We have discovered that a lot of people in the upper Midwest of the United
States don't really know what chile is. Most people immediately think of the popular
stew-like dish, chili con carne, which is often made (horrors!) with no chiles at
all! We thought we'd put together some basic definitions for you, and we went to
what we consider one of the ultimate sources for information on chile - Mark Miller's
Great Chile Book.
In The Great Chile Book, the author (who is a leading chile expert,
author of Coyote Cafe cookbook) explains that even the spelling of the word can be
confusing. Some folks spell it chile, others spell it
chili, and still others spell it chilli.
It all depends on how it's used, where you are, and as Miller puts it,
"personal whim." According to him, the word chile refers to the
plant or the pod itself; the word chili is actually the dish which consists of meat
and chiles and oftentimes beans. Chilli is the name of the spice powder that is
made from ground dried chiles and mixed with other seasonings.
The other confusion is the fact that chiles are not actually peppers at all,
even though we commonly refer to them as "chile peppers." We have
Christopher Columbus to blame for that (he obviously had a real problem with naming
things!). Thousands of years ago the first chiles were actually berries which grew
in South America - seeds were spread by migrating birds, and the chiles developed into a
plant domesticated by ancient cultures as a main staple along with beans, corn and squash.
We highly recommend Mark Miller's book,
The Great Chile Book,
for a lot more information - it's published by Ten Speed Press. In it you'll find
gorgeous pictures of every chile imaginable, with really great basic information about each
variety including the level of heat on a scale of 1-10.
New Mexico Red Chile, according to Mark Miller, is
the ripe form of the New Mexico Green Chile and is grown only in New Mexico. Also referred
to as chile pasado in its roasted/peeled/dried form, these chiles have a dark and
intense color as well as a dark, rich flavor unique to no other chile. In his book,
Miller rates their heat as 3-4.
New Mexico Green Chile is medium to hot in flavor
(3-5), and is roasted in huge quantities every fall at harvest time. Frozen
varieties are much better in flavor than the canned chiles, and they are exceptional when
used in sauces, stews, salsas, for chile rellenos, as well as many other non-New Mexican
dishes such as casseroles and quiches.
Another word about New Mexican cuisine - many people assume that it's the same
as traditional Mexican cuisine, which is incorrect. While most Mexican food is based
on tortillas, rice, beans, tomatoes, etc., the food of New Mexico is actually a blend of
Spanish and American Indian cultures. New Mexican food is served either in a range
of intensities from mild to knock-your-socks-off hot, while traditional south of the
border Mexican food is much milder in intensity.
By the way, another book that
we've discovered that has a lot of really interesting recipes plus some good
"educational" information about chiles is The Chile Pepper Book by
Carolyn Dille and Susan Belsinger - it's just a small book, but it's packed with
information about chiles. It's published by Interweave Press.