other types of chile. "Tasting chile is like wine tasting," said Dr. Paul Bosland, chile horticulturist and director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University.

Savvy chile lovers buy their chiles by name, knowing each is as distinctive as a fine wine. Among New Mexico chile varieties, a few warrant mention. "The medium-hot Sandia chile is the workhorse," says Javier Vargas with New Mexico State University and the Chile Pepper Institute. It's also the most common in home gardens. The mild New Mexico 6-4 and its improved Joe E. Parker are the most commercially cultivated chile. Big Jims are favorites among most local homecooks, including myself, because of their enormous size -- with lengths up to a foot -- and thick flesh that makes them perfect for stuffing in the popular dish chile rellenos. Their smooth surface also makes them a breeze to roast and peel. Big Jims are rarely available commercially or outside the state because locals snap them up, and they're the most unpredictable chiles in their extremes of heat, even when picked from the same plant. Big Jims were named after Jim Lytle, who helped develop the variety in the mid-1900s. His son and grandson still run the family farm in Hatch.

California Anaheims look similar, but don't be fooled. They're feeble distant cousins: five times milder and lacking the rich flavors of New Mexico varieties. Cultivars of California chiles, such as the AZ developed in Arizona, are high yield crops for commercial growers, but extremely mild and without the flavor of New Mexico types, according to Bosland. "AZ-20 is sold mostly to canners and dehydrators," adds T.J. Runyan of Skyline Produce in Hatch.

In New Mexico, you won't find chile called "Hatch." Chile aficionados know Hatch is not a type of chile. Only chile grown in the limited acreages around the tiny town of Hatch can even legally be said to be from there, without risking hefty fines. Sadly, outside of the state you'll sometimes find chiles labeled "Hatch" marketed to neophytes. Many times it hasn't been grown there, although sometimes it's distributed out of Hatch.

New Mexico grows hundreds of different chiles, more than any other state. Locals consume almost all of the New Mexico cultivars; the other varieties go to processors for hot sauces. Last year was a rough one for chile, said Lucero. Yields were much below normal due to weather and disease. Wet springs brought viruses and disease, which destroyed about one-third of the crops. This spring, however, farmers up and down the Rio Grande Valley were celebrating. This year's dreadful drought and heat actually helped the chile get a healthy start, and by early summer it appeared that it might be the best crop in the past decade. I just came from New Mexico and put up my annual 70 pounds. I'm happy to report that this year's harvest is stupendous. Not only is the harvest abundant and two weeks ahead of schedule; thanks to the dry heat, it's especially flavorful and hot. Chile hotness is a matter of stress to the plant, mostly water stress. That's also why New Mexico-grown chile is "hotter than those grown in California, Colorado, and Texas," Bosland said.

You've probably realized that New Mexicans eat more -- and hotter -- chile than folks anywhere else in the country. But, our fondness for chile isn't for its heat, but for its flavor. To us, it isn't merely a spice or condiment. It's the centerpiece of our meals and used every day, like others use vegetables. It's the state vegetable, after all! We put it in everything. Most traditional chile dishes are very simple, such peasant fare as stews with beans and potatoes, chicken enchiladas, bean burritos, chile stuffed with cheese or grains, calabacitas of corn and squash, or sauces poured over everything.

You'll find great chile recipes from Austin's chile roasters, or chile dishes to try at festivals around town this month. Chuy's specials will include green chile pork quesadillas, chile beef nachos, roasted chicken and cheese enchiladas, and chile rellenos. At Central Market, you can sample crab chile cakes, chile pesto, chile sausage, and chile scones.

Once you've tried New Mexico green chile, you'll be hooked and lined up at the roasters, too. end story

Sandy Szwarc, a Certified Culinary Professional, is a food editor, writer, and recipe developer. After growing up in Austin, she has lived more than 20 years in New Mexico and now considers herself a local. Her first cookbook was Real New Mexico Chile: An Insider's Guide to Cooking With Chile (Golden West Publishers, 1996). Her upcoming book is The Land of Light: New Mexico's Culinary Heritage Preserved in Contemporary Recipes.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle