A Tale of a Girl, a Boy and a Dog
When I was a teenager, I learned to cook along side my best friend, Michael Garcia. Many times his mom would come home from work and call a coworker on the phone. She would light her cigarette, pop the top on her can of beer, kick her feet up and explain what she was making for dinner. Actually, it was us kids working in the kitchen, trying to figure out how to get everything right so the meal would be edible. Michael’s mom had a job set aside for each of us, and in this way, we got a lot of practice at preparing complicated Mexican dishes. We have a lot to thank Mary Garcia for. We all turned out to be talented cooks.
The first time I got the job of roasting the chiles, I didn’t do very well. I placed the peppers on top of the hot comal and watched their skins blacken. I turned them to make sure they got done on both sides. However, when I went to peel them, I quickly learned that there was a science to chile roasting. If they got un poco quemada, the chile inside would dry up and disappear. I struggled to get all of the skin peeled. My problems were evident when I’d taste a spoonful of the stew and get a piece of inedible papery chile peel in my mouth. Sometimes, in late August, Smitty’s, the local grocer, would have an employee firing up chiles by the pound in a giant roaster outside the entrance to the store. It was like cheating to get them pre-roasted, but a perfectly roasted chile is the key to the smokey flavor that makes the whole dish sing.
I also found cooking the meat challenging. I wanted melt-in-your-mouth chunks of pork, but often got tough and rubbery bites. The Garcia’s always told me, “Cut the meat in smaller pieces,” so I did, but it never helped it to become tender. Some people liked to shred it after it was cooked, but for me, biting into a cube of pork that would melt in your mouth ranked among the wonders of the world.
Enter Rito’s, the hidden take-out place in the Garfield neighborhood of Phoenix. The first time I tasted their green chile burro enchilada style with a side of beans and a side of sour cream, I became obsessed. I had to learn to make green chile as well as these people in their unmarked restaurant that had customers lined up out the door and halfway down the block. Wait time could easily be an hour if you didn’t call in advance. People waited because the green chile was that special.
I did research. People who thought they made the best green chile in the world shared their recipes with me. I made chile verde every chance I got, and through practice, I improved at it. I visited family in Clifton, Arizona and had a meat burro at Maud’s, a classic local take-out haven owned by the Guzzo family. I detected fennel seed in the stew. I liked the flavor so it went into mine, too. My recipe was collected through experiencing the best green chile burritos Arizona had to offer. When I lived with roommates for the first time, I used to make a huge pot of chile verde every Sunday. We lived on green chile and beans, and we loved it. There was no tiring of the stuff. It was our sustenance.
I had worked at a very special Phoenix area hotel that closed. For the 1st year reunion party, Michael and I decided we would have a green chile cook off. Each of us put our best tricks into the pot we were stewing on the eve of the party. I guess the house must have had a heavenly aroma escaping from inside, because as we sat on the porch while the two pots were simmering on top of the stove, a homely, fuzzy gray dog wandered up the walkway and sat down like he lived there. Michael and I decided that the dog would be our first guinea pig. We put a plate of each of the chile versions down in front of him. Being a dog, he ate them both (he tried mine first), then curled up on the couch as if he’d always called our craftsmen duplex home. I named him Handsome to make up for what he was lacking in the looks department.
My compulsion to be the best green chile cook never ended. When I started my catering business, I expected the chile verde to be our top seller. What I didn’t realize is that Los Angelenos are not as crazy about the delectable stew as citizens of Arizona and New Mexico are. Recipes do vary by region, and in Mexico, guiso de chile verde is often made with jalapeños instead of Anaheim or Hatch chiles. Some families throw in sliced zucchini and cubed potatoes to stretch the stew. Some people don’t add tomato. My family always did. Some people use chicken broth instead of water. If that makes you happy, then do it. The differences in how we make our favorite dishes is always interesting to me, and it is good to remember that there is no definitive right way or wrong way… Well, maybe not getting all of the peelings off the chile when I was 15 was just wrong. I’ve come a long way, baby.
For the recipe I am sharing here, I added some chiles de agua. Especially popular in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, they possess a fairly bold heat. If you cannot find chiles de agua, don’t worry. Add a few jalapeños or another variety of chile that is quite picante (spicy). Adding more than one type of chile adds to the complexity of the stew’s flavor, just as the tomatillos add body to the broth. I have never measured when I make chile verde, so I will be writing the recipe with estimated amounts. Really, that’s how it should be since you can feel free to adapt this recipe to your liking. Just make sure you have a long, unhurried stretch of time in which to make your chile verde. In my opinion, this is a process that should not be rushed. Also, please don’t use canned chiles in this recipe. The results will not be anything like what you will achieve by using fresh roasted chiles.
