Long, hot sunny days and cool nights, Rio Grande waters, and a high desert altitude make for perfect New Mexico chile peppers. Red or green, a robust Big Jim or sweeter Sandia, chiles are the stuff of family life and tradition in New Mexico.
In the broad floodplain along the Rio Grande north and south of Las Cruces, lush green plants droop with heavy loads of chiles—thick-walled varieties for harvesting green and roasting and thinner Sandia types that’ll ripen to rubies and be dried for ristras, chile powder, and just plain decoration.
Salsas, chorizos, burritos, and enchiladas are great with green chiles. But have you tried burgers, wine, margaritas, stews, and pizza oozing with genuine green or red Hatch chiles? If not, read on for a gastronomical and cultural journey of the green and fiery kind.
The Hatch Chile Story
The term “Hatch Chile” or “Hatch Green Chile” actually refers to chile peppers grown in the Hatch Valley of Southern New Mexico, known as the Chile Capital of the World.
Several different chile pepper varieties are grown in Hatch and in the nearby Mesilla Valley ranging from mild flavor to extra-extra-hot flavor. Growing conditions for Hatch chiles and Mesilla Valley chiles are nearly identical and the resulting quality and flavor of both are indistinguishable from each other. The stars are all aligned here for the best chile-growing with the alkaline soil, water for irrigation, warm days, and cool nights the chiles need.
All flavors of Hatch green chile peppers as well as Mesilla Valley green chile peppers are available during the chile harvest season (July to October).
Related Article: The Fiery Appeal of Hot Chile Peppers
The genetic base for the Hatch green chiles and Mesilla Valley green chiles (in fact all New Mexican chile peppers) can be traced back to the improved chile varieties introduced by New Mexico State University (then New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts) and developed by Dr. Fabián Garcia in the early 1900s.
Starting in 1894, Fabián Garcia crossed several local pod types to improve them for the region. He sought larger, smoother peppers that were better for canning. Following many years of crossing and growing, he released a variety called New Mexico No. 9 in 1913. Today, chile pepper studies continue at the Chile Pepper Institute in New Mexico, founded by Paul Bosland to study New Mexican peppers and others from around the world.
Unlike other peppers, Hatch chiles come in different seed varieties that cover the full spectrum of heat levels. Typically, the mild to medium-hot varieties are more readily available. Then, there is red vs. green peppers. For those that didn’t know, red peppers are the same, but have simply been left on the plant longer to ripen.
New Mexico green chiles are piquant and crisp becoming sweeter as they age to red chiles. Small and oblong, they grow to an average of 5 to 8 inches with smooth, shiny skins of light green to emerald before ripening to a deep red-brown when dried.
Mild in flavor, these green chiles range from 500 to 3,500 Scoville Heat Units (which extends past 1 million for ghost peppers and such); Big Jims are milder, Sandias are hotter and grown for ripening, Lumbres are hotter still, and the list goes on.
Don’t confuse them with Anaheim or California chile peppers though they may have originated from the same organic strain. New Mexico green chiles have a distinct flavor of their own.
Authentic New Mexico green chiles are grown in southern New Mexico in the Hatch Valley where only six cultivars of this variety of Capsicum annuum are grown. Though some states and even countries are using the name “Hatch Green Chiles,” only those grown in New Mexico are worthy of the name. In the same way, there are several thousands of sparkling wines but only one is Champagne! One Hatch, one chile!
Related Article: The Ultimate Guide to Hatch Chile Peppers
A Bit of History
It is widely believed that cultivated chile peppers were introduced to the United States in 1609 by the Spanish conquistador Captain General Juan de Onate, the founder of Sante Fe. However, there are contentions that chile peppers may have come earlier during the 1582 Antonio Espejo Expedition. What is a fact is that as soon as the Spanish settled in New Mexico, cultivation of green chile peppers expanded and exploded in an exponential rate.
Capsaicin, a chemical found in concentrated amounts in chile peppers can be found in the membranes surrounding the seeds. If you want less heat, then remove the seeds and the membranes.
Dried New Mexico green chiles are good sources of iron, niacin, thiamine, and riboflavin. Cholesterol-free and low in calories and sodium, these chiles also contain Vitamins A, B, and C. In fact one medium green pepper is thought to have as much vitamin C as six medium oranges. High-fiber and fat-free, indulge in the greenest of them for high flavor.
Researchers at the University of Vermont have found that eating chili peppers was associated with a 13 percent reduction in overall mortality—people who ate them lived longer. That was primarily due to a reduction in heart disease and stroke.
Plant Facts & Figures
New Mexico chiles grow into compact heights of 20 to 30 inches with indefinite stems. The pods are elongated oblong shapes with blunt points and may be as small as 2 inches to as long as 12 inches. They are usually dark green before ripening into various shades of red. Leaves are medium green, mostly smooth and grow as long as 3 inches and as wide as 2 inches.
Related Article: Chile Peppers 101
Green chile plants mature in about 80 days and grow the entire year. However, harvest time is late summer to early autumn and is a long-standing communal and cultural affair in New Mexico.
The Beauty of Ristras
Come late summer or early fall, green chiles are harvested throughout the Mesilla Valley, particularly the Hatch area where farms, usually family-held for several generations, have their own harvest traditions. From communal roastings with beer and margaritas, burger and steak cookouts with salsas and enchiladas, to the Hatch Chile Festival during the Labor Day weekend, one thing is for sure—ristras are awesome.
Ristras are strings and braids of dried green and red ripened chiles which are usually hung around storefronts, rooftops, and even home porches. Beautifully strung, these decorative garlands are also supposed to bring good luck.
Chile or Chili Confusion
Before you get confused for the whole of New Mexico there is only chile with an “e” when talking about the plant and the pepper. Chili is the delicious dish of ground beef and beans. But go beyond state lines especially in Texas where chili with an “i” refers to both the plant and the dish.
How Hot is Hot?
Talk about heat! The 7 Pot Douglah is an extremely hot pepper (SCOVILLE HEAT UNITS: 923,889 – 1,853,986 SHU) from Trinidad. Its skin is notably dark chocolate brown and somewhat pimpled. It starts off green but matures to a rich brown. It is one of the Hottest Peppers in the World. Aside from the color, it looks very much like other superhot chili peppers, roughly habanero shaped, about two inches long. The hottest 7 Pot Douglas is about 232 times hotter than the hottest jalapeno pepper and more than 5 times a very hot habanero pepper.
Related Article: Light Your Fires on National Chili Day
Hooked on the Heat
My introduction to green chiles came long ago at a variety of restaurants in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Las Cruces, and Mesilla. My palate sizzled with capsaicin. Endorphins fizzed in my veins like butter. It was the start of a lifelong love affair and chiles have been a constant in my diet ever since. Once you get hooked, you can’t get unhooked. It’s an addiction, but it’s a good one!
Delectable chile-con-carne… composed of delicate meats minced with aromatic herbs and the poignant chile—a compound full of singular saver and a fiery zest.
—O. Henry, The Enchanted Kiss