I’ve been aching to get to a project that’s been forced to a back burner for more than a year. The collage has been turning into a work of art all on its own. Finally, I’ve cleared some time and space to write the whole thing (there are elements I want to explore without showing it to anyone) and I’ve been drunkenly, happily letting it spring out for the past three days.
For me, a brewing new book often means cooking. No idea why cooking and books go together for me, but they do. And yesterday, I awakened with a marrow-deep hunger for fresh green chile. Maybe it was the low soft clouds over the mountains, the night’s crispness lingering longer and longer after dawn, a crispness painting the edges of leaves yellow and red when it thinks I am not looking. Autumn is coming, and for me that means I need chile in the freezer, stew on the stove, the hot smell warming the cooling days.
Until I moved to Pueblo in my early twenties, I did not eat hot food. I loved my mother’s tacos, made with whole pinto beans and fried soft corn tortillas and I was a fairly adventurous eater, but I had somehow aligned myself with Those Who Do Not Care For Spicy Foods.
In Pueblo, where northern New Mexico cuisine reigns supreme, this is seen as something of a crime. It also happened that I found a job in an upscale Mexican restaurant out of Albuquerque, called Papa Felipe’s (which I think still exists in Albuquerque) where I worked for five years. The restaurant used a heavenly variety of authentic ingredients I learned to love, like carne adoba and blue corn tortillas and fresh salsas. I learned to deseed dried red chile pods and never touch my eyes afterward. I took home leftover sopapillas (and was crushed, years later to discover that the famed beignets of New Orleans legend, were only sopapillas with powdered sugar. Better with honey, trust me).
It took me a long time to even try a bowl of green chile. It scared me. I was sure it would be too hot, that my lips would be burned right off. One night when I had a bad cold, the bartender and the cook talked me into a hot toddy and a bowl of green chile.
One bite was all it took. One bite of that rich broth swimming with tomatoes and onions and chopped Anaheim chiles (not so much hot as vivid, deep, wild) and jalapenos, sweet and sharp, and cheese, and a hot fresh tortillas, thick and lightly browned.
I still remember how it was, that first bowl of green chile stew on a hot winter night with a very bad cold in Pueblo, Colorado, in a deserted after hours restaurant with the dishwasher banging big pots and the smell of soap on the floors and my head pounding, and the chiles sliding into my belly with little chuckles. From that moment forward, I have had an abiding passion for chiles. Their power, their sweetness, their somehow secret zest.
In Pueblo, I would already have had my chiles for the year, and I might have had some left from last year, but as I was moving last year, I didn’t have a chance to get any put away in the freezer, and have had to buy little cans of them all year long. At $1.43 per can. I use lot of chile—just here and there, a bit in this soup, some in my eggs in the morning, a scattering over the whole wheat tortillas I’ve come to like, stirred into a quiche. I loathe paying so much when I know what I can get.
So I’ve been finishing projects and had the big hike, but kept meaning to get to Pueblo and get some chiles. Haven’t managed to get there. Yesterday, driving down a busy street in Colorado Springs, I saw a sign, “Fire-roasted Hatch chiles!” but I was in the wrong lane and couldn’t turn, so this morning, Christopher Robin and I trekked back down there to get some.
We were the only ones there, but they had bushels for $20. A little high, but she was just taking a bushel from the roaster and the sight of them, blackened and soft, tumbling into the bag she had for them, was enough. I lugged them to the trunk and we drove home with the smell filling the car. CR kept saying, “That smells really good.”
We stopped at Safeway to buy tortillas and gallon bags. I skinned and sliced a chile for myself, tucking it into a tortilla with some cheese and leftover pork. After lunch, I stood at the sink and skinned the entire bushel, remembering with so much pleasure how it is with chiles—how some shed their skins like a boy ready to jump in the lake to skinny dip with his friends, and others are stubborn, clinging to scraps of covering wherever they can. The scent of them filled the air, clearing my sinuses, easing my shoulders. Every so often, I’d grab a very ripe hot one and it would explode in my fingers, sending that particular fierceness into the atmosphere. I wondered how I knew which ones were very hot by just their smell, and it was just knowing. Some were put whole into bags, some chopped, some cut in strips. (I’m sure everyone in the world knows this but me, but I also tried half-freezing some whole chiles before I bagged them and it worked very well. Much easier to just grab one later.) Seeing the fleshy, firm beauty of these chiles, I know I’m going to try rellenos again. Have not been terribly successful before, so if you know a great recipe for them (I like the thick battered ones), please share.
I feel smug and cheery tonight, like a pirate with a chest full of doubloons or a blue jay with a big stash of whole peanuts.
What’s your stash for the coming cold? And, for the writers, how does that relate to sense of place for you (or a character if you’d rather)?