Red or Green? Chiles, That Is

Food and Travel, In Season, Ingredient, Recipes, Regional Food, Summer
on June 27, 2012
Mark Boughton/styling by: Teresa Blackburn

The New Mexican state bird is the roadrunner. The state flower is the yucca. The state insect, decided after what must have been a well-funded lobbying effort, is the tarantula hawk wasp. And New Mexico has the distinction of being the only state that has an official state question: “Red or green?” What’s at issue is chile sauce.

Go to Albuquerque, the heart of chile country, and everywhere you eat, you’ll be asked the state question.

Whether you pick red or you pick green, you’ll likely be getting a sauce made of the Hatch chile, a long, curvy pepper with mild or moderate heat named after the New Mexico town famous for growing them. The difference between red and green isn’t in the pepper, it’s in the preparation.

There are as many variations of chile sauce as there are cooks, but the basic procedures for green and red are simple.  

For green chile sauce, the unripe (green!) peppers are roasted and then chopped. They’re cooked with onion and garlic, simmered in broth thickened with a little flour, and then pureed into sauce. Some cooks add oregano, cumin or coriander, and some change it up with tomatillos or cilantro.   

For red chile sauce, the peppers are allowed to ripen (turn red!) and are then dried. The sauce is made by rehydrating the peppers and pureeing them with seasonings—oregano and garlic are traditional, but you’ll find everything from cumin to cloves.

Hatch pepper season runs from late July through August, and you may get lucky and find them in your supermarket.  If you don’t, though, don’t despair.  There’s a whole spectrum of peppers you can use to make New Mexican-style red or green chile sauce.

For green, look for Anaheim, Cubanelle, or Poblano. For red, look for dried Ancho, Guajillo, or Pasilla. Can’t find any of those? Use what you can find (you can even used the canned kind in a pinch). And don’t worry that you’re sacrificing authenticity—what’s authentic is letting the flavor of the chile pepper shine through.

Experiment with red and green at home so you’ll be ready with your answer when you visit New Mexico.  But, if you still can’t decide, you can get a little of both—just order “Christmas.”

—By Tamar Haspel