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Smoke Signals: The glory of a Hatch chile

Hatch chiles on the grill. (Istockphoto)
If barbecue hounds held a family reunion, their kissin’ cousins would be chileheads. The two just really like each other.

Smoke likes spice. Spice likes smoke. They like being naughty and nice together.

Recently, our Wednesday noontime online chat, Free Range, has been getting several questions about chiles, particularly Hatch chiles (which in deference to the traditional I will spell with an "e," rather than the unfortunate Post style of "i"). Questions run the gamut, from the unacquainted asking why the peppers are considered so special to fanatics asking where they can be purchased to the simply curious asking how to prepare them.

Long a cult phenomenon in the Southwest, Hatch chiles in recent years have become a hot commodity in the Washington area, where they are found at farmers markets and supermarkets alike.

To understand their appeal, think of the fiery fruit at a pepper party. The brightly colored habanero strides in, looking like a furious kid about to blow his top, which is about right for the fearsomely hot, little round pepper. The short, sloping jalapeno, which runs both hot and mild, is portrayed sometimes with sunglasses and a sombrero, apropos for the shambling, genial Dude. You can see both hanging around the party anytime you look over in their direction.

A Hatch chile is the coolest kid at the party. Long and lean, the Hatch is blessed with an almost Bond-esque combination of smoothness and mischievousness. It stings more than it blazes. And inside its lovely intensity there lies an undeniable sweetness. Grown in fields around the tiny town of Hatch in southwestern New Mexico, harvested around mid-August and vanishing around late September, the pepper’s celebrity appeal is bolstered by the brevity of its appearance.

Out in Hatch, they have an annual festival over Labor Day weekend. Some 20,000 visitors besiege the town of about 1,700 residents surrounded in the distance by purple-brown mountains. They come to applaud the Chile Queen and try their luck in the horseshoe tournament and maybe even compete in the chile-eating contest. But mainly they come as a pilgrimage to the pepper.

I haven’t been to Hatch, but I’m told that during the festival the thin New Mexico air is perfumed with the heady aroma of roasting peppers. I have lived in Austin, Texas, where the humongous and amazing Central Market roasted Hatch chiles day after day in round, wire-mesh containers with gas jets. The scent put a smile on your face. Or made you cough. Or both.

Here's how I like to work with them:

Unlike with habaneros or jalapenos, which you can simply mince and add to a salsa, the skin of the Hatch chile must be removed. The best way to do that is to char it. If you don’t live near a store that roasts the peppers, you can easily roast them yourself.

Buy enough for several batches. Roughly 10 peppers make a cup, which is a standard amount for a lot of enchilada and stew recipes serving four people. I buy 40 or a few more, so that I have enough for at least four one-cup portions.

Place the peppers on a gas or charcoal grill over a hot fire till they blister. Depending on the heat of the fire and the pepper’s closeness to it, a good scorch will occur in about four minutes. Be careful not to overcook them. Using tongs, turn the peppers over until they are charred all over.

Remove from grill, set on a flat surface and cover for 15 minutes with a damp cloth to steam them, which helps with skin removal. When the peppers have cooled, place them in one-pint freezer bags. Keep a couple of bags in the fridge to use within a week to 10 days. Freeze the others.

Don plastic gloves to pull the charred skin off the peppers. If tiny shards of char remain on the pepper, don’t worry about scrubbing them off. They will add a nice flavor and color to whatever you’re making.

Pull off or slice off the stems. Remove the seeds, which you can do by slicing the peppers lengthwise and rinsing them with a light stream of water. Dry the peppers with a paper towel.

You are ready to chop the precious beauties into salsa, enchilada sauce or stews. Serve with smoked pork shoulder or grill chicken for the enchiladas.

But the thing to do right now, and I mean this minute, is to make a Hatch chile apple pie. From the famous Daily Pie Café, featured in Smithsonian magazine, in Pie Town, Ariz.N.M., comes this recipe for an exquisite taste of the prizes of two seasons: the outgoing Hatch chile’s summertime sweet heat and the incoming tart apples of fall.

For more barbecue flavor, rather than bake the pie in the oven, you can start a gas or charcoal fire at one end of your rig. After you assemble the pie, place it on a baking sheet, close the lid and bake at the far end, away from the fire, at 400 degrees for 45 to 60 minutes. This method is not for the faint of heart, as there so many variables, such as sustaining the temperature and the size of the rig (a Weber kettle would bake the pie faster than, say, an offset smoker.) But it is rewarding.

It is a match made in kissin’ cousin heaven.

-- Jim Shahin
(Follow me on Twitter.)

By Jim Shahin  | September 28, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Smoke Signals  | Tags:  Jim Shahin, barbecue  
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Gene Weingarten is right. Newspapers, and their bloggers, need copy editors. Pie Town is in New Mexico, not Arizona, although you can get to AZ on HWY 60. I enjoyed the blog despite this small error. By the way, the entire state (New Mexico) is filled with the aroma of roasting chiles throughout the fall.

Posted by: spackslider | September 28, 2010 7:44 PM | Report abuse

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