It’s August and that has special meaning to folks who love Southwestern cuisine – Hatch chili season. Hatch chilies are from a region in New Mexico where the hot, sunny days and cool nights produce distinctively flavorful chilies. The Hatch chili is meaty and somewhat mild and has amazing flavor when it’s roasted. It also has a short shelf life, so when Hatch chili season rolls around at the end of the summer, people stock up. There are special festivals, grocery store promotions and a boom in shipping at the end of August when the Hatch chilies are in season. They are also highly perishable, so the further away you are from New Mexico the less likely you are to encounter Hatch chilies.
When I lived in Texas, I had easy access to these fabulous green chilies, but when I moved to New Hampshire about seven years ago, I said goodbye to this regional delicacy and did without. One year, my wonderful mother-in-law sent me three frozen Hatch chilies that she’d stockpiled in the freezer and I made Hatch chili meatloaf. It was incredible. Last year, we moved to Pittsburgh and I now have much greater access to food products from all over the world. A co-worker told me she’d seen Hatch chilies in her local grocery store and she picked me up a dozen. A few days later, I found them in Whole Foods. I’m a happy girl!! Armed with a big basket of lovely green chilies, I decided to roast them all, eat some and commit the rest to the freezer. Back in Texas, my friend Barb and I tried a delicious recipe of Hatch chilies stuffed with goat cheese, raisins and pine nuts. I’ve made them multiple times with great success. So I commenced to roasting the chilies first.
Roasting serves an important purpose and does a couple of things to the chili. Obviously, it adds flavor, but it also cooks the chili and makes it possible to remove the skin easily. Just like any pepper, the skins are difficult to digest, are sometimes thick and can taste unpleasant. Normally, I would have done the roasting on the grill, imparting smoky flavor to the chilies. But it was raining like hell that day, so I was forced to use my oven. This can also be done over a gas stove by holding the chili directly over the flame with tongs and turning it around until it is charred on all sides. It can also be done in a pan on the stove. I don’t have a gas stove and the pan method is labor intensive. So, I cranked my oven to broil at 500 degrees, lined a baking pan with foil and lined my chilies up on the pan. I actually moved the oven rack down one slot so that the chilies were not too close to the broiler. I wanted them to get soft as the skin blistered but not get burned. I slid the pan into the oven and gave it about 10 minutes before taking a look. When the chilies looked completely browned on one side, I flipped them over to roast on the other side. You want all sides of the chili to get browned and the skin to look blistered all over.
When the chilies were browned on all sides, I removed them and placed them in a large plastic container and immediately popped the lid on. This allows steam to develop between the charred skin and the flesh of the pepper, making it very easy to remove the skin. You can also put your peppers in a paper bag for steaming, but I find that they put off a little juice that will seep through the bag. I prefer the bowl method. I let the peppers steam for a good half-hour before I started cleaning them. In the meantime, I mixed up the filling.
When I was shopping for the ingredients for this dish, I found the pine nuts I wanted and they were incredibly expensive. I was going to just suck it up and buy them when I noticed a bag of roasted and salted pumpkin seeds for a fraction of the price. That just sounded delicious, so I made a call on the line of scrimmage and put the pine nuts back on the shelf. I also found a large log of locally made goat cheese. While the chilies were steaming, I combined the entire log of goat cheese, about half a cup of toasted pumpkin seeds and about half a cup of raisins. I added a drizzle of good olive oil, salt, pepper and a the zest of one lemon. I also added about two tablespoons of plain cream cheese, just to make everything a little easier to work with and to cut the sharpness of the goat cheese.
Once the peppers had cooled for about 30 minutes, I began cleaning them. This can be a tedious task and you have to be patient. I like to do this over a bowl of water so I can dip the pepper in to rise off the seeds and skin as I go along. After roasting, the skin should be pretty loose and should come off easily. But sometimes you have to delicately peel the skin away from the flesh. Once the skin is off the pepper, I cut off the stem end with a paring knife and split the chili open by creating a tear in the flesh and running my finger down the length of the pepper. Then I dip the pepper in water to rinse off the seeds. Sometimes you have to carefully pull the ribs off the inside of the pepper to get the seeds to come loose. But if a few stray seeds remain, it’s not the end of the world.
To stuff the peppers, I laid them out flat on a cutting board with the inside facing up. I wet my hands a little bit, scooped some of the goat cheese mixture and roll it into a log, placing it in the middle of the pepper and rolling the sides around it. <a I put them on the plate seam side down so it looked like they'd been injected with the filling. I had a beautiful heirloom tomato that was perfectly ripe, so I served these stuffed Hatch chilies on a bed of greens with thick slices of tomato and dressed the whole thing in homemade vinaigrette. This was a light dinner packed with big flavors. The chilies had some heat, but it was soothed by the creamy goat cheese and the tomato was the perfect compliment. The rest of the chilies went into the freezer for a future dish – maybe another meatloaf. If you can find Hatch chilies, I highly recommend giving them a try.