3 lbs. Boston butt roast or pork shoulder roast
20 (approximately) Hatch or Anaheim chiles, medium to hot varieties or a mixture of both (my preference)
4 chiles de agua (or other hot chile such as jalapeño)
8 cloves of garlic
1 sweet onion
2 – 3 Roma (plum) tomatoes
2 tbsp. Mexican oregano
2 tbsp. basil
1 tbsp. cumin
1 tbsp. fennel seed
a pinch of ground cloves or allspice
cilantro to taste (optional – I don’t use it)
salt and pepper to taste (add after the meat has cooked tender)
1/2 cup to 3/4 cup organic blue cornmeal for thickening
1. Wrap cloves of garlic still in their skins in a piece of aluminum foil. Place the foil packet in a preheated 350 degree oven on the top rack.
2. Place the chiles you will be roasting (Hatch, Anaheim, chiles de agua, jalapeños) directly onto the top rack of your oven. Roast as many chiles as you can. In my opinion, you can never use too many in this stew. Place the tomatillos on a lined baking sheet on the bottom rack. Roast the chiles, garlic and tomatillos in the oven until the skin is pulling away from the chile, but not until they blacken and begin to shrivel. Watch carefully, as each batch of chile can differ in the time it takes to roast, and no two ovens are alike. It may take 15 minutes or longer to properly roast the chiles.
3. Fill a large kettle halfway with water. Place it on the stove over medium heat. Cut the pork roast into 1″ to 2″ cubes, depending how large you want each bite of meat to be. As you get a handful of meat cut, toss it into the pot. Continue until all the meat is in the kettle. Add the dry spices
4. Remove the chiles, garlic and tomatillo from the oven. Place the chiles in a paper bag and close it. Let them cool. Peel the skins off of the tomatillos and drop them into the kettle whole. If you try to cut them, you will lose juice and seeds. Remove the roasted garlic from its skin by holding the cloves by their tips and squeezing the creamy garlic right into the pot. Use a bean masher to break up the garlic and tomatillo a bit. It doesn’t need to be pulverized as it will continue to combine while stewing.
5. Dice the tomatoes by cutting the top off, then cutting in a cross-hatch formation about an inch deep. Then cut across the side of the tomato all the way through about every quarter of an inch. This technique will render fairly uniform cubes. When you have cut down to the end of your cross-hatches, repeat the process until all of the tomato is cut.
6. Peel a sweet onion. Cut it into quarter, then cut the quarters in half. Drop the chunks into the pot. They will separate and shrink as they cook.
7. Get a large, shallow bowl. Open up the bag of chiles once they have cooled. Place all of the chiles into the bowl. One by one, peel the skin away from the chile. Remove the stems and seeds by gently pulling away from the body of the chile. Discard the skins, stems and seeds in the paper bag. Once all of the chiles are peeled, you may choose to rinse the chiles in a colander to remove clinging seeds, but to me, it isn’t really necessary. Dice the chiles by laying them across a cutting board and chopping through as many at a time as possible in both directions (length and width.) Please don’t liquefy them in the food processor or blender as the texture of the stew will suffer. Add the chiles to the kettle.
8. Cover the kettle and turn the flame to medium low. Your stew will gain body by simmering down, and it will need several hours to do so. However, you must be checking the stew frequently. Stir it occasionally, and adjust the heat downward if it is boiling too much. Cooking this stew slowly will give it the amazing flavor that will keep you coming back for more.
9. When the meat is so tender that it literally falls apart in your mouth, the stew is done. Turn the flame off. Place the organic blue cornmeal in a measuring cup and have a whisk in your other hand. Drop the cornmeal into the pot gradually and whisk continually to mix it into the chile. Your chile verde will continue to thicken as it cools, so don’t be fooled into thinking it is too watery and dumping more and more cornmeal into it. Start with a quarter cup. Then add another quarter cup and wait for it to thicken. It is better to err on the side of too watery rather than too thick. After about 15 minutes, stir the stew to determine if you need to add more cornmeal. If so, whisk it in as you did the first time.
10. Let the green chile stew sit for 20 -30 minutes with the lid on the pot so that all the flavors have an opportunity to combine. Serve with refried beans in a shallow bowl, or roll a burrito. Some people even make green chile stew tacos. However you decide to serve it, savor every bite! You may become as green chile obsessed as I am.
Notes: This is a classic recipe. I will be posting a blog with a vegetarian version of chile verde soon.
When Hatch chiles come to market in late summer, you can buy them by the case and freeze them. They freeze wonderfully. Hatch chiles tend to be hotter and more flavorful than Anaheim chiles, in my opinion. Use Anaheim if you like a milder chile. They are available year round in the Southwest and West Coast. If you live back East and can’t find Hatch chiles, order them online to be delivered to you. Hatch is a town in New Mexico that is famous for its chile crop.
Special Note: Michael, I know you are looking down from heaven and saying, “Andrea, you should have done it this way instead.” Actually, this recipe is dedicated to you. You were the best friend a girl could ever hope to have, and every moment we spent together was magical and oh! so much fun. Luv ya.