While I now call the Gulf Coast home, that was not the case for most of my life. Most of my life was spent in the Southwest, where the beaches are plentiful, and the water is scarce.
Okay, so it’s not the best joke in the world, but compared to “Arizona used to have the Rocky Mountains, but the wind blew them to Colorado” I was on a roll the day I compared the vast arid land of Arizona to a huge beach without water. That does partially explain my lack of enthusiasm for summer beaches though. When you have spent a few decades dealing with hot sand/dirt…going to the beach is pretty blase.
One thing about my connection to the Southwest that has never left is my passion for peppers, or as I always knew them…chilies. On the Gulf Coast, the most common members of this family are the grassy flavored green bell pepper and the instant hot of cayenne pepper. The grassy green bell pepper happens to not agree with my stomach very well once its cooked, and the taste of cayenne is odd to me with it’s “front” burn.
It’s true, chili people are every bit as passionate and every bit as willing to use obscure phrasing to explain the merits of various peppers as wine people are.
We have terms like: fruity, chocolatey, back burn, mid-burn, front burn, bitter, sweet, grassy, etc. just like the wine people do. Well, minus the burn bit, I suppose. They also don’t have any “Scoville” ratings. (Scoville ratings rate the actual burn capability in a scientific manner. The higher the Scoville rating of a pepper, the hotter it truly is.)
There is another interesting side note to those who are unfamiliar with us crazy chili/pepper people.
We don’t always like it hot.
Not all peppers/chilies are really “hot” and not all dishes prepared with them are even supposed to be hot. As far as I’m concerned, chili flavor and heat rating aren’t even on speaking terms sometimes, and the truly hot stuff is for those who feel they have some macho point to prove, and I’m not one of them. I do love LOTS of chili flavor though, which I typically obtain by using a blend of peppers to get maximum flavor without so much heat that your taste buds are seared into a coma.
At the same time, I’m a normal every day cook who’s goal is to get a meal done without spending all day every day preparing our evening meal. I don’t always use a blend of six peppers to get that perfect balance of flavor, just like Martha Stewart doesn’t always have a wedding cake waiting in her kitchen. (I bet she’s even had a few take out sandwiches in her day!)
One of my all-time favorite foods is green chili.
Now when I lived in Arizona, it was easy. A stop at the local grocery store would yield a pint of frozen, roasted, chopped green chilies ready-to-use, as well as the meat, onions, and other herbs. But…once you leave that cradle of chilies behind, it can get tougher. Here in Mississippi, I’ve NEVER seen frozen green chilies or fresh frozen corn masa. Many other shortcuts I was familiar with like chorizo mix (combinations of spices to make chorizo, a Mexican-style sausage) and menudo mix (herb & spice mixture to make menudo, a tripe-and-hominy stew rumored to be a cure for a hang over) are also not available. We’re fortunate to have tortillas available, and I don’t even dream of the days when I could buy whole wheat ones, corn/wheat blend ones, etc. We have corn, and we have flour…period. Red chili is just as scarce in variety…we can get it in a powder with or without salt, and that’s it. No more of the infinite varieties, but that is remedied with care packages from Arizona as well as mail order.
This week, it’s sort of a I-miss-my-family-week while I’m busy planning a wedding that most of them won’t be able to attend because of the distance. We’ve all had it–that homesick not for a place, but for the people we love. Often, foods are strongly connected with the memories, and the one I connect is green chile, since its the food that I first got to explore while visiting there as a child, spending time with cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents that I didn’t get to enjoy much because of how far away we lived then. I loved green chili, and I love a good green chili burrito enchilada style with red sauce, guacamole, sour cream, diced tomatoes and shredded lettuce…just like the old fashioned Mexican restaurants in the small towns served on a platter so hot that it would scorch your arm if you mistakenly grazed it. I can remember my grandmother sending back food that didn’t arrive hot enough to suit her, so those scorching hot platters were essential to keep the food hot as it came to the table under the continuous blast of air from a swamp cooler.
Tex Mex food, more common this far east, is nothing like the food from Arizona and New Mexico, with its distinct cuisine styles and influences. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with it, but sometimes, I’m nostalgic for those cheese crisps (we never called them quesadillas) made on vast tortillas so thin that you could almost read through them, served alongside a salsa made with tomatoes, green chilies, cilantro, and onions, sometimes pureed smooth…and sometimes suspiciously like the El Pato sauce (a brand of hot tomato sauce) that was served in a cream pitcher on the table with each meal at home if we didn’t have homemade salsa. (I actually remember catching my 1 yr old daughter drinking the El Pato sauce a few times, so I scoff at people who say a food is “too spicy” for young children.)
Green chili can vary as much as a pot of gumbo. Like many gumbos, it does use a roux too, although many would likely call it fried flour paste or something like that, it is a basic roux, light to pale gold in color, made from lard and flour often. (I use vegetable oil.)
If you’d like to try a Gulf Coast version that I have created out of what is locally available, here is the recipe.
Green chili, Gulf Coast style
- 15 tomatillos
- 6 large poblano peppers, roasted & peeled (See NOTE at bottom)
- 3 lbs. beef for stew or slivered beef roast (tough cuts work–this is slow cooked)
- 3 large onions, diced
- 1 tsp. oregano (Mexican is best)
- 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
- 1 tsp. mesquite smoke flavoring
- 1 c. very strong coffee
- 1 beef bouillon cube or 1 tsp. beef base
- 4 medium potatoes, scrubbed & diced with skins on (may be omitted)
- roux (usually 2-4 tbsp.)
Place beef in large slow cooker or stock pot. Add onions, mesquite flavor, coffee, cumin, oregano, and beef base. Stir to break up meat and coat evenly with coffee mixture. Add water almost to cover. Cook 2-6 hours on low heat or until onions are barely done.
Cut up tomatillos into 1/8ths. (I set them down on the stem end after removing stem & husk first.) Cut into quarters, then turn on side and cut in half, making 8 pieces from each tomatillo. Add potatoes and tomatillos to pot and stir.
Remove stems and seedy cores from roasted and peeled poblanos. (Using tongs, I hold the peppers over a gas burner until each area has blacked some and blistered. The hot peppers are then placed in a plastic bag to steam while the other peppers are roasted, and allowed to cool to room temperature. The tough skins should easily peel away from the flesh with a scraping motion of a knife and grabbing loose edges with your fingers. ) Chop peppers coarsely and add to the meat mixture, stirring to blend evenly. Let simmer for 1-4 hours over low heat.
Before serving, bring nearly to a boil, add roux to thicken to taste, stirring mixture. Cook for 5-10 minutes over medium heat to completely cook roux into mixture. Remove from heat and let stand for 5 minutes or so before serving.
- Baked potato topping
- inside a tortilla as a burrito
- Burrito topped with red or green enchilada sauce, cheese, and sour cream with a shredded green salad of lettuce, tomatoes, and guacamole.
- over rice
- as a stew, with either corn or flour tortillas
- combined with refried beans in a burrito or as an enchilada style offering
- On a bun, like a Mexican inspired sloppy jose?
- with sopapillas or fry bread
- wrapped in dough and deep fried as a fried pie
NOTE: DO NOT touch eyes/nose, etc. while peeling peppers! It will burn like crazy and keep on burning for hours sometimes! Some people prefer to wear rubber gloves while handling peppers.