A Hatch Crash Course
Hatch Chile Festival, Central Market: Aug. 20-21 and Aug. 27-28
Hatch is a place, not a variety of chile. It's a broad, fertile agricultural valley in Southeastern New Mexico, formed by the Rio Grande and Las Uvas valleys of Doña Ana and Sierra counties, known collectively as Hatch Valley. It is the self-proclaimed "Chile Capital of the World," and the largest chile-growing area of the state, although chile didn't dominate until the decline of cotton in the early 1960s and the arrival of dehydrators that could dry a ton of chiles in 24 hours. The town of Hatch, home of the famous Hatch Chile Festival held every Labor Day weekend, is about 80 miles northwest of El Paso.
Chiles were traded on a limited scale to the Anasazi and Pueblo Indians in New Mexico by the Indian nations of Mexico, but it was the expeditions of Spanish explorers, first by Antonio de Espejo in 1582, and then Juan de Oñate in 1598, who imported quantities of many types of chile. One particular long green variety thrived in the climate, and this chile was taken to Anaheim, Calif., in 1896 by Emilio Ortega, starting a commercial green chile operation there.
In 1917, horticulturist Fabián García, the "Father of Chile," was finally able to release his first standardized New Mexican pod type. After 10 years of experimenting with strains of pasilla, colorado, and negro chiles, he released New Mexico No. 9; similar to Ortega's borrowed Anaheim but spicier, with resistance to the phytophthora chile wilt fungus.
This chile would be the genetic granddaddy of all chiles to follow, and all of the changes were driven by the canning industry's need for less piquant, meatier, straighter, and more prolific strains.
Hatch chiles are seeded in March and are fragile plants, susceptible to rodents, high winds, untimely frosts, violent storms and hail, insects, and fungi. They require thinning and frequent weeding, with the right balance of irrigation. About when the corn starts tasseling, in the third week of July or so, the green-chile harvest begins, continuing until around Labor Day. They are sold fresh and are roasted and peeled for processing; a tiny portion is sun-dried for green chile powder. As the chiles start to ripen and turn red during September, the harvest for red chile begins and can run through Christmas.
If you buy your green chiles unroasted, char them completely over a flame or coals until they are blackened. Place them into a bag or bowl, cover them, and let them steam until cool enough to handle. Using the back of a knife, scrape off the charred skin, the stem, and the seeds. (Peeling under a stream of water dilutes the flavor.) Use those beauties to season any compatible dish, or freeze them to be lovingly dispensed through the fall and winter. Green chile from Hatch there's no flavor that compares.
The Hatch Chile Festival takes place at both Central Market locations Aug. 18-20 and 25-27. For more information, see www.centralmarket.com, spectre.nmsu.edu/dept/welcome.html?t=chile, www.hatchnm.biz/hatch_chile_fest.htm.
Sign up for the Chronicle Cooking newsletter
If you want to submit a recipe, send it to email@example.com