Just like that, summer’s over.
Actually it’s still sweltering, steamy, sweaty. Too hot at night to sleep with the sheet pulled up.
But when the sultry smell of roasting peppers begins to waft through the farmers market, I know that summer’s on the wane.
Early Saturday morning, the fragrance of succulent fleshy peppers, skin popping and crackling in the flames of a revolving propane-fired wire drum, was so enticing that I skipped all my usual rambling and went straight to the glorious piles of colorful capsicums at the Peregrine Farm stand. A few steps away, Alex Hitt, co-owner of the farm with his wife Betsy, was cranking the handle of the roaster with one leather-gloved hand, a row of paper sacks lined up behind him.
Here’s how it works: You fill a sack with at least two pounds of peppers, mixing up sweet bells with hot green poblanos, milder chartreuse Anaheims, and the fiery little guys—habaneros, jalapenos, serranos–in any way you please. Next hand over $7 (the price of the peppers) and your name is scrawled on the bag. In 20 or 30 minutes, you can pick up your prize: Roasted peppers, hot, steamy, oozing luscious fruity juices, with a smoky aroma makes you want to rip into the bag and eat them right there.
Before I took my peppers, I talked to Alex. “ At the peak, which it is now, I can roast 200 pounds in a morning,” he told me while he was cranking the drum, just a bit pink-faced from the heat. “We do eat a lot of roasted peppers at home. We freeze a big container about that size”—he pointed to a plastic laundry basket –“and we eat them all winter. I make a lot of pork and green chile stew. Sometimes we add potatoes or beans.”
At the mention of pork and green chile stew, my ears perked up. The stew is arguably one of New Mexico’s iconic dishes, served in modest restaurants and at kitchen tables all over the state. People there are chile-mad, and there’s a lot of good-natured arguing over which is better—red chile or green chile—but almost everyone I know loves green chile stew.
Theoretically, there should be nothing more delicious—rich meaty pork simmered with fruity, smoky peppers—but I will tell you that a lifetime of eating chiles pequins, little red firebombs that grew in our garden, did not prepare me for the first searing bite of green chile stew I had at an Albuquerque hole in the wall. I made the mistake of taking a big mouthful: it was so blisteringly hot that I gasped for air after trying to swallow.
There are two reasons New Mexican green chile stew is so hot. First, it’s made with Hatch chiles. These flavorful green capsicums, grown in the fields around the tiny town of Hatch, N.M., are ranked, along with other New Mexican chiles, at 2,500 to 8,000 heat units on the Scoville scale. Bred from native peppers by horticulturist Fabian Garcia early in the 20th century, the first cultivars were “ball[s] of fire that sent consumers rushing to the water jug,” according to the late Dr. Roy Nakayama, head of the state’s agricultural experiment station. Though newer cultivars were easier on the palate—New Mexico No. 6 and No. 6-4 and the popular Big Jim, for example—Hatch chiles still have a powerful bite. (In comparison, Anaheims, grown in California from New Mexican chile seed, are ranked around 500 Scoville units. ) True believers claim that they can tell the difference between a Hatch chile and one grown 80 miles in Mexico.
I adore the flavor of roasted Hatch chiles, but find that a little goes a long way. When they are harvested in the early fall, people roast them with abandon—there are choking clouds of chile smoke all over the Southwest right now, as the annual Labor Day Weekend Hatch Chile Festival winds to a close—and then freeze them to use over the winter. The longer they stay in the freezer, the hotter they get.
The other reason New Mexican pork and green chile stew is so hot is that it tends to be heavy on the chile and light on the pork. Most recipes call for at least one cup of chile. This may not sound like much, but it represents nearly a pound of fiery chiles, prior to roasting. Alex Hitt told me that he also goes heavy on his milder roasted chile mix, about two cupfuls—he held out his palm, fingers spread wide—“because Betsy likes it that way,” using just a small amount of home-smoked pork butt for flavor.
This recipe is different. It’s adapted from The Feast of Santa Fe, a marvelous 1985 cookbook which explores the vibrant New Mexican kitchen, with its complex Indian, Mexican, Spanish, Anglo influences, and the use of indigenous ingredients such as pinon nuts, chicos (dried corn kernels) and many types of chiles. The author, Huntley Dent, based his stew on a recipe for potato and green chile soup, basically by adding cubed pork to the mix.
You can make this soupy stew with roasted Hatch green chiles, if you can get them, but also with almost any combination of roasted spicy green capsicums, such as the poblanos and Anaheims that Alex Hitt sells. Not hot enough? Throw in some roasted jalapenos or serranos. Most of Dent’s recipes call for canned green chiles—probably because fresh chiles were not widely available in much of the U.S. when the book was first published–and he always gave readers the option of adding a few jalapenos to the mix.
To make the dish a little less liquid, I dredged the pork in flour, salt and pepper and then browned it in olive oil before adding to the pot, creating a meaty, richly flavored stew enlivened by the spicy bite of the peppers. Depending on what chiles you are using, you can control the heat, as I did, by simmering the pork with as little as ½ cup of roasted chiles and then adding more chopped chiles as a garnish.
This is one of those dishes that can be adjusted to the cook’s own taste. The choice is yours.
Soupy Pork and Green Chile Stew
(adapted from the Feast of Santa Fe by Huntley Dent)
To serve 4
1-3/4 pounds of boneless pork shoulder, trimmed of fat and cut into 1-inch chunks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ to 1 cup roasted green chiles, coarsely chopped, to taste
5 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade
1 pound new potatoes, scrubbed and quartered
1 cup roasted green chiles, coarsely chopped, for garnish (optional)
Chopped cilantro for garnish
1. Sprinkle the pork generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Dredge in flour, shaking off the excess.
2. In a heavy pot, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over a medium flame. When it is hot but not smoking, add the pork, in batches if necessary, and sauté until golden brown on all sides. Remove and set aside.
3. Add another tablespoon of oil to the pot. When it is hot, add the onions and garlic and sauté for 4 to 5 minutes, until softened. Add the ground cumin and oregano and stir for 30 seconds. Add the browned pork and green chiles, and continue to cook for another minute.
4. Add chicken stock to the pot and bring to a boil. Cover with a lid, turn the heat to low, and simmer for an hour and 20 minutes.
5. Add the scrubbed and quartered new potatoes to the pot. Simmer, partly covered, for another 30 to 40 minutes, until the pork is very tender and the potatoes can easily be pierced with a fork.
6. Before serving, add ¼ cup chopped green chiles to each bowl (if desired) and sprinkle with cilantro. A cold beer goes well with this, as does a stack of warm corn tortillas.