How Hatch Became a Pepper

You have to love a state that has an official “state question,” especially if that question is “Green or Red?” And that means you have to love New Mexico, which year after year turns its love of Hatch and other green chiles into a multi-million-dollar (and beloved) industry.

For all that corporate money changing hands, you can still smell Hatch chiles (green or fully ripened red) roasting in season in the parking lot at Big Lots.

It’s all a matter of scale, as true Hatch zealots seek out the guy in the parking lot while others are happy with green chiles that come out of a can. Both are part of a long, altogether pungent history going back more than four centuries. Unlike a fair number of things across the Americas, growing chiles in the Southwest and down into Mexico didn’t have to wait on Columbus showing up.

Chiles like Hatch (or the closely related Anaheim) were popular and indeed nutritious across the Southwest in pueblo after pueblo. Apparently, if only just to confuse us, some Spanish explorers took some of the seeds back with them to Spain, then imported them into – the Americas! Maybe Spaniards possessed horticultural sophistication native Americans did not. Or maybe they just wanted to take credit for something that tasted really good.

A while back, I was invited on a quick tour of New Mexico, one that had a strong culinary element. I was impressed, after years of meeting European chefs cooking European food in American resort hotels, by the number of young American chefs not only NOT doing this but displaying a devotion to and curiosity about the best local ingredients. In New Mexico, from Albuquerque up to Santa Fe and Taos, that means green chiles. And among green chiles, that means those grown along the Rio Grande in the Hatch Valley.

Our little but intrepid group tasted recipes even in the fanciest of surroundings that seemed to reach back not hundreds but thousands of years, to the indigenous people who called what we know as the American Southwest their home. Meats tended to be venison and bison rather than beef, chicken or lamb, and of course seafood was nearly nonexistent. The only common thread was the taste of chile, sometimes ground fresh or roasted, sometimes sliced, sometimes whole and sometimes stuffed in the style lovers of Tex-Mex know as chile relleno. The experience was eye-opening.

Still, one of the most eye-opening meals came at us when we stopped between Albuquerque and Santa Fe for nothing less than fast food. The places was called Lotaburger, and we dined at picnic tables outside on the New Mexico state cheeseburger (whether it ever was declared so by the Legislature or not). Cheese goes with a lot of New Mexico cooking, as does a sauce of stewed green chiles. The phrase “green chile cheeseburger” just sort of rolls off the lips, doesn’t it?

As for the Hatch Valley itself, though not a lot of French is spoken there, it’s all about terroir. Something in the valley’s soil is what New Mexicans believe makes Hatch peppers special – not a growing technique and certainly not a recipe. Like others around the world, and especially in (to its credit) the place-of-origin-crazed European Union, the folks around the village of Hatch have tried all kinds of ways to protect their brand as an artisanal product – but with only moderate success.

It isn’t all that hard to find real Hatch chiles, fresh or freshly roasted in season or canned all year long. There is, of course, a Hatch Chile Festival in Hatch. But any week or weekend you like, you can stage one of your very own.

TWO-PEPPER PORK TENDERLOIN

Pork and green chiles are natural partners in New Mexico, or indeed anywhere else. Usually that leads to pork and green chile stew, the soup of choice from humblest to the most elegant restaurants. But we really like what happens when we stuff a pork tenderloin with green chiles and cheese and glaze every inch of meat with our mild jalapeno jelly.

3/4 cup Monterey Jack cheese

1 red bell pepper, chopped

½ cups sliced New Mexico green chiles

1 onion, chopped

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 (1-pound) pork tenderloin, trimmed of most fat and butterflied

Salt and black pepper

½ cup chicken broth

2 tablespoons butter

½ jar Fischer & Wieser Mild Green Jalapeno Jelly

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, Combine the cheese, bell pepper, chiles, onion and garlic in a bowl and use to stuff the tenderloin, tying with twine. Season with salt and pepper. Place in a roasting pan and surround with brother. Butter and pepper jelly. Cover with foil and cook in the oven for 30 minutes, basting occasionally with pan juices, then uncovered for 10 minutes more to brown. Serve with roasted potatoes. Serves 6-8.

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