Visitors to Santa Fe usually think of it as a visual place: the clouds and mesas that so enchanted Georgia O’Keeffe, the ancient adobe buildings around the Plaza, and the color of a fiesta. There are also sounds: the quiet of a December snow, crashing thunderstorms in the middle of summer, and the calls of geese and cranes flying overhead in the spring and fall. But Santa Fe is every bit a place of wonderful smells: lilacs pushing over an adobe wall in the springtime, the smell of a winter’s piñon fire burning in a fireplace near the Plaza. This time of year, the smell is of green chiles roasting. It is a fragrance like no other, and once you experience it, you never forget it.
Chiles have been growing during the hot summer throughout the state. Perhaps the most famous chile crop comes from Hatch,, but there are also bountiful sources in Chimayó and Socorro along with many a back yard.
When the chiles are ready for harvest, they are loaded into big gunny sacks and taken by truck all over the state. In Santa Fe, growers set up stalls throughout the city where they roast the green chiles on the spot in a revolving metal mesh drum over a blazing butane flame. The tough outer coat of the chiles is charred in the process so that it can be peeled off in preparation for cooking. The roasting creates a pungent, unmistakable smell that fills the air.
The farmers market also boasts chile roasters who make the festive environment even more vibrant.
The buyer can get a whole gunny sack full of roasted chiles or even a small plastic bag. Then the task is to take them home, peel off the charred skin, and either cook or freeze them for the winter ahead.
If you don’t need a green chile supply for the whole winter, you can even do them yourself on the barbecue or, better yet, on a special device made of metal screen and designed to sit over a gas flame. The device is indispensable for the Santa Fe cook. One can be ordered from the Santa Fe Cooking School.
Green chiles wind up in just about every Santa Fe dish you can think of, including ice cream, but probably the most popular dishes are green chile stew, green chile cheeseburger, and my favorite, chiles rellenos.
Making a chile relleno is an act of love because the preparation takes a lot of steps, and the chiles have to be eaten immediately. A leftover chile relleno is a soggy shadow of its former self. Still, they are worth the effort, especially when they are covered with a fresh salsa roja. Here’s how you do it.
- 6 to 12 Anaheim or New Mexico chiles
- Monterey jack cheese, one ½x½x4 inch piece of cheese for each chile
- 2 eggs, separated
- 2/3 cup milk
- 2/3 cup flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- all-purpose flour for dredging chiles
- peanut oil for deep-frying
- Purchase roasted chiles or roast your own on a chile roasting pan over a high flame, a very hot barbecue grill, or in the oven under the drill. Turn frequently until all sides of all chiles are heavily charred.
- Immediately place the chiles in a plastic bag and allow to cool. Then remove the chiles from the bag, and under running water peel the charred skin carefully so as not to tear the flesh of the chiles.
- Cut off the stems of the chiles, pull out the seeds and inner membranes using your fingers. Rinse out the chiles to remove any loose seeds.
- Gently stuff each chile with one of the pieces of cheese and set aside on paper towels.
- In the meantime, prepare the batter by combining egg yolks, milk, flour, salt and vegetable oil using a rotary egg beater. Let the mixture blend for 30 minutes while you whip the egg whites until they form stiff peaks.
- Gently fold the yolk and milk mixture into the whipped egg whites until well combined.
- Dredge each prepared chile into flour. Then dip the chiles individually into the combined batter.
- While preparing the chiles, pour enough peanut oil into a deep-sided heavy pot (A cast iron skillet works well) and heat to 375°F.
- One at a time, place the batter-coated chiles into the hot oil. Cook no more than two at a time. Otherwise the chiles may stick together.
- Turn the chiles when well browned on the bottom and finish frying the other side. Remove from the hot oil and drain on layers of paper towels.
- Keep the finished chiles on a plate in an oven heated to 200°F until all of the chiles are fried. Serve immediately. Otherwise they may get soggy.
Quick Salsa Roja
- 1 14.5ounce can, diced tomatoes
- ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
- ¼ teaspoon onion powder
- 1 tablespoon dry Mexican oregano, crumbled
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- 1½ teaspoons ground red chiles (amount and heat according to your taste)
- salt and pepper to taste
- In a blender, purée the canned tomatoes, including their juice
- Transfer the puréed tomato to a small saucepan over low heat. Bring to the simmer
- Stir in the remaining ingredients until completely combined. Simmer for an additional 10 minutes
- Place two or three warm chiles rellenos on each plate
- Top with a generous serving of the salsa
- Add rice and/or beans (refried or other) if you desire.
I finished the meal with rice and a fresh pear-half filled with green chile flavored raspberry preserves (no kidding) and blanched almonds.