Big Jims and Jonathan
Henri and a friend enjoy New Mexican green-chile stew
Jonathan was over again the other morning, helping me harvest my tomatoes. Mostly, they’re overgrown now, and I had to keep repositioning my lawn chair to watch him work. He was wearing a sleeveless white T-shirt, cut-off Levis and running shoes with no socks, and a couple of times I almost spilled my drink as he reached in for my Better Boys.
For lunch, I fixed him a big bowl of fresh gazpacho. I was just about to send him home when a UPS driver dropped off my chile peppers. Several summers ago, I worked at an art gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and became absolutely addicted to green chiles, which in that part of the country are served with just about everything, from scrambled eggs to hamburgers. Every summer since, I’ve ordered 40 pounds and roasted and frozen them to use all winter. The ones that arrived that afternoon were so pungent I could smell them before I even opened the sealed box. I sent Jonathan to the store for briquettes and freezer bags and dusted off the Weber on the patio.
Grown in large numbers in fields along the Rio Grande (Hatch, New Mexico, bills itself as the “chile capital of the world"), New Mexico chiles resemble the Anaheims you find in stores here in California, but they have a distinctive, and addictive, flavor that sets them apart. The three most common varieties are Big Jims (mild and medium), Sandias (medium) and Barkers (hot).
They’re best used in green-chile stew, which is nothing like the red-beans-and-hamburger dish most people associate with the word chile. In fact, the main ingredients in green-chile stew are the chiles themselves, as well as potatoes, onions, and meat—in New Mexico, you can get it with chicken, turkey, beef, pork, and even venison and goat. It’s served in New Mexican restaurants as both a side and main dish, often for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I like mine very hot.
Right now, it’s harvest time for green chiles. I order mine in mid-September to roast and put in freezer bags. In addition to making a batch of chile stew about every other week all winter long, I put them in soups, on sandwiches and hamburgers, and in salsas and breakfast burritos.
Several companies sell New Mexico green chiles—usually about $70 for a 20-pound bushel. Shipping (included) is usually Tuesday for Friday arrival (the chiles should not be warehoused over a weekend), perfect for a Saturday-night roasting, which, by the way, should be accompanied by copious 100-percent blue-agave margaritas. The key to roasting the chiles is to scorch the skins without overcooking the flesh, so that you can peel them more easily later. I keep a bucket of ice water next to the grill and drop the chiles in as soon as the skins are blackened, so they don’t continue to cook.
It’s best as a three- or four-person operation, but Jonathan and I did a pretty good job, just the two of us, though we didn’t finish till close to midnight. We took a break about 10 and cooked some cheeseburgers, which we dressed with Big Jims and sliced Better Boys and washed down with shots of Patron. We woke around noon, and I made breakfast burritos, partial deliverance from our hangovers.
Among the many New Mexico companies that will ship chiles is The New Mexican Connection (www.nmcchile.com; 800-933-2736), with which I’ve had very good luck. In addition to fresh chiles, you can also get frozen, canned, and dried chiles as well as pre-made chile stew. The New Mexican Connection also sells cookbooks and has links to a wide range of chile- and New Mexico-related sites.
2 lbs. green chiles
2-3 lbs. meat
2 cans of beer
3 large onions
1 tsp. cumin seed
pinch of oregano
pinch of sage
5-6 garlic cloves
salt and pepper
several red potatoes, cut into one-inch chunks
The day before serving, cover meat with beer and simmer three or four hours. Let cool in liquid. The next day, shred the meat into the liquid. Add onions, cumin, oregano, sage, chiles, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for at least an hour. Add potatoes, and simmer another 45 minutes. Serve with salad and flour tortillas or corn bread.