Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Green Chile Variations, pt. 1

green chiles fig. a:  garden-fresh chiles

If I'm totally honest, it all started sometime in the early '90s (!?!), when I took a road trip from Washington, D.C. to the Southwest and back.  Albuquerque was a primary destination, and I spent about a week in New Mexico with good friends, checking out the town, exploring the region, and sampling the local specialties.  That was when I first experienced Green Chile Madness.  Green chile sauces and stews were everywhere, and they were generally very good, and sometimes even phenomenal.  I was particularly enamoured of those green chile salsas and sauces and the way they adorned everything from nachos, to cheese fries, to egg dishes, home fries, and cheeseburgers, taking everything they touched to a higher level.  I quite literally couldn't get enough.

I've thought about New Mexico a lot ever since, and told many a soul about Green Chile Madness, but I've never been back.  And while I'm usually pretty adept at figuring out the recipes for prized dishes and replicating them in my home kitchen, for some reason, when it came to Chile Verde, I let it slip into what Calvin Trillin calls the Register of Frustration and Deprivation, a catalogue of favourite dishes that "rarely seem to be served outside their territory of origin."

About two years ago, however, I set about ushering Green Chile back into my life.  It started with a recipe for Green Chile Stew that appeared in David Tanis' A Platter of Figs And Other Recipes.  Tanis lived in New Mexico for a spell, so he knows his stuff, and he describes Green Chile Madness thusly:

In northern New Mexico, green chile stew is legendary.  Everybody makes it, everybody eats it, and everybody loves it, even if everybody makes a different version--with or without potatoes, or tomatoes, or cumin, or tomatillos, or cilantro, but never without a healthy amount of green chile.
Evidently he caught the bug bad--he claims to have traveled "with a handful of fresh chiles in [his] pocket" ever since, as a form of "culinary insurance" (for perking up bland dishes in chile-deprived regions of the world).

These days, you can find green chile stews and sauces across New Mexico at any time of year--it was April when I experienced my Green Chile Revelation.  But the chile harvest, as Tanis explains, is in the fall.  It's at this time of year that you find, people buying big bags of them, then lining up "to have them roasted by entrepreneurial chile roasters who set up in supermarket parking lots or at roadside stands."  It's the grilling of the green chiles that really makes the difference--it's that smokiness and that caramelization that you get from roasting them over an open fire that takes things to a higher level.

Anyway, Tanis' Green Chile Stew was probably the very first thing I made out of A Platter of Figs--I had very high hopes and I wasn't disappointed.

chile verde fig. b:  green chile stew 1

Green Chile Stew 
5 pounds well-marbled boneless pork butt, cut into 2-inch cubes
salt and pepper
2 tbsp vegetable oil or lard
2 large onions, finely diced
4 to 6 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tsp cumin seeds, toasted and finely ground
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned
6 large carrots, peeled and chunked
1 cup chopped roasted green chiles*
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
8 cups water or chicken broth
3 lbs russet potatoes, peeled and cut into large dice
chopped cilantro
hot corn or flour tortillas 
Season the pork with salt and pepper.  Heat the oil or lard in a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot.  Add the meat, in several batches, without crowding, and brown it lightly.  Transfer to a platter or tray. 
Add the onions to the pot and brown them.  Add the garlic, cumin, tomatoes, carrots, and green chiles, then sprinkle the flour over and stir.  Salt the mixture, then return the browned meat to the pot and stir well.  Cover with the water or broth and bring to a boil. 
Cover the pot, turn the heat to low, and simmer gently for an hour. 
Taste the broth and adjust it, adding salt or more green chile as necessary.  The broth should be well seasoned and fairly spicy.  Add the potatoes and continue cooking for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft and the meat is quite tender.  Skim any fat from the surface of the broth. 
Let the stew rest for an hour or more.  Refrigerate overnight if desired (this allows the flavours to meld even more). 
To serve, reheat the stew and ladle into warmed bowls.  Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and accompany with hot tortillas. 
Serves 8 to 10. 
* Tanis notes that it takes about 12 large fresh chiles to produce 1 cup of chopped roasted chiles.  It's preferable to grill them over an open fire, but you can also blacken them under the broiler or directly over a gas burner, in a pinch.
Now, this makes for an excellent stew, and, like I said, I wasn't disappointed in the least.  But as Tanis mentioned above, one of the things about Green Chile Madness is that "everybody makes a different version."  Over the last couple of years, I've continued to follow the guidelines of Tanis' recipe, but I've come up with my own take on Green Chile Stew.

  • For one thing, we're hard pressed to find New Mexico green chiles here in the Montreal region, so I've had to improvise with the chiles.  I tend to use a mix of green chiles, one that includes everything from Poblanos, Anaheims, and Padróns, to Serranos, Jalapeños, and Cubanelles.  The larger, milder ones (the Poblanos, Anaheims, and Cubanelles) I grill over an open fire.  The hotter ones I sauté with the onions, after they've been browned
  • I've taken to replacing the tomatoes with tomatillos, especially around this time of year, when you can actually find lovely, local tomatillos here in Montreal (try the Birri Brothers stand at Jean-Talon Market).  I also use quite a bit more than half a cup.  The tomatillos give the stew tartness, additional sweetness, and a wonderful mouthfeel.
  • I always use chicken broth and not water.
  • I've taken to omitting the potatoes, which I find distract from the green chiles.
  • And I always replace the all-purpose flour with masa harina, which adds to the warmth of the dish.
Tanis prefers his Green Chile Stew "in a bowl, with warm, thick corn tortillas on the side," but it's also pretty great with good tortilla chips (see below), and it's great in a burrito.

chile verde + chips fig. c:  green chile stew 2



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