18 August 2009

Hatch Chili

It's Hatch Chili season. Every year in September the city of Hatch, New Mexico celebrates with a festival. Suddenly, the small town in southern New Mexico swells from a population of 2,000 to about 30,000. Foodies and chili fans congregate to taste the fruit in various forms (sauces, jams, powdered, candied, roasted and stuffed with anything delicious) and to enjoy the carnival events.

I've never attended the festival, but one of Austin's fancy schmancy grocery stores imports plenty of chilies to go around and even hosts a miniature version of Hatch's festival in the parking lot. Come to think of it, though, I don't think I've ever attended that festival either. I learned about Hatch from my Auntie, who makes the meanest pork and chili pepper stew I've ever tasted. Actually, "meanest" probably isn't the right word. Hatch chilies are fairly mild as far as chilies go. Once roasted, they have a complex flavor that blends sweet, tangy and picante. That perfect combination has encouraged the well-deserved adulation, not only because the wonderful flavor, but also because eating Hatch chilies doesn't wreck the taste buds. I admit, though, that Auntie's stew has given me the hiccups on a couple of occasions. I think maybe she added some spice, but it could be that she got a lively batch. Individual chilies can vary a bit on the Scoville scale and green Hatch chilies tend to vary more than most.

I picked up some mild Hatch Chilies a couple weeks ago because I got excited for the season. But when I got home I realized I hadn't a clue what to do with them. I certainly wasn't going to attempt a stew, since that dish had already been spoken for. G-D had some pork chops, though, and since I'd already learned that pork and Hatch Chilies pair nicely, I decided to make a sauce for smothered chops.

First, the chilies need roasting. I've roasted other chilies before, so I sort of had an idea how to go about it. Unfortunately, however, I've never had complete success. There are a lot of tips out there on the internet for roasting in the oven, with the broiler, on the grill, over a gas range. I've tried all except that last, which is, incidentally, the method Auntie recommended to me later. Rather than suggest time limits (which vary widely depending on who you ask), I'll suggest heating the chilies until they blister and begin to blacken. If you don't roast them long enough it gets difficult to remove the skin at the end. That's the problem I tend to have. After you remove them from heat, put the chilies in a plastic bag (or tupperware, or a bowl covered with plastic wrap) to steam for fifteen or twenty minutes. That will help loosen the skin some more. Once they're good and soggy, you can remove the charred skin. If you can't get it all off, don't fret. A little roasted skin adds a lot of flavor to the sauce.

I began the sauce by sautéing half a chopped white onion in olive oil. After they were soft, I added three or four cloves of crushed garlic and kept that over medium heat for another two minutes. Then I added several pinches of flour until I got the thickened consistency that I wanted. Immediately after thickening, I added the chilies, which I chopped up after peeling. The chilies were a bit wet and sticky, so I let them simmer over medium-low heat for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Once everything seemed to gel together, I added about a cup and a half of water. I would have preferred stock, but I didn't have any. Water worked fine. Finally, I stirred in chopped cilantro, powdered coriander, salt, a squeeze of lime, maybe small amounts of black pepper and cumin, I can't remember now. I let that simmer on low for about twenty minutes, until it began to thicken again. After it cooled down, I poured half in a zip-lock bag with the pork chops to marinade over night. The other half I reserved for topping the chops post-grilling.

This sauce will keep in the fridge for a week or so, which makes it easy to prepare lots at one time and save some for later dishes.

The next evening I used the skillet grilling method that G-D and I learned about earlier in the summer. Normally she plays Grill Master, but we were leaving for Chicago the next morning and she had other things keeping her busy. So, I took the task and, approaching it with nearly complete ignorance, I forgot to grease the skillet. As anyone might guess, the chops sizzled, stuck to the cast iron and broke apart into smaller chunks of meaty debris. Luckily, the cuts were pretty big, so even with large chunks falling off we had passable chops. I left them on for about seven or eight minutes, flipped them, and let them cook for another seven or eight minutes. In that time a miracle occurred. The meaty debris transformed into an unencased sausage that absorbed all the Hatch marinade. Unencased sausage? Yeah, well, that's what I decided to call it. The unencased sausage is the stuff in the middle of the plate, and it tasted great.

To serve, I reheated the leftover Hatch Chili sauce and poured it over the four largest chunks of meat, creating a plate of kinda-smothered pork chops. I think smothered pork chops are traditionally covered in their own gravy, but this created a similarly juicy and flavorful dish. We ate them with grilled corn and green beans. Later in the week we made cheddar-jalapeno mashed potatoes that I think might have been really good with these chops. Another time, perhaps. I don't when I'll make these again, but I definitely want to do more with Hatch Chilies. Auntie came over for a taste and said the sauce wasn't bad. "Maybe a bit more lime next time. I don't know, that might not be it, but it needs something." A ringing endorsement! Well, anyway, an invitation to keep cooking.

For more information about chilies, check out The Chile Pepper Institute's excellent website.

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