What's the one food that makes you go weak in the knees when you see, smell or taste it?
If you've ever been to the American Southwest, no doubt Hatch chiles are on the list.
Every year at the beginning of September, the small New Mexican village of Hatch heats up with a giant chile festival. And for three days, the bold, sweet aroma of the green chiles being roasted to perfection over open flames in wire-mesh drums perfumes the air.
You can catch a heavenly whiff of God's Gift to Chile Lovers on any number of street corners or in grocery-store parking lots in this part of the country come fall. Chile peppers have been the state's official vegetable since 1965, and no variety gets more love than the long, green Hatch chile, so named for the town in which most of the peppers are brought to market.
Many are taken home in large sacks to be cooked into green-chile stew and other popular regional dishes, and many more are squirreled away in the freezer to last until next year's harvest.
Why do people love them so? Because they taste so darn good! And talk about versatility: Blackened and blistered by fire, the pepper's smoky, rich flavor lends itself to everything from tacos and enchiladas to salsa and burger toppings.
But enough about New Mexico -- all we really want to know is where we can find these incomparable chiles closer to home.
We're in luck. The second-annual Pepper Farm Festival kicks up its fiery heels this Saturday, Sept. 28, at White Oak Farm in Hampton, and like last year's inaugural event, it will offer an opportunity for Pittsburghers to enjoy a taste of Hatch in all its lip-tingling glory.
Farm owner and Mexican food entrepreneur Nic DiCio -- he owns Reyna Foods and Casa Reyna in the Strip District -- has trucked in some 5 tons of the chiles cultivated in the Rio Grande Valley, and not only will festival goers get to watch (and smell) as they're roasted, but also local chefs will be cooking them up.
For instance, Justin Severino of Cure will be making Chicken Hatch Chili Chorizo Sausage Sandwiches with caramelized onion and cilantro aoli, while Casa Reyna's staff will tempt with Hatch-chile rellenos, Hatch-chile tamales green-chile elote and green-chile carnitas. I know, my mouth is watering, too!
There also will be plenty of roasted chiles for sale to take home with you, with four levels of heat. They'll sell for $6 per pound unroasted and $8 per pound roasted, with a $2 discount per pound on 5 pounds or more. Large quantities will be even cheaper -- you can get a 50-pound sack of unroasted chiles for $60 or of roasted ones for $80. Don't know what to do with all those peppers? One great way to use them is to cook them into sauce for use in the Hatch Chile Enchilada recipe that follows. It's one of Mr. DiCio's favorites, and a sure-fire hit.
For drinkers, organizers will have samples of green-chile beer and green-chile-infused vodka, and Mr. DiCio -- a serious wine maker who is in the process of building a brewery and distillery in the Strip District -- also will be doing a grape-crushing demo, after which he'll follow up with a timber-framing demonstration. (He rebuilt the farm's 100-year-old bank barn by hand.)
Other activities include live music, craft vendors and cooking demonstrations. For the kids, there will be hay rides, a walking trail and contests.
The festival runs from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at White Oak Farm, 3314 Wagner Road, Hampton (just past Winchester Thurston School's North Hills campus on Middle Road). Tickets cost $7 in advance at reynafoods.com or $10 at the gate; kids 12 and under get in free and there's also free parking. Event goes on rain or shine, and wear appropriate footwear.
Hatch Chile Enchiladas
This fiery chicken dish is made with New Mexico's incomparable Hatch chiles, which will be the centerpiece of the second-annual Pepper Farm Festival at White Oak Farm in Hampton on Sept. 28. The recipe comes from festival creator Nic DiCio of Reyna Foods in the Strip District, which also just happens to have the chiles for sale -- fresh or already roasted. This dish is spicy, but delicious!
Be sure to peel the roasted peppers before using. If you're not going to use the chiles right away, freeze them -- remove the stems, membranes and seeds, put them in freezer bags, and place in the freezer.
1/2 cup chopped white onion
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin (or grind seeds yourself in a molcajete, or Mexican pestle, with the garlic)
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 cups of chopped, roasted Hatch green chile
1/2 cup chopped tomato or tomatillos, or a mixture of both
Salt as desired
Saute onion in olive oil until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add garlic, allowing it to soften but not burn. Add cumin, then flour, and cook a few minutes. Slowly stir in stock. Add chopped chile and tomato.
Cover and simmer 20 to 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt.
Makes about 2 cups.
2 cups cooked, shredded chicken
1/2 cup chopped onion
Green-chile sauce (from above)
8 corn tortillas
Mexican cheese of your choice (Chihuahua, Monterey jack or cheddar)
Shredded lettuce, sour cream and chopped cilantro, for garnish
Combine chicken, onion and 1 cup of sauce in a saucepan. Heat remaining sauce and set aside. Fry tortillas in oil until softened, unless they are fresh and already soft.
Dip tortillas in warm green chile sauce and fill with shredded chicken. Roll and place in casserole dish.
Top rolled enchiladas with remaining sauce and cheese and bake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees. To serve, top with lettuce, sour cream and cilantro.
Makes 4 servings.
-- Nic DiCio, Reyna Foodsfood - recipes
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.