Driving through New Mexico in the fall, you can’t miss the sight and smell of roasting chilies. Big mesh drums fired by propane sit on the side of the road, rotating to blister and lightly brown the fresh green Hatch chilies inside.
“Hatch [New Mexico] is the chile capital of the world,” says Fred Mueller, chef-partner at El Meze in Taos, New Mexico. “And when you eat a Hatch green chile, you’re tasting New Mexico.” These large, medium-hot peppers are always harvested green and always roasted, resulting in a richness and depth of flavor that sets them apart. A recently passed law—the New Mexico Chile Advertising Act—gives Hatch and other New Mexican chilies new status; they can now be labeled with their area of origin, just like artisanal European products.
During the season, roasted, peeled Hatch chilies are served on burgers, cooked up into bowls of New Mexican green chili and blended into fresh salsas. Simple recipes are best, as they highlight the intrinsic flavor of the chilies, Mueller explains. At El Meze, which specializes in “la comida de les Sierras” or “food of the mountains,” he pairs the roasted Hatch chilies with roasted red peppers and Spanish chevre or another mild goat cheese. Extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and fresh oregano finish off the sweet-smoky-tangy dish. Another item currently on the menu is
Spanish Steak—a braised flat iron with onions, tomatoes, Hatch chilies, queso fresco and fresh oregano.
El Meze’s menu reflects the cultures of Northern New Mexico— a mix of indigenous Pueblo Indians and Old World Spanish mingled with Moorish influences—as well as the local crops. Chicos is a sweet corn that’s unique to the region. It’s roasted in hornos (ovens) and dried, resulting in a sweet-smoky flavor. Mueller will menu Oxtails and Chicos when the colder weather arrives. This fall, calabaza squash is plentiful; it goes into a Calabaza y Garbanzo Soup. Wild mushrooms foraged in the San Christo Mountains are also part of the bounty in El Meze’s kitchen.
“We’re close to Taos Pueblo and its weekly Farmers Market, but I also work with a lot of farmers who deliver produce directly to the restaurant,” Mueller reports. Winter is a tough growing season, however, so El Meze relies on outside suppliers and ups its use of dried ingredients. “I rehydrate pasillas, anchos and other dried chilies to impart a rich taste to pozole and other cold weather recipes,” he adds.