The Sweet Smell of August Chile

Different states have their different “things” that separate them from the rest of the pack. In New Mexico, that thing comes in August, when the new crop of chile becomes available. To a lot of people whose exposure to chile is eating at some franchise restaurant every so often, this obsession with chile is thought of as being somewhat abnormal. The fact that the official state question is: “red or green” should indicate how serious we are about our curious little fruit.

August is a very happy, busy, and tiring time to those of use who love chile with a passion. The typical scenario is: you go down to your vendor and buy a 2-bushel sack of green chile (Hatch green chile…the best in the world).  The vendor will pop it into their propane-fueled roaster until the skins are burned and blistered and the meat starting to soften.  The whole mess is then plopped into a plastic sack for an hour or so so that it will steam. Once that period is up, most people then peel the chile—which takes about five hours—portion it off into plastic bags, and then freeze it (a 35-40 lb sack yields about 13-16 lbs of roasted & peeled chile). Some choose to freeze their chile unpeeled, but that just means you’ll be peeling chile all year ’round.  I would say that a huge number of native New Mexicans have a freezer dedicated (or mostly dedicated) to the storage of frozen chile.

Storage is very important as the fresh stuff is generally available for only about a month.  In that time you have to buy and prep all the chile you think you’ll use over the course of a year. How much is that? On average, about 1.5-to-2 sacks per person for those who need to have chile available every day (that works out to about 1/2lb of roasted and peeled chile per week). That doesn’t seem like a lot, but a lot of stretching goes on: salsas and the like. Hotter chiles last longer than milder. Since we still have about 2-2 1/2 bags remaining in the freezer, we’ll probably buy only four or five bags this year for the three of us — clearly, we eat our fair share.

During this month of August, Albuquerque and most other places in New Mexico acquire the very specific acrid aroma of roasting chile. When you grow up in this state, there are few things that remind a person of home more than the fragrance of the skins of those precious fruits being charred. (For those wondering, cooking pinto beans, and tortillas are the other big-time home-reminding odors.)

The first bag of the season is now in the freezer. We reserved one pound of freshly roasted chile just to savor the simplicity of the fruit with no other culinary complications. Yum.  Yum. YUM.

See also: A Chile Verde Recipe

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