This time of year evokes many images, scents, and feelings for me and this is mainly because of the unique culture of New Mexico. “Fall is in the air”, and yet it is still a couple weeks away. Of course, these days, time just flies and a month passes in barely a blink, or two, of an eye.
One of the things we pride ourselves on at Fire Forms is that our functional steel kitchen art, in particular our now-famous “Not Your Mama’s Comal” has become part of the rich culture of our state and adds a certain “nouveau” flare that we hope is helping bring back an appreciation of our culture and the visceral images and memories of the past in a fun, new way. Our hope is that our take on this classic is creating a new generation of tortilla-makers and is helping the younger generations to appreciate what we have known for so long about New Mexican cuisine and culture.
In pretty much any town and nearly every supermarket in New Mexico, beginning at some point in August, you’ll see chile roasters tumbling round and round, infusing the air with the scent of freshly roasted green chile. It’s one of those, “you had to be there”, memories that remains imprinted on the mind, heart, and very soul for just about ever. New Mexicans, having enjoyed this experience every year, only have to close their eyes at any given time and envision a freshly roasted bushel of green chile in front of them and the scent itself is not far away.
Supermarkets in other states have realized the draw of the fresh New Mexican green chile and regularly market “Hatch chiles”, or “chilis”, as some people erroneously spell it, among the produce in their stores. I have yet to see a chile roaster tumbling around outside any of those stores, save perhaps in southern Colorado, and therefore this is one of those experiences that is a must if you are visiting New Mexico this time of year. Even if those stores in other states realize that the best marketing for the “Hatch chiles”, which, by the way, is only one location that grows chile, is the roasting itself it still could not compare to the pervasive roasting in New Mexico where you might pass through an entire town with the scent never diminishing.
I prefer a later crop where there are a handful of red chiles hanging out in the bushel or sack. The roasting part of it is equally important because if you happen to take your chile to an inexperienced roaster, the peeling experience is incredibly frustrating and sometimes miserable. Many locals make a day of this activity and it becomes a party depending on how many friends or family decide to peel and roast their chile together. The last thing you want is to sit there, frustrated, struggling to peel the chile!
Indeed many people in New Mexico love peeling chile. My mama was one of them. Not that I am short of memories and reasons to miss her, but this time of year is particularly difficult because of her love of peeling chile. When time escaped me and I would express that I wasn’t sure when I could get to the chile, my mama would always offer and do it for me. She preferred that we do it together, however, which I always made a point to do simply to spend time with her. The mere fact that she helped cut my time in more than half, as she was so quick about it, made it even more worth it! On other occasions I would get a group together to peel and pack our chile together, which she also loved, and it became a party.
Ideally the party includes roasting the fresh green chile on the grill, then letting it sweat a bit for ease of peeling, then you lay the stacks of green chile in a pan to await setting them in their intermediate home of those quart plastic baggies an off to the freezer. Of course their final home is in the belly!
I never seem to have time for the individual roasting on the grill part of the process so I take my chile, whether I purchase it there or not, to a local fruit stand in Hernandez, New Mexico called Romero’s Fruit Stand. The roasters employed by Romero’s have been seasonal employees for years and they have the process down pat. The best part is that they rinse the chile well prior to loading it into the roasters. Then they ensure constant tumbling so as not to burn spots on the chile, which is what makes peeling difficult. I prefer Chimayo green chile, which is not easy to find but when I do find it I’ll take it to Romero’s for roasting, otherwise I’ll purchase whatever crop they have. At times the crop is from Artesia, other times it is from Socorro or Lemitar. This is what I meant that Hatch is not the only location chile is grown. In fact it is grown throughout New Mexico and the location of the crop definitely comes into play as far as flavor. Not only this, the type of chile and seed plays a huge part.
A note about “Chimayo chile”: it is the seed that makes this chile most special. Of course, you would not want to grow Chimayo chile in the southern part of the state because it would change the flavor simply due to the climate but the seed itself has been successfully grown in other towns and villages near Chimayo. It is an old heirloom seed over which many Chimayo growers are very protective. In order for it to be classified as Chimayo chile it must be an heirloom seed and therefore serious growers recognize the need to protect it from hybridization.
There is something different about Chimayo chile. It is generally spicier (hotter) than other varieties but the heat is not debilitating, it is flavorful. What I notice is that when it is roasted it maintains its bright green hue whereas other varieties that tend to darken in color. The flavor is bar none. If you have an opportunity to purchase even just a small amount of this chile it is highly recommended but you will pay at least double what you might pay for a more common variety. The price is well worth the product!
When it comes to harvest time people create tradition surrounding both the harvest as well as the ritual of roasting, peeling, and packing the chile. Packing and freezing the chile is the most common method of preservation; however, more and more people now are canning (in jars) chile for the winter. This method allows you to add other flavors, such as by adding a garlic clove, and allow it to stew in those flavors until use. Some people also do not peel their chile prior to packing, as they claim that the flavor is better preserved this way. I can’t say this is the case but what I can say is that I don’t always prepare ahead for using chile in my meals. While packing the chile still peeled is much quicker than peeling first, it is not always time efficient for me. What I’ve realized is that I tend to forego using chile for meals that it would greatly accentuate simply because I don’t have the time, or didn’t make the time anyway, to thaw, peel and chop so for this reason we still go the traditional route of peeling and packing. This way all I have to do is thaw and chop :).
As long as time permits, we enjoy this ritual as a tradition where we jam to some Northern New Mexico rancheras, sip on a Mexican beer, and always, always either make fresh tortillas or pick up some local homemade tortillas to eat with freshly roasted green chile and a little salt. Another tradition I have created for my husband and me, is to make a pot of beans and leave a few hearty chiles out of the freezing pile for chile rellenos!
Our Fire Forms “Not Your Mama’s Comal” is perfect not only for making or just warming the tortillas but also for roasting the chile on the stove! If you decide to make your tortillas from scratch, or even use the comal for the ready-to-cook tortillas you can buy at the store, which are close to homemade - all things considered, you will see the image burned onto the tortilla from the comal. There is a trick to this and most tortilla cooks develop their own technique for burning the image on the tortilla. Mostly, people really just want a quality cooking tool to cook their tortillas and this is something our comales offer.
Traditionally comales were made from cast iron, which always did the job wonderfully! However, along with the “nouveau” flare offered by the sleek designs, our updated comales boast a superior cooking ability. First, cast iron is a softer, more porous type of metal that requires more oil for curing as well as longer curing times while the steel comal is less porous allowing for shorter cure times with less oil. Of course, even with steel, the longer you cure your comal the easier your cooking experience will be. Second, our hot roll, or cold roll, steel is denser than cast iron and therefore distributes the heat more evenly allowing for a more evenly cooked tortilla, and not to mention more quickly cooked. You know, sometimes you just can’t wait to slather butter on it and enjoy a fresh, warm tortilla!
Still, we think it’s the unique images on the comal that transfer to the tortilla, as well as the short handle that is designed to prevent accidental burning while working on your stove, that people love so much! A note: we can customize your comal as you wish, within reason of course, including a handle of your choice, a larger size comal for larger tortillas, and your own uploaded silhouette to burn. Ask and you shall receive! Generally these upgrades come at minimal cost; still totally worth it!
This chile season consider a double comal where you can either roast several chiles at once or roast enough chiles on one side to enjoy with the tortilla cooking on the other side! Whatever your pleasure, our comales will bring back those amazing New Mexico memories with an updated twist!