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Weekly Alibi A Toast to the Green Chile Roast

By Steven J. Westman

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  There is something about fall in New Mexico that warms my heart and my belly. Maybe it's the cool air of the evenings, the afternoon rainfalls, the State Fair and the Santa Fe Fiestas. The one thing I most look forward to is the smell of roasting chile. It seems to be everywhere. In supermarket parking lots, neighbor's back yards and, of course, at every farmer's market in the valley.

My mother weaned me on good roasted green chile. It has become a regular supplement in my diet. Our house, and most of our neighbors,' would have that wonderful aroma throughout the end of August and all of September. When I decided it was time to get my chile this year, I headed down to the North Valley.

Gus Wagner's Market has been around forever on Corrales Road in the heart of the village of Corrales. They sell locally grown fruits and vegetables of all kinds. I love the fresh out-of-the-garden, still kind of dirty smell of a farmer's market. The rooms are cool and hold much more charm than the produce departments at Albertson's or Furr's. Gus Wagner's Market was selling five different kinds of chile, with different heat levels. There is the Mild Green Chile, the Big Jim Medium, the Sandia Regular Hot, the Extra Hot Native and my friend Sammy's favorite, the Barker Super Hot. Sacks of this sell for $14.95 and bushels go for $9.95. You can have it roasted right outside the door. The cost for a bushel is $2.50 and $4 for a sack. I grabbed myself a bushel of the Extra Hot Native and decided to let them roast it onsite.

In recent years, it has become much easier for people to have their chile roasted onsite when they purchase it. Busy schedules and just plain laziness make it easier to have other people do the job. At Gus Wagner's Market, two gentlemen work the chile roasters with ease. These metal cage-like roasters resemble the wire hair curlers my grandmother used to use. The men plop the chiles in the cage, turn on the gas burners and let them spin. It is amazing to watch the chile go from that luscious smooth green color to something crispy and black.

After the chiles are roasted, you only have to peel them. The process takes a relatively short time: Soon the chile roasters were dumping my chile into a sack, and I was ready to go. As I left Corrales the aroma of chile filled the car. I was in heaven.

Later that day, I ventured to The Farm, another great market at 7110 2nd Street NW. This beautiful space, with a red barn facade, carries almost any kind of fruit and vegetable you could be looking for. Of course, I was there for the chile, which they get from the Sichler Farm in Los Lunas. These folks run a different kind of roaster, one that uses a kind of hydraulic wash that actually cleans and peels the chile. Brent Ferrel, the 17-year-old army-bound wonder roaster with the brand new tattoo, has been working here for the past three seasons, and he allowed me to observe the 20-minute process that they perform behind the market. If you go down here, ask if you can go back and watch. Brent explained to me the system: First, the chile is rinsed, then blasted with fire. Brent did this in three rotations. Watching as he worked through the process, I was amazed at how the skin of the chile just seemed to melt off. We discussed the different types of chile one can buy, and he recommended that a buyer really know how hot he can take it. He has had people try to return it when they caught their mouths on fire. He said people should just ask about temperatures first and not pay for it later.

Later that day, I stopped in at the Farmer's Market at Stanford and Lead, my neighborhood store. I didn't smell any roasting chile so I rounded the corner next to the building where they usually roast. To my horror, I saw that there had been a fire in the storage house in the parking lot. They told me inside that they would not be roasting on the property this year, and probably never again because a child burned himself the season before. Make a note: If you are taking your children on a roasting venture, keep them in tow.

My last leg of this trip took me to my mother's house. When I walked through the door, I was overcome with that wonderful fragrance of her freshly roasted chile. I was taken back to days when I was a youngster, and we would get in the car and drive to Hatch, N.M. We would load up the car with the green stuff and head back home. Once there, my mom would go to work, roasting all day long on the barbecue in the back yard. My special treat was two pieces of Rainbow white bread slathered with real mayonnaise and loaded with green chile and a dash of salt.

My mom has taken an easier route lately. She buys her chile here, and she now roasts it in the oven. Still good, just not as nostalgic. I had her walk me through the way she roasted and realized I could do this at home myself. If you have sensitive skin, you might wear some gloves and never rub your eyes. First you wash the chiles and trim off the stems. Pierce each with a fork, and then roast them. When they are done, place the chiles on a damp towel and cover with another damp towel. Leave them for 5 to 10 minutes; do not peel them. Seal the roasted chiles in gallon-size resealable freezer bags and place them in the freezer. These are easy to take out and defrost in minutes, and the skin just falls off.

I ended up taking home two bags of my mom's chile. I set my mom's in my fridge, and then bagged my chile from Gus Wagner's and set them in the freezer. I filled eight one-gallon bags from the bushel I bought: This ought to get me through December. I really need another freezer. Chile keeps in here for quite some time.

I cannot imagine life without some frozen green chile waiting for me. It's like heaven in a resealable bag. And when it comes time to cook 'em up, try my mom's killer chile relleno casserole below. It's green chile season; enjoy, I always do.

Mom's Killer Chile Relleno Casserole

Fill a 9-by-13 pan with roasted green chiles. Slit the chiles and layer them. Fill each chile with monterey jack cheese and pork (amount to your liking). First, though, parboil the pork in water with garlic salt. Put the following in a blender:

2 cups milk
6 eggs
Tabasco Sauce, a few dashes
4 slices of bread, made into bread crumbs

Blend ingredients and pour over chiles. Sprinkle grated Longhorn cheese on top. Bake one hour to one hour, 15 minutes at 350°.

--Steven J.Westman

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