Last fall, my husband and I packed up all the movable parts of our 15-year life in Chicago and uprooted to Southern New Mexico. One panic attack, two broken lamps, three Airbnbs and a never-found pair of glasses later, we moved into a ranch house on a shrubby desert hill.
Moving is a disorienting business; we are after all, creatures of habit. I was thus entirely unsurprised that I craved my creature food, pasta, above all else as I uneasily navigated my new environs in a perennially dusty green pickup truck.
Whether or not you've been to New Mexico, you probably know that it's home to the most delicious chiles you'll find anywhere — owing to the hot, dry days; chilly nights; and iron-rich red earth. The state's most famous green chiles hail from Hatch, a miniscule farming community in a fertile valley edging the Rio Grande, just 40 miles from where I live. Every Labor Day weekend, the air is rife with the smoky, pungent aroma of roasting chiles as roughly 110 tons of Hatch-sourced peppers are blistered onsite in big, hissing drums at the Hatch Chile Festival.
Hatch Chile Burger (Maggie Hennessy)
Hatch-grown green chiles are special; sweet, tangy and a little savory with a fresh, grassy flavor and sneaky heat. And they are positively ubiquitous on menus in my new home state: Rolled into enchiladas with shredded chicken and packed into tamales with cheese. Stirred into hominy-dotted posole and heirloom pinto beans. Piled atop New Mexican beef burgers with melty cheese. Mixed into lemonade and even milkshakes, or blitzed to a powder for sprinkling on popcorn. This single ingredient and the representative local dishes it permeates seem to encapsulate this place — its complicated history; enduring pre-colonial ingredients; and harsh, gorgeous landscapes set beneath vast cerulean skies — like wine to terroir.
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Naturally, I assumed the best way to begin my education upon arrival was to buy one of the 10-pound bags of frozen roasted Hatch chiles sold at every local market in town. Homesickness gnawed as I stared down the formidable sack of orange and green peppers thawing in my fridge, so I let my mind retreat to the cocoon of what you might call my cooking "home base."
My home base recipe is the simplest foundational pasta sauce, for which I always have the ingredients on hand. You might even term it an extension of the self I've cultivated in almost 40 years — who came of age professionally and personally as a food writer and for whom cooking is a grounding, self-actualizing practice. Melt an anchovy or two in a generous glug of olive oil, add sliced garlic, lemon zest and juice and black pepper or red pepper flakes. From here, go anywhere you please: via ribboned dark greens and fried breadcrumbs, cherry tomatoes and a few pats of butter, tinned fish and a shower of fresh dill, ground lamb and dry red wine.
Mesilla (Maggie Hennessy)
The point is, I'm safe here; I know my way. So I let the chiles lead.
The chiles are bright and a little tangy; let's add more lemon juice. There's savory depth from the roasting, too; let's up the umami with a parmesan rind. They're earthy, grassy even. What makes me think of grass? Sheep! Sheep live around here, too. Let's finish with salty, funky pecorino.
When all's said and done, I sit down to the first thing I've made that's mine and honors the place I now live. Suddenly, everything feels a little more within reach. I can do this. One day — one meal — at a time.
This sorta non-recipe is intended to be prepared in the time it takes for a pot of salted water to reach a boil and cook half a pound of spaghetti or bucatini.
If you can't find Hatch green chiles, I'd suggest subbing two anaheims or one cubanelle pepper. Roast them directly on the gas burner (or under the broiler if your stove's electric), turning often 'til they're blistered black on all sides. Zip them in a bag for 15 or 20 minutes, then peel off most of the skin with a cloth or paper towel, and seed and dice them.
Recipe: Pasta with roasted Hatch chiles, garlic & lemon
2-3 fat garlic cloves
Olive oil (be generous now)
1/4 cup(ish) diced roasted mild Hatch chiles (sub 2 anaheims or 1 cubanelle pepper, blistered, peeled, seeded and diced)
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 parm rind
1/2 box spaghetti or bucatini (some might say this feeds two; I say different)
A mound of freshly grated pecorino
- While you bring a generously salted pot of water to a boil, thinly slice the garlic; zest the entire lemon and slice it in half.
- Heat a skillet over medium and pour in a generous amount of olive oil. (Don't stop 'til you hear the bottle make the glug sound at least three times, please.)
- Add the anchovy, sliced garlic, lemon zest, a sprinkling of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Cook for 30 seconds, then add the chiles, half the lemon juice, a splash of water from your drinking glass and the parm rind. Bring to a bubble, then turn down to medium low and let the flavors come together while the pasta cooks. (Is it in by now? It should be.) This is also when I like to place my pasta bowl on the back burner of the stove — behind the pasta pot, off the heat — and rotate it every few minutes the whole time I'm cooking.
- Use a measuring cup to scoop ⅔ cup or so of the starchy, salty liquid from the pasta pot. When the pasta is just al dente, add it directly to the skillet and pull out the oozy parm rind. Squeeze in the juice from the other half of the lemon and add another drizzle of olive oil, tossing with tongs to combine everything. Taste and adjust once here. Splash in pasta water if needed.
- Kill the heat, add most of the pecorino, saving a tiny pile to bedazzle the bowl. Serve up a large heap into the warmed bowl, top with a few grinds of pepper, another glossy drizzle of oil and a snow shower of pecorino.
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