Provisions: Green Chile Breakfast Burritos
Hailing from Wisconsin, I didn't get it when my New Mexican partner asked me, “Red or green?”
He explained the importance of red and green chiles in New Mexican cuisine and told me he was asking my preference between the red and green varieties. I still didn’t get it.
The mild heat and slightly smoky flavor of the fresh-roasted New Mexico Hatch green chiles was unlike anything I'd ever tasted
As any half-decent cook trying to impress a new beau would do, I went to the store and bought the closest thing I could find to a green chile: an Anaheim pepper. When I served them roasted on top of a cheeseburger and he was sweet enough to say he liked them but they just weren’t quite the same. I still didn’t get it.
It wasn’t until my first Thanksgiving trip to New Mexico to spend the holiday with his family that I ate some real Hatch green chiles and finally understood. The mild heat and slightly smoky flavor of the fresh-roasted New Mexico Hatch green chiles was unlike anything I'd ever tasted, and I could see why my Anaheim pepper cheeseburger had failed to arouse in my partner the true love he felt for New Mexico-grown green chiles. Let me just go ahead and say it: I get it now.
Cultivated for hundreds of years in a region distinct in water availability, vegetation and terroir, New Mexican green chiles are more robust, sweeter and even a bit smokier in flavor than their cousin from California
As summer cools down, chile season heats up across the nation. Late-summer chiles work their way into cuisines across the southern United States, but in New Mexico they begin to approach a way of life. You can find fresh green chiles being roasted outside of almost any grocery store, in any restaurant there will be multiple dishes including green chiles, and Labor Day weekend heralds the annual Hatch Chile Festival. And, although they are indeed a variation of Anaheim peppers, New Mexican green chiles are coveted precisely because of where they are grown. And Hatch, NM grows the best. Cultivated for hundreds of years in a region distinct in water availability, vegetation and terroir, New Mexican green chiles are more robust, sweeter and even a bit smokier in flavor than their cousin from California.
Despite its popularity the chile is not native to the Southwest. The Spanish brought chiles to the region from the Caribbean, but the plant struggled in the arid desert. Loved for its spicy-smoky flavor and prized for its medicinal properties, the chile inspired horticulturists in the 1900s to search for the perfect hybrid that was smoother, meatier, tastier and slightly milder in heat and that could, perhaps most importantly, stand up to the rough conditions of drought and disease that plagued many chile breeds in the desert.
Eventually, the Rio Grande chile, named for the river that supplied its irrigation, would be born. The Rio Grande chile thrived and was quickly adopted by farmers around the state, including the town of Hatch, New Mexico. Over the years, many New Mexican hybrid green chile varieties continued to be developed. Today’s most popular and successful pepper, The Big Jim, was developed at New Mexico State University in the 1970s and is widely used around the state.
We now live in Durango, CO and, our relationship now being one half OG Hatch chile lover and one half unashamed bandwagoner, we rush to the grocer every September to get our hands on the first bushels of roasted Hatch green chiles. They’ve become popular and are widely available across the US, and these days I wouldn’t be surprised to find them across the West and in most major metropolitan areas during chile season. Even so, we were shocked and delighted to come across green chiles while camping in Alaska three years ago. I don’t think I’ve ever had better green chile burritos than in the pouring rain, sheltered by a tarp around the campfire in Denali National Park.
If you do find green chiles near you, but they aren’t roasting them outside the store (a New Mexico green chile staple), just put them on the grill or under the broiler until nice and blistered. Then peel off the skins and enjoy.
Some Green Chile Tips
- Always peel your chiles — the skins are no bueno
- Freshly roasted green chiles only last a day or two in the fridge — it’s best to freeze them if you have a whole bunch
- Hot green chiles are pretty hot (in New Mexico they like to say “whoa, these are warm!”) and medium ones have plenty of flavor and mild heat
- Red chiles and green chiles are the same plant: a red chile is simply a ripened and often dried version of the green chile ( “autumn” roasted green chiles, in late September when the last of the green chile crop are turning red and the roasted fruit is a bit sweeter and more complex in flavor, are a particular treat)
- Green chiles are delicious on/in just about anything, but I suggest starting off with some traditional dishes like green chile enchiladas, a green chile cheeseburger, rellenos, burritos or, my favorite, breakfast burritos