In late summer, a wonderful smell begins in Southern Colorado and New Mexico. Soon enough, parking lots everywhere are filled with folks selling fresh chiles and roasting them in rotating “barrels” over propane jets. The smell of the copious smoke clouds that puff up is incredible: a smoky, vegetal, clinging stench with lots of bitter and char. The popping and crackling of the skins and seeds, the hiss of the steam from blasts of water, and the roar of the propane are the sounds of the season.
A few weeks ago, I drove to Colorado and returned with a small bag of fresh Pueblo Hots. There are different types of chiles and they are grown in different areas. Like all agricultural products, the soil, sun, wind, and water have a strong effect on flavor and texture. The most famous chiles – from New Mexico – are primarily Hatch, which is where they are grown. I’ve also has Socorro chiles, and they were also divine. In Southern Colorado, Pueblo is well-known for farms and for great chiles, the Pueblo chile. It’s a different chile than the New Mexico chiles, and has a slightly different flavor, a bit more bitter. They aren’t as long as the New Mexico chiles, and they have the more classic “chile” shape used in advertising and such.
Needless to say, they’re all good, but I’m especially stoked to have some true-blue Pueblo Hots. (Hots as compared to Very Hots or Mediums – I need my ass to be a non-burning issue, so I didn’t go crazy!)
Chiles prefer hot, dry days and cool nights. In a normal year, there would be heaps of Pueblo chiles, but there were just a couple of baskets. When I was rung up at the farm store, they advised me to come early in September because the harvest was the worst ever and they would run out very early. The cause of all of this – too much rain! It’s raining multiple times a week and many fields aren’t getting enough chance to dry out and it’s causing mildew and other moisture-related issues they normally don’t worry about. This is yet another example of climate change seeming beneficial at first glance, but proving to be a change that threatens agriculture. In this case, extra rain in an arid environment that depends on irrigation for crops means that best practices, infrastructure, and localized plant stock are threatened.
Ok, enough background, let’s get cooking!
Before you begin, locate and stage your tools:
- heat-resistant tray (I prefer stainless steel)
- spray bottle with fresh cool water (tap water is fine)
- clean cutting board
- plate or second cutting board
- sharp knife, small-medium
- bowl for the “trash”
- parchment paper (NOT wax!) cut into squares (I use burger patty papers)
- tray or plate to put individual cleaned peppers in the freezer to pre-freeze
- gallon-size plastic bag(s) or vacuum sealing bags
First, I wash/rinse them in the sink and throw away any funky ones beyond rescue.
Get a grill nice and hot (500F or more). Depending on your sensitivity to capsaicin, you may want a mask so you don’t breath in pepper smoke. Clean the grill to ensure there is no leftover food debris or oil. The chiles will be grilled dry.
Place the chiles on a clean grill. You do not need oil or anything like that. Close the grill.
After a few minutes, check the bottom of the chiles to see if there’s some good roasting marks. If so, flip and rotate them.
Throughout the roasting process, spritz them liberally (don’t go crazy but don’t be shy). Steam should instantly appear and make cool sounds and puffs. This is good – the steam helps loosen the skins.
Cook until all peppers are well-roasted, rotating and flipping and applying more steam.
Smaller peppers will cook quicker, as will those over hot spots, so take care and move the cooked ones to your tray while the rest finish.
Once they are cooked, take the tray indoors to reduce insect issues and cover loosely with foil. Let them steam/rest for 10-20 minutes and then the final stages begin.
Put gloves on and grab a pepper and move it to your cleaning surface.
With the back of a thin knife (paring, for example), lightly scrape the burned skin and all other skin off.
Cut off the stem side and remove any defects.
Carefully cut from the stem side to the tip, only cutting through one layer of the chile.
Now open the pepper and, using the back of the knife, scrape the seeds and the major vein masses. These are major sources of heat, so leave some, to your liking.
Once the inside is in good shape, flip the chile and ensure that most-to-all of the skin is removed. Small black flecks are welcome, but larger pieces are not desirable.
Place the cleaned pepper on a parchment paper square. In our household, we call them “squids” for obvious reasons.
Arrange a single layer of squids on a baking sheet or tray and put it in the freezer.
After 30-60 minutes, remove from the freezer. Stack the squids and put them in a large ziplock or vacuum sealer bag. I have limited freezer room, so I freeze them in batches and collect them in a bag until my final freezing step.
Because I roast and freeze chiles once a year, then keep them for that long, I always vacuum seal in batches of 12-20 so when I open a bag, I don’t have 3 months of chiles to eat before freezer burn sets in. Having individually-frozen chiles is a nice treat because you can more-easily separate one or a few without having to defrost a big hunk. Some folks I know freeze them in big blocks and just shave off what they need, but again, freezer burn.
I have had 5 year old frozen chiles and they were still fine, as long as they were vacuum sealed, so for longer-term storage don’t waste your precious produce on non-vacuum tech.
A final note: in the time since I first wrote this draft, the annual “Hatch Chile Days” at Wegmans happened, so I bought a few Hatch mediums and hots, already roasted, and cleaned and froze them. I have a nice two shelves of frozen chiles! I can’t wait to do a few small taste comparisons and yes, I’ll share some recipes and techniques. Chiles are a wonderful, healthy addition to your diet.
A final note – it sure is nice that I can get fresh Hatch chiles one weekend each summer near me; it has become an annual late-August event I begin to long for, come mid-July.
If anyone is curious, I buy my Pueblo chiles at Musso Farms, just East of Pueblo on US-50. They do ship!